One of many headlines that environmentally minded news outlets can recycle is that renewable energy is now competitive with oil and nuclear and will soon eat their dirty old lunches. Yet somehow governments still insist on the need to subsidize the former massively and discourage the latter, and wherever renewables are forced onto consumers they find their power bills going up and the lights going out—the latest example being New York City. Thus German power generators, power users and commentators are saying a projected 20% drop in conventional generating capacity in the next three years will bring trouble if not disaster. The government, of course, says it has everything all figured out and its plan will work… if only you pigs use less power, of course.
Germany is giving up nuclear power because the tidal wave that hit Fukushima shows that it’s not safe or something equally deep. And it’s giving up coal to combat climate change. But everything is fine, according to the people who devised this approach (which is why they didn’t let you grade your own homework at school). Reuters reports that “The Berlin government, in a report issued this month, said the situation was secure, and shortfalls could be offset by better energy efficiency, a steadily rising supply of solar and wind power as well as electricity imports.”
So that’s the plan.
Except that, in the first place, better energy efficiency is easier to say than do. Since energy is expensive and getting more so, businesses and consumers are already working frantically to achieve it. The idea that there are massive juicy pieces of low-hanging energy-efficiency fruit just waiting to be picked is silly. (And if the report authors know where they are to be found, why aren’t they out getting rich alerting companies to their location?)
In the second place, Germany has long had a steadily rising supply of solar and wind, yet reliable production is precisely what’s not been happening. Those twin panaceas are already underperforming when it comes to energy output, and overperforming when it comes to money consumption. If you really break down the numbers, as Larry Brown recently did for one Utah wind farm, it’s both messy and ugly.
Bloomberg recently reported that “Worldwide funding of clean-energy projects fell to its lowest level in six years, in a staggering blow to the battle against climate change.” And it was led by China, with “a 39% drop in investments, as the nation eases up on its aggressive solar subsidies to get costs under control.” But if clean energy is so competitive, why is it a “staggering blow” that it’s getting fewer subsidies? Indeed why, if it’s so competitive, does it need subsidies?
The news will only get worse, because wind and solar are both going to suffer diminishing returns as they are placed on less attractive sites than the ideal ones chosen in the first wave. (The massive physical “footprint” of both wind and solar, like their extraordinarily high environmental cost, is a limiting factor given surprisingly little attention by enthusiasts.)
In the third case, the acme of absurdity is that the solution to Germany producing too little energy due is to… import electricity. From whom? Polish coal plants? Russia? Places where wind and solar magically do work? Or other like-minded European countries with the same daffy policies as Germany who are also growing desperate for power imports.
We can’t all prosper by taking in one another’s laundry. And we can’t all import power from one another. Somebody somewhere has to generate it. And not with a windmill.