National Policy Analysis Logo

 # 354  

 August 2001




It's Time to Face Facts - Current Alternative Energy Options Don't Add Up

by Syd Gernstein

 

Why doesn't the United States rely on alternative energy? The conspiracy-laden theories environmentalists use to answer this question could bring prideful tears to the eyes of the creators of the "X-Files." "Secret agendas" involve the government, corporations and everyone in between. But maybe indifference to alternative energy reliance is not so covert and complicated. Perhaps it comes from flaws inherent in alternative energy programs.

Let's face facts - current alternative energy technology is not capable of supporting a modern industrial nation like the U.S. For evidence, look no further than California. For the past two decades, California has promoted the use of alternative energy more vigilantly than any other state. Not coincidentally, California currently faces the most severe energy crisis in the nation.

Take wind and solar power as examples. Californians have increasingly tried to rely upon them, but they simply cannot support a 21st-century economy. California has more than 100 windmill power generators that provide only 1,400 megawatts (mw) of electricity in total1 - three percent of the state's capacity. To put this in perspective, the state's Diablo Canyon nuclear facility provides 2,100 mw of electricity.2 Thus, it takes over 150 windmill power generators to provide the same amount of electricity as a single nuclear power plant. Likewise, it would take over 3,300 such windmills to generate electricity for the entire state. That leads one to ponder where the money to build so many windmills will come from and where the land will be found.

Solar power is an equally unrealistic option. California is already home to the world's largest set of solar electric cells.3 Despite their world-record size, the set provides just 413 mw of electricity. That's less than a fifth of what can be produced by a single nuclear power plant.

How about hydrogen-produced electricity? It is flawed, too. Free hydrogen does not exist on Earth, so it must be extracted - and electricity is needed to extract it.4 As William Tucker noted in The Weekly Standard, this characteristic of hydrogen-produced electricity prevents it from being a viable option.5 He points out that a fundamental law of physics says that no system can produce more energy than it starts with - therefore, it will necessarily take more electricity to produce hydrogen electricity than the hydrogen will be able to produce.

California's increasing implementation of alternative energy options is a major factor in its current power crisis.6 The only way the state has been able to provide its citizens with enough power is to import it from neighboring states. If more states were to switch to alternative energy generation, however, there will be less power to share.

As California's example illustrates, reliance on alternative energy leads to energy shortages. Just like any other commodity, shortages of energy lead to increases in price. Increased energy prices become everyone's problem. With an economy "teetering on the edge of a recession,"7 the effects of such increased energy prices weigh heavy on individuals and businesses, and can be downright disastrous for minority Americans who already have a lower average income than the rest of the population.

Too often, many such minority Americans suffer the "last hired, first fired" syndrome. When soaring energy prices force businesses to cut corners by firing workers, this segment of the population is hit harder than any other.

Even for the very rich, such alternative energy options are impractical. It is economically foolish to spend $20,000 for the home solar power packages environmentalists endorse.8 Why spend so much for an energy source that is disrupted by every cloud that floats across the sky? This is why only 40 such units have been installed in all of Los Angeles, despite the city's campaign to get 100,000 homes to use them.

Wind energy suffers similar economic disadvantages. Estimates put its generation costs at double to triple the levels of conventional energy. Meanwhile, hydropower requires capital investments that are three to six times higher than for conventional energy.9

What makes the whole alternative energy debate silly, however, is that we already have an energy option that is environmentally safe, provides enormous amounts of electricity and is constantly becoming more economically-prudent and environmentally-safe: nuclear power. Eighty percent of the France's electric energy is nuclear-generated, while nuclear power provides other major industrial nations, such as Japan and Taiwan, with similarly high percentages of energy.10

Alternative energy is, at present, impractical. Nuclear energy is economically practical and environmentally clean. The answer to our electricity shortage is in front of us. Let's use nuclear power.


Footnotes:

1 William Tucker, "The Myth of Alternative Energy," The Weekly Standard, May 21, 2001.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Tucker on Amory Lovin's hydrogen-power proposal, p. 29: "Let's look carefully at what Lovins has devised here. He has invented a system that uses electricity to produce hydrogen to produce electricity. And by the time he's through, he thinks he'll have so much electricity that he'll be able to replace the electricity he started with. But this violates one of the fundamental laws of physics - the conservation of energy. No system can produce more energy at the end than it has at the beginning. With heat loss and work done, the product will always be less usable energy. Once again, Lovins has made the mistake of concentrating on the capacity of the system while ignoring the energy required to fuel the system."
6 Tucker on California's energy plans, p. 27: "Every other power source added to the grid has been 'clean and renewable.' The Golden State has over 100 windmill facilities generating 1,400 mw, 3 percent of the state's capacity. It has 43 geothermal sites generating 2,500 mw. It has the world's largest complement of solar-electric cells, generating 413 mw. It gets 30 percent of its power from hydroelectric dams (more than half of them out of state). It has 56 more renewable-energy projects generating 1,100 mw on the drawing boards - including plans to burn methane for electrical power at nearly every landfill in the state. (Each new windmill and landfill adds about 2.5 mw.) Altogether, California gets 12 percent of its electricity from small-scale renewables - more then ten times the average for the rest of the country. Yet California has the nation's only energy crisis. The state must import 20 percent of its electricity, most of it from hydroelectric dams in Oregon and Washington and coal and nuclear plants in Arizona. What went wrong?"
7 Joanne Morrison, "Job Growth Seen Stagnant at Best in May," The New York Times, May 30, 2001.
8 William Booth, "It's Still Dawn for Solar Power in L.A.," The Washington Post, May 29, 2001.
9 Robert L. Bradley, Jr., "Renewable Energy, 'Not Cheap, Not Green,'" Policy Analysis #280, CATO Institute, Washington, DC, August 27, 1997, downloaded from http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa-280.html on June 22, 2001.
10 William Rusher, "The Answer Is Nuclear Power," Human Events, May 28, 2001, on world energy production: "Meanwhile, the rest of the world has marched on. France now depends on nuclear power for 80% of its electrical energy. Japan, which has little or no reserves of fossil fuels like oil and coal, is not far behind. And the same is true of Taiwan, for the same reason."

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Syd Gerntein is a research associate of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank. Comments may be sent to [email protected].





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