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Obama is blind to the energy reality

Canadians prefer Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama over Republican candidate Senator John McCain by an approximate margin (averaging the results of three public opinion polls published in the past month) of three to one. Canadians prefer Mr. Obama, in other words, by a wider margin than Americans do. This means that proportionately more Canadians will be inevitably disappointed by an Obama presidency. For one thing, some of Mr. Obama’s promises will be essentially impossible to keep.

Take, for example, Mr. Obama’s promise on renewable energy, one of the environmental sources of the Obama popularity. In his policy documents, he promises to require, by federal law, that renewable energy provide 25 per cent of U.S. electricity by 2025. This kind of promise can be easily kept, in a technical sense, merely by the passing of a law. But can it be kept in any real sense? Can the sun and the wind be compelled to produce electricity as stipulated by a contemporary King Canute? It would appear that many Canadians think that, yes, they can.

As it happens, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), a bipartisan research agency of the Department of Energy, thinks otherwise. The authoritative agency has now published its 2008 report on long-term U.S. energy trends. It reports that renewable energy accounted for 96.3 gigawatts of U.S. electrical capacity in 2006 – 9.5 per cent of the country’s total capacity of 982.9 gigawatts. (A gigawatt is a billion watts.) It anticipates that this percentage will rise to 10 per cent by 2010 – and to 12 per cent by 2030. Real progress occurs in coming years – but real progress takes time. Thirty years from now, renewable energy will remain a relatively minor source of electricity.

In 2006, old-fashioned hydro power produced 75 per cent of the country’s renewable energy electricity. All other forms of renewable energy produced 25 per cent. Expressed another way, hydro power provided 7.1 per cent of U.S. electricity capacity. All other forms provided 2.4 per cent. Hydro power, however, is a fully exploited technology in the United States. In terms of expansion, you might say that hydro power is water over the dam – by 2030, it will provide only 5.8 per cent of electricity. To keep his promise on renewable energy, Mr. Obama must necessarily rely on wind, solar, biomass, geothermal and tidal technologies.

Good luck, Senator. The EIA calculates that wind power, apparently the best-loved form of renewable energy after hydro power, will provide 2.4 per cent of electrical capacity in 2030 – a dramatic increase from 0.6 per cent in 2006 but nevertheless a minor source of electricity throughout the first third of the 21st century. It calculates that biomass will provide 3.2 per cent of electrical capacity (up from 1.0 per cent) and that geothermal will provide 0.6 per cent (up from 0.4 per cent). As for the sun: “Solar technologies [will] remain too costly for grid-connected application.”

As dramatic as advances in renewable energy may appear (wind quadruples market share! biomass triples market share!), they won’t come remotely close to producing the electricity needed to match demand. By 2030, electrical capacity will have increased to 1,171.1 gigawatts from 982.9 gigawatts, an absolute increase of 188.2 gigawatts – or six times the increase provided by renewable energy technologies.

As the EIA says, and as authoritative energy experts acknowledge, fossil fuels will provide the necessary increase in capacity. Coal will raise its capacity to 406.1 gigawatts in 2030 from 309.8 in 2006, an increase of 30 per cent from an already high base. “Coal use,” the EIA says, “will continue to be the dominant source of electricity generation through 2030 … Coal increases its share from 49 per cent [of total generation] to 54 per cent.” (The EIA projects a slight decrease in share from nuclear power – to 18 per cent from 19 per cent of supply.) Fossil fuels will provide most of the increase in the country’s entire primary energy supply, too. U.S. energy consumption will rise 0.7 per cent a year from now through 2030, the EIA says; fossil fuels will provide 55 per cent of the increase, the huge legislated increase in subsidized ethanol notwithstanding. Coal, oil and natural gas combined will provide 80 per cent of U.S. primary energy supply through 2030, a drop of only 5 per cent. (The EIA puts the probable price of gasoline in 2030, incidentally, at $2.65 [U.S.] a gallon – 70 cents a litre.) “In general,” the EIA observes, “renewable generation [of electricity] is expected to remain more expensive than the [energy source] it replaces.” It notes that renewable forms of energy are growing as fast as they are primarily because they are so extensively subsidized. Yet fossil fuels remain decisively price-competitive.

Mr. McCain, by the way, announced his own impossible commitment to renewable energy last month in Portland, Ore. – at the U.S. headquarters of Vestas Wind Technology, the Danish manufacturer of windmill turbines. But that’s a whole other story.

Neil Reynolds

The Globe and Mail

9 July 2008