President George W. Bush spent his eight years in office investing $13 billion in the development of alternative, sustainable, and clean energy technologies. He was especially big on corn ethanol and biomass. Billions went into wind and solar, too, just the way Thomas Friedman wanted.
Well, it turns out that Thomas Friedman was just as ignorant of engineering and the laws of chemistry as George W. Bush was.
Understand this: the technology to store solar energy on a gigawatt (billion watts of power) scale does not yet exist. If you want it to, invent it. But to imagine that it does exist is to indulge in science fiction.
The energy output of a single medium-size coal mine in Kentucky, Robert Bryce writes, is greater than the entire solar and wind energy output of the United States.
This is not because some mythical evil oil and nuclear corporation executives have plotted to sabotage virtuous “clean” and renewable wind and solar power. It is because wind and solar power do not work. Wind power never will. Solar power may fifty or a hundred years from now. But right now, to bet on wind and solar power to run the US economy is ludicrous. It is science fiction.
And to dream that hydroelectric power, biomass, or thermal power can make the American people energy-independent is worse than science fiction; it is a fairy tale for babies.
Hydrogen-powered cars are another absurdity that George W. Bush, a true Jonah among modern American presidents, madly embraced. Could our forty-third Chief Executive get nothing right?
Hydrogen is enormously flammable. Just click onto YouTube and watch the still-amazing footage of the German airship Hindenburg burn and crash when it was preparing to land at Lakehurst, N.J., on May 6, 1937. How many Americans do you think would want to risk that for their families every time they pulled into a gas station?
A credible, safe, cost-effective technology to use hydrogen for millions of cars at a time simply doesn’t exist. I don’t rule out the extreme possibility of one being developed, but to do so, and then to build the infrastructure to support it, would take decades. And we haven’t even got the technology yet.
Corn ethanol has probably reached and passed its own Hubbert’s Peak of possible maximum production. The prominent role of the Iowa caucuses in our long, drawn-out four-year presidential election ritual made them a third rail of American politics for decades. But in terms of simply chemistry and those magic figures of horsepower and watts, the units of measuring energy and power densities, corn ethanol was always simply absurd. It just doesn’t have the power density and the energy density to do the job. The iron laws of chemistry reject it.
At its peak, thanks to the benighted policies of George W. Bush—eagerly backed by just as many Democrats as Republicans—140 million tons of corn per year in the United States was turned into ethanol. This was far more expensive than using oil or coal. And now the Fracking Revolution has made it just absurd. But it had other dire consequences, too.
The corn ethanol boondoggle drove corn prices in the United States and around the world through the roof as well.
Experts say that as of 2010, the global economy fell short of its cereal/grain production needs by 50 million tons. That meant the United States was turning into expensive, unnecessary corn ethanol almost three times as much corn as the global shortfall. Scores of millions of people were suffering around the world because of the ethanol boondoggle.
Wind energy is never going to be more than a marginal energy source. That is because, quite simply, it depends on the wind. Electrical generating stations need to have regular, sustainable sources of energy their machinery can constantly rely upon. Storage batteries and technology to store wind energy do not exist. Hopefully, one day soon they will. But we simply cannot count on it.
Also, as Robert Bryce, the managing editor of Energy Tribune, has pointed out, the most effective wind turbines require major quantities of the extremely rare minerals or rare earth lithium and lanthanides. “That means mining,” Bryce writes in his book Power Hungry. “And China controls nearly all of the world’s existing mines that produce lanthanides.”
In other words, when Thomas Friedman is telling us to embrace a wind energy future, he is not making us less energy-dependent on the Middle East, he is making us far more energy-dependent on China.
Even in Germany, wind-generated electricity fell in both gross terms and as a percentage of total national energy consumption between 2008 and 2010. And this happened even though the Germans had invested big in this “good” and green technology and boosted their electrical generating capacity by 25 percent.
The figures were: 40,574 gigawatt-hours of electricity produced by wind-turbines in 2008, making 6.6 percent of total national power consumption; 38,639 gigawatt-hours produced in 2009, making 6.7 percent of national power consumption; and only 36,500 gigawatt-hours produced in 2010, making 6 percent of total power consumption.
Yet the installed capacity to produce wind power rose during the same time, from 23,836 megawatts in 2008 to 25,716 megawatts in 2009 to 36,500 megawatts in 2010. That represented a rise in wind-power-generating capacity of almost 33 percent, or a third in only three years.
Yet because of the uncertainty of the winds, more turbines actually generated less power. And that unpredictability is a headache for grid controllers. Usually gas power plants that never run at peak efficiency have to be built to supplement wind turbines on calm (or, ironically, incredibly windy) days. Indeed, Germany’s steel and aluminum industries are now in serious decline precisely because of the problems in turning to wind from old-fashioned, more reliable power sources in the past half-decade.
Extracted fromThat Should Still Be Us by Martin Sieff
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