In his second inaugural address, President Obama described the science-proven threat to “our children and future generations” from global warming. He pledged that America would “lead on the path toward sustainable energy sources.”
Although his address did not offer any specific programs, we can look to the administration’s current energy policies and the past four years on how Obama plans to upgrade the United States from its current position as a major greenhouse gas emitter to a leader among developed nations to curb those emissions.
What we actually observe in the administration’s record is a litany of ill-advised, expensive and premature attempts to put into production solar, wind and biofuel projects. In general, those projects lack the technology base for effective large-scale implementation. They are not competitive with market-based energy sources, and the result has been a loss of billions of dollars from taxpayers, ratepayers and investors – with minimal impact on global warming.
Solar energy, whether photo voltaic or concentrated, has potential for research improvement and cost reductions. It is more predicable than wind and peaks when demand is highest. But it is expensive and low density. Large investments in companies like Solyndra and Abound Solar have resulted in losses.
Undaunted, the Obama administration is supporting a $2 billion concentrated solar power installation in the Nevada desert. More than 300,000 rotating mirrors will focus sunlight on three towers to heat liquid, which becomes a source of steam for power generation. The developer is estimating annual electricity production of about 1 million megawatt (MW) hours.
By comparison, a typical 1000 MW nuclear plant produces eight times that amount, no matter the weather. Power washing of those CSP mirrors will use scarce desert water and foster weeds, which will grow to obscure the mirrors.
Will wind be the key?
Wind energy’s intermittent output requires continuous backup to avoid damage to the integrity of delicately balanced electric grids. This backup power is usually supplied by natural gas plants running in inefficient start/stop mode to match the wind. This increases GHG emissions, wastes fuel and shortens machinery life.
The wind industry lobbies hard for the 2.2 cents/kwh Production Tax Credit, without which new wind farm installations would essentially cease. The 2.2 cents is nearly 50 percent of the wholesale price of electric power.
Undaunted, the Obama administration is supporting the $2 billion Cape Wind project which would place 130 wind turbines in the sea off Cape Cod. In testimony before the Massachusetts Energy Facilities Siting Board, Cape Wind’s developer conceded Cape Wind would actually operate at about 100 MW for much of the time, with lowest output in summer, when demand is highest.
Are crops an answer?
The administration’s biggest energy folly is support for turning 40 million prime crop acres and 40 percent of our corn crop into 6 percent to 7 percent of our gasoline supply. The result is increased world grain prices and stresses to soils, ground water, and the environment from monoculture corn and additional nitrogen fertilizers.
A University of Minnesota study showed on average in the United States, 142 gallons of water are needed to grow and process the corn for 1 gallon of ethanol. There are also those GHG emissions from diesel-driven farm machinery and dead zones in the Mississippi delta region as excess nitrogen fertilizer runoff increases algae growth.
To avoid using food for fuel, the administration is spending billions on production plants to make ethanol from cellulose (stalks, corn cobs, and grasses) and algae. Congress mandated 500 million gallons of such ethanol in 2012. We struggled to make 5 million gallons.
There are tough climate-saving measures like carbon taxes, which encourage conservation and provide funds for energy efficient public transport. That’s one of the measures used in many developed nations who consume half the energy per unit of GNP than we do. But carbon taxes are a politically unpopular choice, which is rarely seen in the programs offered by either of our major political parties.
It is easier to rely on “technology will save us” pipe dreams.
This is the opinion of Rolf Westgard, a professional member of the Geological Society of America and a member of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.
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