In his second inaugural address, President Barack Obama described the science-proven threat to “our children and future generations” from global warming.
He pledged that the U.S. would “lead on the path toward sustainable energy sources.” His address did not offer any specific programs for achieving reductions in carbon emissions. But we can look to the administration’s current energy policies and those of the past four years. They provide answers on how Obama plans to upgrade the U.S. from its current position as a major greenhouse gas emitter to becoming a leader in the effort to curb GHG 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, and they are not competitive with current market-based energy sources. In my opinion, the result has been a loss of billions of dollars from taxpayers, rate payers 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 energy and peaks when demand is highest. But it is currently expensive and low density, and large investments in companies like Solyndra and Abound Solar have resulted in losses.
Undaunted, the Obama administration is now supporting a $2 billion concentrated solar power installation near Ivanpah Solar Power Facility in the Nevada Desert. Ivanpah’s developer is estimating annual electricity production of about 1 million megawatt hours. By comparison, a typical 1000 MW nuclear plant produces eight times that amount, rain or shine, clouds or fair, night or day.
Wind energy’s intermittent output requires continuous backup in order to avoid damage to the integrity of delicately balanced electric grids. This backup power is usually supplied by natural gas plants running in an 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 Siemens wind turbines in the sea off Cape Cod.
In testimony before the Massachusetts Energy Facilities Siting Board, Cape Wind’s developer conceded that Cape Wind would actually operate at about 100 MW for much of the time, with lowest output in summer, when demand is highest.
Former Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., provided his own estimates: “This will be the most expensive and most heavily subsidized offshore wind farm in the country at over $2.5 billion, with power costs to the region that will be at least double.”
I suggest that the administration’s biggest energy folly is support for turning 40 million prime crop acres and 40 percent of our corn crop into 6 or 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. Microbes turn the fertilizer into the powerful GHG, nitrous oxide. A University of Minnesota study led by Professor Sangwon Suh showed that on average in the U.S., 142 gallons of water are needed to grow and process the corn for one gallon of ethanol. In irrigation states like Kansas and Nebraska, it takes 500 water gallons per ethanol gallon, helping to drain the Ogallala, our most important fresh-water aquifer.
There are tough climate-saving measures like carbon taxes that encourage conservation and provide funds for energy-efficient public transport. That’s one of the measures used in many developed nations that consume half the energy per unit of GNP than we do. But carbon taxes are a politically unpopular choice that are 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.
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