- The Washington Times - Friday, December 28, 2001

For many of us, a cup of Starbucks constitutes our most important source of energy. We depend on it as much as we do another anthracite, energetic fuel oil.
About 60 percent of American oil is imported, 25 percent from the Middle East. Even under peaceful conditions, it's a precarious proposition, one that the war on terrorism has again highlighted.
One energy fix often offered by environmental groups and left-of-center ideologues is increasing America's dependence on renewable sources of energy, such as wind power, solar power, geothermal power and burned biomass. Unfortunately, while renewables are touted as clean, safe and affordable, they are actually far more similar to a decaffeinated cup of Starbucks disappointingly underpowered, somewhat environmentally benign, and barely affordable.
Only about ten percent of the energy Americans use comes from renewables. Hydropower generates about half of that; contributions of wind and solar power are almost negligible. Even though America is forecast to need a third more energy in 2020 than it does now, renewables are actually expected to loose market share over that period, according to projections made by the Energy Information Administration (EIA).
Cost is the primary reason. The EIA report noted, "Generally higher projected costs are a disadvantage for renewables relative to fossil-fueled technologies over the forecast period as a whole." At a recent, first-of-a-kind conference on expanding renewable energy on public lands co-hosted by the Energy Department and Interior Department, David Garman, the assistant secretary of energy efficiency and renewable energy, suggested hopefully, "Renewable sources generally cost more [than fossil fuels] … but the good news is that they cost far less than they once did."
While that is certainly true, it doesn't mean Americans can afford to rely on renewables to fuel their daily energy needs, any more than they can Starbucks (and make that a double espresso). Conference speaker Dean R. Gosselin, a former president of the American Wind Energy Association, admitted that electricity generated by wind power costs at least a third more than that generated by fossil fuels. Ditto geothermal power, according to an extremely sympathetic paper presented to the conference by Jane C.S. Long, dean of the Mackay School of Mines, and Lisa Shevenell of the Nevada Bureau of Mines. Solar power doesn't do much better.
And while renewables seem far cleaner than fossil fuels, they also come with environmental drawbacks. Windmills have an unfortunate habit of endangering birds, especially those who don't realize that they are endangered. Burning biofuels, whether weeds or woodchips, is like burning coal 300 million years or so too early the emissions problems are similar. Many environmentalists dislike hydropower because of the damage that those turbines do to fish.
Moreover, unlike the corner Starbucks, renewables are often found in inconvenient, environmentally pristine areas. Nor (especially unlike espresso) are they the most reliable sources of energy: Winds don't always blow as hard as expected, and darkness and cloud cover can dim anyone's enthusiasm for solar power.
The bottom line is that all sources of energy come with inherent drawbacks, and none of them come for free. It's not a question of economics its a question of physics. The First Law of Thermodynamics states that energy is conserved throughout a system if you want the energy of a cappuccino, you have to either take it from Peter or buy it from Paul. Even worse, the Second Law of Thermodynamics makes it clear that some of that energy will invariably be wasted. There will be some caffeinated sludge at the bottom of the cup that you never can get to not matter how hard you suck on the straw. Too much espresso, and the energy that should be used on writing editorials, is instead lost in talking to coworkers at 100 miles an hour.
That's approximately 1/1000th of the speed that federal agencies often move in permitting renewable energy projects on public lands. Jonathan Weisgall, the president of the Geothermal Energy Association complained in his conference testimony, "In state after state, there continues to be a de facto moratorium on geothermal development on public lands as federal agencies fail to take timely action on lease applications." One of the most notorious examples cited was the CalEnergy Corporation's attempt to develop geothermal resources on national forest lands in northern California. The project finally received a denial from the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service after a 21- year waiting period.
Ultimately, renewables will probably continue to play only a limited role in the nation's energy future. Small solar panel units may well be cost-effective in isolated areas where building conventional power infrastructure is too expensive. Hydropower will continue to be important in areas with rivers running through them, regardless of how hyper it makes Robert Redford.
Yet even if costs continue to come down and bureaucracies behave, renewables simply won't reduce America's dependence on foreign fossil fuels no matter how much taxpayer money is "invested" in them. Those who say otherwise are simply wasting energy (and make that a triple espresso).
On the other hand, perhaps Washington should be turned into a monument to renewable energy: Giant windmill blades could be added to the Washington Monument; solar panels might be placed atop the Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Monument; biomass power could be generated by the burning of Internal Revenue Service files; geothermal energy could be supplied by either the leaks of deep sources or the steam rising from the heads of incessantly delayed Metro riders; hydropower could be supplied by the Army Corps of Engineer's sludgy releases into the Potomac. Best of all, the entire Mall could be turned into a plantation for Starbucks coffee.

Charles Rousseaux is an editorial writer and commentary editor for The Washington Times. E-mail: [email protected]

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