Just when you thought you were safe from economy-crushing climate legislation with the death of “cap-and-trade” in the Senate, a new threat looms. It’s climate legislation in disguise: renewable-energy standards.
The House version of carbon dioxide cap-and-trade passed narrowly last year and would have raised prices for electricity 90 percent, gasoline 58 percent and natural gas 55 percent, driving up the average household’s annual direct and indirect energy costs by about $3,600; reduced average annual employment by about 1.2 million jobs between 2012 and 2035, when the number of jobs lost would reach 2.5 million; added $28,000 in federal debt for every American; and reduced gross domestic product by $9.4 trillion. All that for a tiny fraction of a degree’s hypothetical global temperature reduction a century from now.
After the American public got a good grasp on it and had a bellyful of Obamacare, cap-and-trade became too hot to handle in the Senate.
But the war against carbon dioxide (a natural element vital to all life) continues unabated. Opponents switched hats. Now they want to fight CO2 emissions by mandating a switch from low-cost, high-efficiency conventional fuels to “renewable energy,” and in the wake of Climategate and other revelations of fraud and incompetence among global-warming alarmists, they just keep mum about the climate connection.
The pressure for renewables isn’t new. Ever since before World War II, people have warned - wrongly - that the world is running out of conventional energy sources such as oil and have urged substitution of renewable fuels. In 1973, renewable fuels (excluding hydro) had become the source of a whopping 0.6 percent of total electricity generated around the world. By 2006, that had grown to an anemic 2 percent. By 2008, in the United States, renewables provided about 3.1 percent of all our electricity.
There are reasons why that’s so - rooted not in politics, ideology or the pressure of giant oil and coal companies, which would be just as glad to make money from renewable fuels - but in basic physics and what that means for the comparative cost of electricity generated from renewable versus conventional and nuclear fuels.
As Robert Bryce points out in “Power Hungry” (PublicAffairs, 2010), renewable fuels simply don’t have the power density - the amount of power that can be harnessed in a given unit of volume, area or mass - of conventional and nuclear fuels.
The South Texas Project nuclear plant’s power density, even including the full 18.75 square miles of buffer land (though the two power reactors and cooling towers occupy less than a square mile), is 56 watts per square meter. Corn ethanol takes almost exactly 1,150 times as much land as nuclear and 1,105 times as much as natural gas to produce the same amount of electricity.
That’s not because somebody doesn’t like corn ethanol. It’s because corn simply doesn’t contain nearly as much energy as does uranium or natural gas.
That’s why, as the Cornwall Alliance pointed out in its study, “A Renewed Call to Truth, Prudence, and Protection of the Poor: An Evangelical Examination of the Theology, Science, and Economics of Global Warming,” the costs of generating electricity from renewable fuels are so much higher than doing so from conventional and nuclear sources. Wind costs more than twice, and solar more than six times as much as nuclear and coal as an electricity source, and they cost about 1.25 and 3.5 times as much, respectively, as natural gas.
Nonetheless, some U.S. senators think they can overcome physics by passing laws. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico Democrat, and Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, have introduced a bill to require electric utilities around the country to increase their use of renewable fuels drastically - to 15 percent by 2021, which would require adding 1.2 percent per year - 30 times the worldwide growth rate from 1973 to 2006.
Even if it could be attained, which is highly improbable, it would be at the cost of skyrocketing electric bills for consumers and businesses, which would pass on costs to consumers. That would hurt everybody, but it would hurt America’s poor more than anyone else because they spend a higher percentage of their income on electricity than do others.
One more danger lurks in the proposal for a national renewable-energy standard. If passed in the Senate, the brief 43-page bill could wind up in reconciliation with last year’s massive 1,200-page House cap-and-trade bill, all of whose provisions - and costs - could get smuggled in without the need for 60 Senate cloture votes.
King Canute, call your office.
E. Calvin Beisner is founder of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.