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Four Dirty Secrets About Clean Energy

June 8, 2011

Alex Epstein ran an OpEd piece on Fox News recently about what he calls the four dirty little secrets of clean energy (the link to his article is at the bottom).  I want to use this space to refute what he said.

Dirty Secret 1: If “clean energy” were actually cheaper than fossil fuels, it wouldn’t need a policy.

Mr. Epstein’s claim that the free market would naturally allow cleaner energy resources to rise to the top if they were truly profitable is absurd.  His over simplified supply vs. demand model of economics would have to assume that all energy resources are regulated equally and fairly.  They are not.  For example, the coal industry over the past years has successfully manipulated regulators to define the lifecycle cost of production in a way that hides many of the real costs of coal.  Currently, coal is considered to be the cheapest energy resource in the US, but according to Harvard professor Dr. Paul Epstein (no relation to Alex) in an article published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, an accountability of the full lifecycle cost of coal would add another 17.8 cents per kWh of electricity produced.  This would make coal the most expensive resource of all.

We’ve known for a long time that coal is a costly and deadly energy source.  In “The Toll from Coal,” The American Lung Association found that coal-powered electricity alone caused “over 13,000 premature deaths in 2010, as well as almost 10,000 hospitalizations and more than 20,000 heart attacks per year.”  This was just in the US.  The coal related death, illness and injury rate in China is much higher.

As I’ve written in a previous article, Behold the face behind the curtain of “clean coal,” coal production has completely destroyed 470 mountains in the Appalachians in just my lifetime.  These mountains have completely vanished.  There is no accountability for this destruction of land in the pricing of coal.  Neither is there an accounting of the cost of communities that have been destroyed by toxic waste, families and businesses that have had to be relocated, and ground water pollution as the result of mining operations.

A flood of coal ash slurry from the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant Dec. 29, 2008 in Harriman, Tenn. An earthen dam holding a containment pond broke Dec. 22, 2008, unleashing a billion gallon flood of toxic sludge into the Emory River.

Currently, the wind energy industry does take into account the entire lifecycle when calculating the cost of energy — even including CO2 emissions for factories that produce turbine parts, and decommissioning of the wind farm 20 years into the future.  No one accounts for the cost of the future decommissioning of a coal plant when calculating the cost of coal energy, and oil and gas companies leave their obsolete old rigs and drilling platforms behind to rust into a heap.  Such accounting isn’t evenly applied across all resources.  If it was, the cost comparisons would look very different.

Federal regulators need to create an even playing field for all energy resources.  I’m not advocating a tax on carbon, but it’s a fact that the regulatory structure is severely broken for all energy resources and it needs to be fixed.

Dirty Secret 2: Clean energy advocates want to force us to use solar, wind, and biofuels, even though there is no evidence these can power a modern civilization.

Denmark was the first country to achieve 20% of its energy production from the wind.  Other countries are following Denmark’s example.  Scotland expects to achieve 100% of energy production from renewables by 2050.  Germany is in the process of shutting down 17 nuclear reactors and plans to replace them with offshore wind farms — construction is already underway.  The UK plans to install more than 8,000 wind turbines in the waters of the North Sea.

The only excuse the US has for not being able to power our civilization from renewable energy is that our federal government stands in the way.  Our legislators have created no less than 36 oversight committees who have to be given a say in anything related to energy policy.  These committees find it very difficult to agree on policy, yet they will all agree that their first priority is to satisfy their own party’s political interests.  Exacerbating the problem is our American society’s unwillingness to allow turbines and transmission lines to be built within sight of anyone.  These pressures drive votes and votes drive the system.  Is it any wonder why Europe and China are leading the green energy economy?

Dirty Secret 3: There are promising carbon-free energy sources–hydroelectric and nuclear–but “clean energy” policies oppose them as not “green” enough.

I don’t believe there are green energy policies that stand in the way of hydroelectric energy.  We have been using hydroelectric power plants for many decades and they work very well.  Unfortunately, all of the locations where there is enough water running far enough downhill to produce utility scale electricity have already been tapped.  There are no more candidate locations for additional hydro power plants in the US.

Nuclear energy is clean when it is running safely, and it is very very dangerous to people and to the environment when it is not.  But regardless, nuclear fuel is not renewable.  It is mined in much the same way that coal is mined.  Many of the true costs of nuclear energy are hidden in the toll on human health and the environmental impact of deep earth mining.

Dirty Secret 4: The environmentalists behind clean energy policy are anti-energy.

Mr. Epstein is wrong in the way he portrays wind and solar as being more harmful to the environment than conventional energy.  He claims that “Huge, 400-foot tall wind-turbines with 150-foot blades and noise known to cause unbearable headaches a mile away do not exactly embody the environmentalist ideal of living in harmony with nature.”  I couldn’t disagree more.  As Vice President of Technology for the world’s largest wind turbine manufacturer, I have stood at the base of operating wind turbines, talking with colleagues using a normal voice while the slow, quiet “whoosh….whoosh….whoosh” emanated only a few meters above our heads.  It would be impossible to hear a wind turbine more than a few hundred yards away, much less cause unbearable headaches a mile away.  That’s just plain rubbish.

As for land use, wind turbines are typically installed in agricultural areas and share the land with farmers and cattlemen.  A wind turbine requires less than an acre to produce more than 3 MW of electricity — enough to power 1,500 homes per year.  Much of that same acre can also be used for grazing cattle or growing crops.  This dual use helps to raise the property value for the land owner.

Unfortunately, the same can not be said for solar energy.  It takes about four acres of solar panels to create 1 MW of electricity and the land can not be used for anything else.  This makes it difficult to put solar power plants near population centers as the land value is too high to have it locked up with rows of solar panels.  Roof-top solar panels make a lot more sense in urban areas, and I am delighted to see so many solar panels being installed on top of people’s homes and commercial buildings.

My Summary

In spite of all the complaints and challenges raised by green energy antagonists, the world is embracing clean energy — indeed, they are demanding it.  Renewable energy technology is mature enough now (at least in wind and some applications of solar) that it could easily provide clean energy at a competitive price if federal regulations were fairly applied.  It is imperative that the governments of the world begin the hard work of putting meaningful, fair regulations in place that will allow green energy to compete.  It is up to us, consumers and voting citizens, to put pressure on our elected representatives to make these changes.

Mr. Epstein’s original article:


Why should you subscribe to your utility company’s “100% wind energy plan”?

May 16, 2011

I attended a seminar in Houston last week where one of the other attendees asked me to help her understand her utility company’s offer to subscribe to a plan that provides 100% wind energy.  She told me she opted to subscribe to the new 100% wind energy plan, and was willing to pay a little more for wind energy, but she didn’t understand whether she was really making a difference.  After all, it didn’t seem likely that her utility company could direct wind generated electricity exclusively to her home.  I got the same question again today, so let me clear this up.

It’s true, utility companies around the world are offering 100% wind energy subscription plans.  It’s also true that they have absolutely no way to direct wind generated electricity to your home — once a wind farm puts electricity on the grid, those electrons become indistinguishable from electrons generated from coal, gas, nuclear, or any other resource.  So how does such a plan work for you, the consumer?

What most people don’t realize is that wind farms produce two separate revenue streams.  One revenue stream comes from selling the electricity generated by the wind turbines.  The wind farm owner sells the electricity his turbines generate to the utility company at competitive trading prices.  That means the wind farm owner doesn’t get a premium rate for his electricity just because it was generated by wind.  He has to sell his electricity on the trading floor, being price competitive with electricity generated by all of the other resources.  If his rates were significantly higher than the rate for electricity from other resources, he would not be able to sell his electricity on the open market.

The second revenue stream comes from selling Renewable Energy Certificates or RECs (also known as Renewable Energy Credits or “green tags”).  For every 1000 kilowatt hours of electricity the wind farm owner produces, he can sell one REC.  Selling RECs is how wind farm owners make a profit, and this is why investors look favorably at wind farms as a good investment.  RECs are tracked and certified by a third party auditing agency to ensure that RECs are never duplicated — once a REC is sold, no other REC can ever be generated for the same 1000 kilowatt hours of electricity that was produced.

Who buys these RECs?  Well, indirectly you do.  When your utility company offers a 100% wind energy plan, what that means is that your utility company uses the extra money you pay on your bill to buy RECs from wind energy providers.  It doesn’t change the type of electricity that comes to your home, but you do help to make wind farms more profitable.  And in a free market economy, when wind farms show a profit, more wind farms will be built.

So by all means, subscribe to wind energy plans.  It is one effective way you can make renewable energy a priority.

More about RECs:

Smart meters are arriving — should we care?

May 13, 2011

Almost everywhere I’ve been lately it seems like I see billboards proclaiming that smart meters are coming.  The advertisement makes it appear like this new technology is going to somehow make my energy supply better.  But will it?

The older meter technology that’s been around for more than 40 years had a round disk behind the glass that would spin faster as our rate of electricity consumption increased.  The meter counted the number of times the disk made a rotation and it displayed the count on a series of dials.  Once every month, a real person would walk through the neighborhood looking at the meters and taking note of these numbers, and we would receive an electricity bill in the mail based on the number of times the disk rotated in the meter.

The new technology — these “smart meters” — are a little more sophisticated.  They still read the amount of electricity we use — not on a monthly basis, but now once every 15 minutes.  This information is transmitted directly to the power company.  So, no more will you see people walking through your neighborhood writing down readings.  Is this a benefit?  Well, the utility company’s new ability to see your energy consumption at 15-minute intervals will allow your utility company to charge you a higher rate for electricity you use during times when demand is high, and a lower rate during times when demand is lower.  Of course, this is also an opportunity for you, the consumer, to game the system.  You can elect to run your dishwasher, for example, during the night when the rates are at their lowest.

Other benefits these new meters bring?

The power company will know automatically if your power goes out.  If the meter stops transmitting data, then the service department will know right away that they need to look into the cause.  Also, some utility companies will give you access to your own data and allow you to compare your energy usage to the average amount of energy your neighbors have used.  If you’re the type of person who wants to know this information so you can make decisions on how you use electricity, then you will perceive a benefit.

Will smart meters save you money?  Most experts don’t believe so.  There is a cost savings to your utility company because they no longer have to pay people to walk through neighborhoods.  But whether these savings will be passed along directly to you is not known.

There are companies now who have developed controllers you can install on your major energy devices (clothes dryer, dishwasher, water heater, air conditioners, etc.) that will allow you to program them to run during less expensive times of the day based on data that your smart meter has provided to your utility company.  I expect that in a few years there will be more devices on the market and I believe that one day these devices will be built into these products so that you will hardly notice that you’re using them.  I believe that smart meters will be the very beginning of new capabilities that will allow us to be less wasteful and much smarter about how we use and pay for electricity.  But for the near term, they are really nothing more than a new meter.

New residential smart meter

Why hasn’t the US embraced offshore wind energy?

May 4, 2011

I was invited to a dinner last night in Houston sponsored by the UK Consulate General.  The theme was Oil and Gas Technologies: Synergy and Application to Offshore Wind.  The speaker was Patrick Phelan, a Brit and the General Manager of JDR Cable Systems, who supplies undersea power cables to the offshore wind industry.  Anyway, Patrick spoke about the rush to offshore wind energy in the UK.  Indeed, the UK is planning to place nearly 8,000 large-scale wind turbines in the waters around the island nation.

The UK is leading the world right now in deployment of offshore wind.  Denmark, Germany, and The Netherlands have also been installing offshore wind turbines along with a handful of other countries.  We see many mega-companies now investing in offshore wind — it is as if they have found the next great gold rush.  Yet, for years all we have heard in the US is that offshore wind is too expensive.

So, what is it that all the other countries see that we here in the US don’t?  We are still debating whether offshore wind energy is financially viable while other countries have moved on with it.  We argue that we don’t want to see giant turbines spinning in our view of the ocean, so we require they be pushed many miles over the horizon at a tremendous additional cost.  Cape Wind, scheduled to become the first offshore wind farm in the US, has met obstacle after obstacle for more than 10 years and has yet to begin construction.  In the mean time, other countries around the world are seriously embracing offshore wind power.  Why haven’t we done so?

The simple reason is that our federal government is severely broken.  Bowing to the interests of those who manage to bring financial support to very powerful politicians, our federal government has managed to create no less than 36 oversight committees for energy, each one responsible for ensuring that the special interests of powerful lobbyists are adequately covered.

Our nation can not afford to continue pushing the cost of renewable energy projects to the extreme the way the regulatory process has done with Cape Wind.  We have to get serious.  We need new leadership who can really bring enough political clout to make vital sweeping changes to streamline the regulatory system.  Then, and only then, will we begin to see large investments in renewable energy in the US.

Is nuclear power really safe, and is it sustainable?

April 30, 2011

When I was in Germany at the end of March, the anti-nuke demonstrations were in full swing.  In Hamburg I saw hundreds of demonstrators taking to the streets, carrying flags and banners declaring their unwillingness to share the planet with nuclear power plants.  Following the catastrophe at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, who can blame them for their fears?  This catastrophe is very grave, it’s very real and it will be long lasting.

Germany has 17 nuclear reactors that together produce 25% of the country’s electrical power.  Following the failure of the plant in Japan, Germany has shut down seven of its oldest reactors until they are thoroughly inspected and certified to be safe.  However, under immense pressure from concerned citizens who are willing to pay more for power to eliminate the threat altogether, the country is being forced to study the possibility of shutting down all 17 reactors, permanently.

Is nuclear power safe?  This question will never ever be answered.  There will always be nuke plants running safely — score points for the pro-nuke side.  And there will occasionally be more catastrophes — score points for the anti-nuke side.  So the question will never be definitively answered because nuclear power will work properly, at the very best, only most of the time.

Nevertheless, I believe that the risks to nuclear power can be mitigated when the system is properly designed.  I don’t know who approved the design at Fukushima that called for putting the cooling systems on the beach instead of on higher ground.  But given the fact that Japan sits on a major tectonic fault line and the country has a history of major earth quakes, it seems now to be very foolish to not have considered the possibility of an offshore quake causing a tsunami.  Nevertheless, there are hundreds of nuclear plants running all over the world, and they are running safely.

But one thing bothers me about nuclear power that isn’t usually discussed.  Nuclear power isn’t sustainable power.  Countries will still have to dig into the earth to mine Uranium which will be consumed as it generates heat to produce electric power.  And more mining will have to follow to replace the Uranium that gets used up.  China is building nuclear plants as fast as they can, which means more mining is going to happen.  So it sounds like a higher-tech version of our coal problem to me.  Mining will continue to destroy the environment, and radio active ore will eventually get all used up.  Then what?

I still believe that sustainable energy is the answer in the long term.

Behold the face behind the curtain of “clean coal”

April 28, 2011

In the 2008 US presidential campaign, Senator John McCain made a lot of promises about “clean coal” as a significant solution to the threat of antropogenic climate change.  Like him, there are many today who support this technology believing that it will help clean up the environment while allowing us to continue satisfying our energy needs with a cheap, readily available resource.  But Senator McCain held the curtain tightly closed in front of the casualties created by an industry that profits shamelessly at the expense of our people and our planet.

In just my lifetime, 470 mountains have disappeared from the Appalachian Range as a result of coal mining.  Even more have disappeared from other parts of the world — China is destroying mountains at more than twice the rate we are in the US.  Where do these mountains go?

Up in smoke.  Gone forever.

Clean coal technology requires burning of more coal than traditional coal-fired plants, because additional energy is needed to support the technology.  Some estimates claim that up to 20% more coal is burned to provide the energy necessary to clean it up.  If clean coal technology had been implemented forty years ago, then 564 mountains would have been destroyed in the Appalachians.

There are better ways to produce the energy we need.

Another Mountain Being Destroyed in the Appalachian Range

President Obama seeks to remove subsidies for oil and gas

April 27, 2011

As the 2012 (and beyond) budget discussions begin to heat up, many conservatives are demanding that renewable energy should be made to compete with oil, coal and natural gas without the government subsidies that renewable energy companies currently enjoy.  Today, renewable energy projects can claim a US government tax credit for up to one third of the cost of hardware and installation.  These subsidies represent significant cost savings to renewable energy project developers and investors.  Public grants provided by the Department of Energy amount to many millions of US dollars in taxpayer support for technology development.

But what many people don’t realize is that natural gas exploration companies have enjoyed their own tax incentives for decades.  So have coal mining companies.  So have oil companies.  All of these companies have built their “empires” upon government tax credits for capital expenses, job creation in the industry, and R&D.  In fact, if you look at the massive amount of foreign oil that is bought and sold around the world every day, much of it comes from countries whose governments almost fully subsidize its production.

This week, President Obama stated that there’s little he can do about gas prices reaching $4.00 per gallon in the US, and that we must stop subsidizing fossil fuel producers and step up support for renewable energy projects.  Well, just as removal of subsidies have historically caused renewable energy costs to soar, virtually stopping development, so will removal of subsidies to fossil fuel producers cause their costs to soar.  You know who will have to pay the bill.  The costs always roll down to the consumers.  Stopping subsidies in the form of tax credits will certainly cause gas and heating prices to skyrocket.

Lawmakers will argue on both sides of the issue — conservatives will want to protect government support to fossil fuel producers and liberal environmentalists will want to protect government support to renewable energy producers.  Who will win this debate in the US will be largely decided in November 2012’s election.