Tuesday, May 26, 2009

TNSTAAFL*

*There's no such thing as a free lunch.

Ralph Ellis, in an essay posted at Watts Up With That, outlines the challenges of dependency on renewable energy sources:
However, it is my belief that this sublime day-dream actually holds the seeds for our economic decline and for social disorder on an unprecedented scale. Why? Because no technical and industrial society can maintain itself on unreliable and intermittent power supplies. In 2003 there were six major electrical blackouts across the world, and the American Northeast blackout of August 14th was typical of these. The outage started in Ohio, when some power lines touched some trees and took out the Eastlake power station, but the subsequent cascade failure took out 256 power stations within one hour.

The entire Northeast was down onto emergency electrical supplies, and the result was social and economic chaos. Nothing, in our integrated and automated world, works without electricity. Transport came to a grinding halt. Aircraft were grounded, trains halted and road traffic was at a standstill, due to a lack of traffic lights and fuel. Water supplies were severely disrupted, as were telecommunications, while buildings had to be evacuated due to a lack of fire detection and suppression systems. Without any available transport, many commuters were forced to sleep in offices or in Central Park, and while the summer temperatures made this an office-adventure to remember, had this been winter the results of this electrical failure could have been catastrophic.

This is what happens to a major technical civilisation when its life-blood, its electrical supply, is turned off. Chaos looms, people die, production ceases, life is put on hold. Yet this was just a once-in-a-decade event, a memorable occasion to laugh about over dinner-parties for many years to come, but just imagine what would happen to a society where this happened every week, or if the power was cut for a whole fortnight or more. Now things are getting serious. Without transport, refrigeration, computers and key workers, food production and distribution would cease. Sleeping in Central Park on a balmy summer’s night is a memorable inconvenience, whereas fifty million empty bellies is getting very serious indeed. In fact, it is a recipe for violence and civil unrest.
He goes on to illustrate the costs associated with "free" renewable energy sources, due to the costs associated with a) converting them into electricity, and b) creating the spare generating capacity or energy storage systems required to match supply and demand. (He's from the U.K., so many of his examples relate to Britain or the European Union.)

Of course the costs for developing, installing, and operating those renewable energy resources mean green jobs, beloved of posturing politicians. However, Spain's experience should give us pause because those green jobs meant significant job losses elsewhere in the economy plus high taxes to subsidize them.

My problem with the green push is the rush to spend lots of other people's money in ways that bring little benefit to those paying for it other than feeling good that we're "doing something". As charities go, I'd rather get more bang for my buck. That's why I appreciate the work being done by Bjorn Lomborg.

Bjorn Lomborg, also known as "The Skeptical Environmentalist" and a frequent op-ed contributor, is Director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center. They "promote the use of sound economic science – especially the principle of prioritization – to make sure that with limited resources, we achieve the most ‘good’ for people and the planet." While they agree that global warming is a problem, their 2008 consensus ranked it far down the priority list of how to spend $75 billion over 4 years:
The experts considered four solutions in this area: investing only in mitigation; investing in mitigation and research and development into low‐carbon energy technology; investing only in research and development into low‐carbon energy technology; investing in a combination of mitigation, research and development and adaptation. Mitigation only and a combination of mitigation and R&D were given the lowest two rankings by the expert panel, due to their very poor benefit/cost ratio. The option including adaptation was discarded, as the adaptation is essentially included in nearly every other option presented to the Copenhagen Consensus. An
investment into research and development in low‐carbon energy technologies was ranked 14th by the expert panel.
(His related WSJ op-ed is here.)

I'm a fan of clean air, clean water, and a healthy biosphere. I remember when the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969 due to pollution. And that ten years later, biologists were astounded how many species of fish had returned once the pollution was cleaned up. In many ways, however, I think the environmental movement in the US has lost its bearings as it's won its case on egregious pollution. But it fights on, seeking more and more expensive remedies for less and less benefit.