David Frum March 26th, 2009 at 3:30 pm
You must know the TV game show, “Jeopardy.” In this game, the host provides an answer. Contestants compete to guess the question.
Let’s play the public policy version.
ANSWER: “A great national undertaking to replace the nation’s coal-fired generators of electricity with a vast array of wind turbines, solar panels and geothermal stations.”
If you guessed, “What is a rational response to the problem of carbon dioxide emissions?” alas you return home to Muncie without a prize.
Why? Because a rational response to the carbon emissions problem would seek to move the United States from carbon-emitting coal (which now provides half the nation’s electricity) to the next-cheapest alternative that does not emit carbon dioxide.
Wind, solar, and geothermal, by contrast, are the most expensive alternatives to coal. A kilowatt of power from such renewables typically costs about ten times as much as a kilowatt from coal—and more than six times as much as a kilowatt from nuclear or hydropower.
Alternative energy promoters, including former vice president Al Gore, promise that these prices will decline if only the government subsidizes the necessary technological innovation. Those promises have not come true over the past three decades, and it’s extremely unlikely that they ever will.
The price of solar panels and wind turbines could fall to zero, and sun and wind power still could not compete in an unsubsidized marketplace, for three main reasons:
1) Unlike coal and nuclear plants, which can be sited near the point of energy consumption, the winds blow strongest and the sun shines brightest hundreds of miles from major energy markets. Renewable power would have to flow hundreds and thousands of miles to users. The cost of building a transmission system to move that power would be enormous—and is not susceptible to economies of scale.
2) Unlike coal, nuclear and hydro, which can generate huge quantities of electricity in a relatively small space, wind farms and solar facilities require enormous amounts of land—and vast networks of interconnecting wire. The land has to be bought or leased, the wires have to be strung and maintained. While technology costs tend to decline, the costs of land and labor do not.
3) Unlike coal and nuclear, which can be ignited at will, the sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow. Since power cannot be stored in any significant quantity, a system based on sun and wind will require elaborate backup systems that are costly to build and operate.
These problems are inherent and inescapable. And so is one more: The points where the wind blows strongest and the sun shines brightest are some of America’s most treasured places, including the windswept Great Plains and the deserts of the Southwest. To exploit wind and sun on any mass scale will mean industrializing these places.
Despoiling natural beauty in the name of the environment seems a perverse kind of policy. It’s even more perverse when cost-effective alternatives are ready to go: nuclear most obviously, but also a new generation of potential North American hydroprojects such as the Nelson River system in northern Manitoba. Yet even as the climate debate intensifies, these more efficient solutions go unconsidered and undiscussed in the environmental arena.
The short answer is that while environmentalists invoke a “climate crisis,” they are often committed to using that crisis to advance other, undeclared priorities.
Nuclear power has a safety record other industries should emulate and it offers a way to preserve today’s lifestyles while curtailing carbon emissions. But for many environmentalists, the whole point of the exercise is to change those lifestyles, to supplant the culture of consumption with a Birkenstock republic. For them, the high cost of wind and solar power is a feature, not a bug.
For these environmentalists too, opposition to nuclear power—regardless of its practical merits—is a foundational ideological principle. (They do not much care for hydro either—it was the fight against the Hetchy Hatchie power dam that transformed John Muir’s Sierra Club from a ramblers’ society into a political lobby.)
These undeclared ideological commitments explain why many environmentalists react so coolly to “outside the box” approaches to the climate problem. The physicist Freeman Dyson, for example, has suggested that trees could be genetically engineered to grow faster and fatter, voraciously consuming carbon dioxide and storing it in their wood. Then the trees could be cut and sunk by the millions in polar waters—in effect freezing their carbon content forever. That essay produced only tight little smiles in the enviro community, where genetic modification may be an even a bigger taboo than nuclear energy.
In the same vein, if all we really wanted to do was reduce the emission of carbon, our preferred policy instrument would be a carbon tax. That tax could be easily set at a level just sufficient to offset the relatively modest price differential between coal and nuclear power: just a few cents per kilowatt-hour.
By contrast, a tax that raises the price of electricity high enough to make solar and wind competitive would trigger a revolution. Solar and wind can only compete in a market so gnarled and manipulated by abstruse regulations that nobody can decode the cost of anything. Which is why so many environmentalists prefer the Byzantine complexities of cap-and-trade to a carbon tax. The carbon tax is too simple and too transparent. It shows too much!
Outsiders to this hermetic debate are entitled to better explanations than we have been getting. The cultural and ideological commitments of environmentalists need to be declared. If carbon dioxide truly is creating a planetary emergency, then previous ideological bugaboos must give way. If conservatives can learn to live with a tax on coal, then environmentalists can learn to live with nuclear power. Devotion to renewables is not energy policy. It is fantasy.
Originally published in The Week.