The Green Energy Dream

Solar panels and wind turbines: Will President Obama’s green economy work?

The much-anticipated “green dream team” has taken office. Alternative energy is a pillar of President Obama’s economic recovery plan and a defining issue of his presidency. Such energy, he says, will reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil, clean up the air, and provide millions of jobs.

“We have heard president after president promising to chart a new course,” he said in December when he announced his new energy and environment team. “This time has to be different. This time we cannot fail.”

Clean, abundant, inexpensive energy would be a fantastic benefit to America. But how attainable is it?

Fully 2.5 million “green” jobs will be created, the president claims, as part of his plans for a massive economic revival. He will put “Americans to work building wind farms, solar panels and fuel-efficient cars,” he said. President Obama says he will also modernize the electricity grid, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and preserve national resources.

So America is poised to embark on what may become the biggest energy infrastructure revolution in the history of the world. It will have to be that big if green energy is going to make a dent in America’s fossil-fuel addiction.

Let’s examine the viability of these noble-sounding plans based on current realities.

How Much Is Enough?

Fossil fuels, the unloved dirty energy sources, go far beyond oil. Petroleum accounts for about 40 percent of America’s energy consumption. Natural gas and coal provide the U.S. with another 46.5 percent of its power.

With nuclear energy producing an additional 8.4 percent of the mix, only 6.8 percent of America’s energy currently comes from renewable sources.

So you see the challenge we are facing if we are to green up America. The U.S. will need to develop a veritable ocean of renewable energy.

But not all renewable energy is considered green energy. For example, the green lobby generally opposes hydropower development because it floods land. Greens are also against biomass energy production because it often burns wood and produces waste. Environmentalists are growing in opposition to biofuels such as ethanol because these fuels not only use food crops, but they also promote greater land tillage and deforestation.

That leaves only three main options for Obama’s green energy dream: geothermal, solar and wind power.

This presents a big problem. None of these options can live up to the hope that Americans are being led to place in them.

Geothermal power plant construction can take many years before electricity production results. From obtaining a permit to completing construction, it generally takes a minimum of five years to build a plant, but it can take much longer. So the ramp-up time for a national push could be significant—especially considering how many facilities would need to be constructed.

America currently has geothermal power plants pumping out electricity in every state of the union. But many are old and are producing decreasing amounts of electricity. Many may need to be replaced soon. At the same time, if all the plants already in the planning and permitting stage—around 100—make it into production, America’s geothermal capacity will double. That’s good, but unfortunately, geothermal energy currently accounts for only one third of 1 percent of America’s energy consumption. Even doubling America’s geothermal capacity only ups the share of energy production to barely over half a percent. So geothermal energy by itself is probably not the solution for America’s energy problems—at least not in any reasonable short- or medium-term time frame.

More Realities

That is probably a big reason Obama, in his green-energy economy press conference last December, specifically mentioned solar and wind power. The lead times to construction can be much shorter, and you don’t have to spend years exploring for geologically favorable formations.

But a society based on solar and wind power is probably a fantasy too. And one that Americans have fallen for before.

After the opec oil embargoes of the 1970s, the price of oil skyrocketed. Politicians repackaged themselves as proactive visionaries. On June 29, 1979, President Carter called for a “national commitment to solar energy.” He set a goal of producing 20 percent of the nation’s energy from various solar sources by the year 2000. Congress declared war on fossil fuels, passing the Energy Conservation Act of 1978. The media were filled with stories of solar-heated houses and multitudes of solar-powered devices. Scholars wrote articles about the economics of solar energy and how the days of oil were over.

What was the result? The full complement of solar energy collection equipment built since 1974 produces about 0.08 percent of America’s energy—8 parts in 10,000. Not even a tenth of 1 percent of our energy comes from solar power!

Wind power falls into a similar range of energy production. The combined power-generating capacity of every single windmill (and there are thousands), every photovoltaic solar cell on every rooftop, and every thermal solar energy plant across America equals 0.4 percent of America’s energy consumption. That number is astounding for its smallness. Despite 30 years of Carterism, taxpayer subsidies, mandates forcing energy utilities to use alternative energy, and the hundreds of billions of dollars invested so far, green energy isn’t even on the meter.

If America wants a green energy economy, it is going to have to spend. And spend. And spend like never before. President Obama’s plan to designate $15 billion a year over 10 years will barely scratch the surface of what is needed. If America wants an energy revolution, taxpayers are going to have to pay and pay and pay, because trillions of dollars’ worth of energy infrastructure in America will need to be phased out and replaced.

An Economic Albatross

Here is the scale of what an energy revolution entails. As of 2001, California had 3,200 huge windmills covering vast mountainsides and desert passes. “All together, they produce—at a rare full wind—about 300 mw,” University of Connecticut physicist and author of The Solar Fraud Howard C. Hayden noted, “which is about one quarter as much power as a moderately large nuclear power plant produces, and is less than 10 percent of the electricity the small state of Connecticut consumes.” So even if the state of California, the nation’s leader in wind power, quadrupled its wind-generating capacity, it would be the equivalent of building just one nuclear power plant.

Moreover, private enterprise won’t make the switch to green power willingly. Why? For the same reason the free-market economy has passed on the idea for decades: It doesn’t make economic sense.

That is why the Carter energy revolution was such a failure. It mostly boils down to cost-benefit analysis. In a world of international competition, the environment takes a backseat, and green energy is an economic albatross.

Electricity produced from the sun and wind is more expensive than electricity produced from coal and natural gas. Solar energy costs about three times as much as coal, according to some estimates. And wind power, while not as expensive as solar, has two additional major disadvantages. Initial construction costs are much higher than for traditional power plants, which means it takes a lot longer to earn a return on investment. Also, wind power is unreliable. When the wind doesn’t blow—and sometimes it doesn’t for days—the lights go out and you don’t get paid.

So as a general rule, the only time these green energy production facilities get built is when the government intervenes—through mandates, subsidies, taxation and other means—to make green energy competitive. Unfortunately, government intervention always costs money. Taxpayers and businesses pick up the tab through higher energy bills and higher tax rates. And, in some cases—as with ethanol production—higher food costs too.

Those higher costs lead to other problems.

If businesses were required to pay the real cost for green energy, many would become uncompetitive. Many strategic industries such as refiners, metal fabricators, steel producers, chemical manufacturers, and pulp and paper producers require abundant cheap energy. And you can guarantee that countries like China and India—nations that have fewer environmental qualms—would take full advantage of higher costs in the U.S. to attract any new industry. Make energy more expensive in America, and even existing industry could well close up shop and head overseas to countries that embrace cheap energy sources. Then America would be spending even more money importing products made by foreign companies. And how does it help the economy if the new 2.5 million green energy jobs are cancelled out by unintended job losses in other sectors?

It boils down to this: Higher energy costs reduce the efficiency of the economy. Any way you look at it, that means fewer jobs and a lower standard of living.

Choosing to pursue clean energy for moral or environmental reasons is one thing, and some may consider it worth the cost to Americans to live with less air pollution. But pretending that it can eliminate our fossil fuel dependence or solve or improve our economic problems is, at best, wishful thinking. At worst, it’s a dangerous lie.

The fact is, with current technology, green energy cannot run America, or the world, at the level it runs on now. That is what the real science says. We live in a world set up to run on fossil fuels. Green energy just does not provide the return on investment that coal, oil, natural gas or nuclear power do.

A Real Energy Revolution

Of course, clean energy for all nations is something that should be aspired to. In fact, God says we should be good stewards of the environment. God put man on this Earth to dress it and keep it. That certainly didn’t include polluting the environment.

When mankind rejected God’s way of life, God cut mankind off from His revealed knowledge. And in his greed, man chose to exploit the cheapest form of energy—fossil fuels. Thus the world’s whole system of energy infrastructure and economy was built on a faulty foundation.

Today, it would only be economically possible to embrace green energy if there were much better technology available—or if some Force from above was to level the playing field.

As sure as the sun rises and the tide goes out, that day is coming soon.

Biblical prophecy indicates we shall enjoy a vastly different form of energy in the near future. It will result from the dramatic involvement of Almighty God to set this world right side up, establishing a global economy based on agrarian rather than secondary and tertiary industries. With the problem of human nature addressed, energy sources will be pursued and developed free from self-interest and greed, and with high respect for the health of man and his environment.

Our monoculturist food production will be replaced by masses of small holdings, correcting the drift from farm to city: “But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the Lord of hosts hath spoken it” (Micah 4:4). Small, richly producing localized farms will do away with the need for mass-produced packaging, huge, centralized storage and distribution facilities and the massive energy sources they need to survive. This will lead to localized small industrial enterprises, eliminating the hugely polluting industrial draw on power plants.

The prophets speak of a coming age of peace, justice, judgment and equity. With such a system of government in place (Isaiah 9:6-7), science, technology, capital and labor will enjoy a harmonious relationship such that the vision of author Isaac Azimov will finally be realized: “Hand in hand, science and technology can find new and unlimited sources of energy, clean and safe, and with such energy, we can clean the world, recycle its resources, and reduce its inequities.”

Man will then effectively harness the energy sources that have stared him in the face since creation. God made the sun, earth, wind and water for human use. It will take the dramatic intervention of the Creator Himself to turn the world’s addiction from polluting energy to those natural sources of energy which God created for the benefit of man and his earthly environment.

Until that time, pipe-dream promises of energy and economic salvation through “green jobs” is a dangerous delusion. It fails to get to the heart of America’s economic problems and garners only temporary political gain.

The heart of America’s problems has to do with where America’s blessings came from in the first place. And why we are losing them today. The true Source of those blessings is where real hope lies—not in chasing solar panels or giant windmills.