In his second inaugural address, President Barack Obama described the science-proven threat to “our children and future generations” from global warming. He pledged that America would “lead on the path towards sustainable energy sources.” His address did not offer any specific programs for achieving reductions in global warming carbon emissions. But we can look to the administration’s current energy policies and those of the past four years. They should provide answers on how Obama plans to upgrade the U.S. from its current position as a major greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter to becoming a leader among developed nations in the effort to curb GHG emissions.
What we actually observe in the administration’s record is a litany of ill-advised, expensive and premature attempts to put into production solar, wind and biofuel projects. In general, those projects lack the technology base for effective large-scale implementation, and they are not competitive with current market-based energy sources. In my opinion, the result has been a loss of billions of dollars from taxpayers, rate payers and investors, with minimal impact on global warming.
Solar energy, whether photo voltaic (PV) or concentrated (CSP), has potential for research improvement and cost reductions. It is more predicable than wind energy and peaks when demand is highest. But it is currently expensive and low density, and large investments in companies like Solyndra and Abound Solar have resulted in losses.
Undaunted, the Obama administration is now supporting a $2 billion dollar CSP installation near Ivanpah in the Nevada desert. More than 300,000 rotating mirrors will focus sunlight on three towers to heat liquid that becomes a source of steam for power generation. Ivanpah’s developer is estimating annual electricity production of about 1 million MW hours. By comparison, a typical 1000MW nuclear plant produces eight times that amount, rain or shine, clouds or fair, night or day. Power washing of those CSP mirrors will use scarce desert water and foster weeds, which will grow to obscure the mirrors.
Wind energy’s intermittent output requires continuous backup in order to avoid damage to the integrity of delicately balanced electric grids. This backup power is usually supplied by natural gas plants running in inefficient start stop mode to match the wind. This increases GHG emissions, wastes fuel, and shortens machinery life.
The wind industry lobbies hard for the 2.2 cents/kwh Production Tax Credit ,without which new wind farm installations would essentially cease. The 2.2 cents is nearly 50 percent of the wholesale price of electric power. Undaunted, the Obama administration is supporting the $2 billion Cape Wind project, which would place 130 Siemens wind turbines in the sea off Cape Cod. In testimony before the Massachusetts Energy Facilities Siting Board, Cape Wind’s developer conceded that Cape Wind would actually operate at about 100 MW for much of the time, with lowest output in summer, when demand is highest.
Former Rep. William Delahunt provided his own estimates: “This will be the most expensive and most heavily subsidized offshore wind farm in the country at over $2.5 billion, with power costs to the region that will be at least double.”
I suggest that the administration’s biggest energy folly is support for turning 40 million prime crop acres and 40 percent of our corn crop into 6 or 7 percent of our gasoline supply. The result is increased world grain prices and stresses to soils, ground water, and the environment from monoculture corn and additional nitrogen fertilizers. Microbes turn the fertilizer into the powerful GHG, nitrous oxide. A U of MN study led by Professor Sangwon Sue showed that on average in the U.S., 142 gallons of water are needed to grow and process the corn for 1 gallon of ethanol. In irrigation states like Kansas and Nebraska, it takes 500 water gallons per ethanol gallon, helping to drain the Ogallala our most important fresh water aquifer. There are also those GHG emissions from diesel driven farm machinery, and dead zones in the Mississippi delta region as excess nitrogen fertilizer runoff increases algae growth.
Expensive biomass fuel
To avoid using food stocks for fuel, the administration is spending billions on facilities to produce ethanol from cellulose (stalks and grasses) and algae. A recent boondoggle is contained in Obama’s announcement of a $510 million taxpayer program to support four new cellulose biofuel plants. The motivation is to secure a safe domestic source of fuel for the Navy and Air Force. The four plants are for production of military aviation ethanol fuel from non-food cellulose stocks like corn residue, grasses, and algae. But as Undersecretary of the Air Force Erin Conaton said recently, “Right now, biomass fuel is about 10 times the cost of JP-8, the current military aviation jet fuel.”
Obama is supporting the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which called for the production of 500 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol in 2012. We will struggle to produce 5 million gallons. A method for unlocking sugars from cellulose was discovered in 1819. But 200 years of trying has not produced an effective production process ethanol from cellulose or algae. There is no shortage of proven aviation JP-8 jet fuel. It will be available for decades from U.S. refineries that process crude oil from North America.
There are tough climate-saving measures like carbon taxes that encourage conservation and provide funds for energy efficient public transport. That’s one of the measures used in many developed nations who consume half the energy per unit of GNP than we do. But carbon taxes are a politically unpopular choice that is rarely seen in the programs offered by either of our major political parties. It is easier to rely on “technology will save us” pipe dreams.
Rolf Westgard is a professional member of the Geological Society of America and the American Nuclear Society. His new Spring Quarter class for the University of Minnesota Lifelong Learning program is “America’s climate and energy future; the next 25 years.”
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