Renewables are no longer ‘alternative.’ Fossil fuels are ‘legacy.’
David Bank
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Ah, would it were true. “Renewables” account for about one-sixth of U.S. electrical production, a bit less worldwide. Fossil fuels will play a large role for a good long time, because it is so hard and costly to switch over, and environmentalists consistently underestimate the daunting challenges that come with this, such as the amount of acreage needed to generate reasonable amounts of electricity, the problem of nights and regional-level windless periods, and the consequent changes needed for the electrical grid and electrical storage.

I completely agree that we need to switch to carbon-neutral fuels — and sooner rather than later. But I blame the environmentalists, especially the anti-nuclear people, for a goodly proportion of the CO2 we’ve been generating across the past four decades. Much of it would never have been generated at all had it not become politically impossible to run new nuclear plants, via overplaying fears of radioactivity and making it politically impossible to permanently store the really tiny amount of waste the plants produce, and leaving us with 40–50 year old nuclear generation technology. Some plants were shut down and others never opened, with the bulk of the replacement electricity coming from coal, and so California has been pumping pretty vast amounts of CO2 into the sky lo these many years since it decided to shuck the nukes business.

Our biggest experiment with renewables has been the gasohol program. Oh it was hailed as the next great thing, but it has been a fiasco — kind to Iowa corn growers, but a policy that has led to millions of acres planted with almost no net decrease in total CO2 emissions. Everyone pretty much agrees with that, expect for farmers in Iowa and Indiana and Illinois and such, and the people who have built the alcohol production and distribution plants. They make it hard to unplug that next great thing. But we move on anyway, to the next great things, wind and solar.

Really. Take the Ivanpah solar power plant in California, the largest in the world. It cost $2.2B to build and may one day produce 392 megawatts of power at peak output, enough that it could power 140,000 homes if it could reach full efficiency and divide the electricity throughout the day and night. But right now it generates enough to power about 100,000 homes, because the total “expected” per year has not been achieved. In fact, in March 2016 the plant was close to being in default on its loans. In addition, it requires natural gas turbines for about 4.5 hours of the day. In all, it takes up 4,000 acres of land to generate the electricity for (today, on average) maybe 15,000 acres worth of stand-alone houses, or perhaps 10,000 acres of urban townhouses. In short, it is a giant land hog. If we follow that model, a quarter or so of the land for housing would be used simply for the electrical plant. That’s not counting the fuel needs of cars and trucks. Yikes!

In comparison, take nuclear. They cost about $9B to build, if you can get them off the drawing boards, but they have much greater, steadier electrical output on much smaller platforms. The smallest nuclear power plant in the U.S. generates over 500 megawatts of electricity. Nukes generate on average almost 770 megawatts per square mile of land, whereas Ivanpah generates about 62.

Of course nukes are basically dead, so I should bury them, not praise them. But what about fossil fuels?

Coal has decreased because of clear air regulations, but more importantly because natural gas is so much cheaper and coal plants can be converted easily (it’s why everyone says coal won’t come back even in a Trump administration). Wind and solar get tremendous tax advantages, and Federal policies favor them, guaranteeing that they grow in use. Environmentalists go on and on about evil oil getting so many advantages, but the evidence doesn’t really indicate an advantage for them today. The natural gas advantages begin with the fact that plants are cheap and easy to build. The technology is already available and easy to use. They are reliable, day and night. In the short run they have reduced CO2 emissions. But they aren’t a cure. Once coal and oil plants are zeroed out, natural gas can’t reduce CO2 emissions any further, and if we stayed with them we’d be stuck.

So if we’re going to ever zero out CO2 emissions, we need — we really do — reliable renewables. Only don’t expect them to grow enormously anytime soon, not on the scale people promise, not until their really large problems are resolved. And, ahem, not if you insist on leaving nuclear electricity out of the mix.

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