November 27, 2011

Alternative Energy's Alternate Reality


Bill Frezza

Creating a “green energy” economy may be the most daunting central planning task ever attempted. It entails nothing less than the reengineering of our entire energy infrastructure. And, like all central planning schemes, it is based on a roadmap that eschews real-world experience and sound economics in favor of utopian ideology driven by political connections.

Now the experiment is unraveling, having barely begun. As the parade of government-subsidized failures like Solyndra, Stirling Energy, SpectraWatt, Evergreen Solar, Beacon Power, and others mount, now is a good time to look at how all the pieces of the alternative energy puzzle are supposed to fit together—and what happens when they don’t.

Everyone acknowledges that electricity generated from wind and solar cannot be produced and delivered at prices that compete with coal or gas. However, alternative energy advocates believe that someday the cost curves will cross, and that government subsidies will accelerate that day’s arrival.

For this to come true, multiple problems have to be solved before taxpayers run out of money or patience. Along the way, the alternative energy industry has to avoid getting sidetracked into the wrong technologies, as this will delay the eagerly awaited carbon-free future.

First, technology has to be invented that can deliver unprecedented levels of efficiency in the conversion of low energy-density sources like wind and solar into electricity suitable for transmission over the grid.

Second, the prices of fossil fuels have to rise, either because reserves become depleted or through the passage of regulatory encumbrances, such as a massive carbon tax.

Third, new techniques need to be developed to store electricity produced only while the sun shines or the wind blows, allowing that stored energy to be delivered later, when it is actually needed.

Fourth, massive transmission system upgrades need to occur to transport electricity from the wind and solar farms where it is produced to the urban areas where it is consumed.

Finally, unknown problems that crop up when immature technologies are brought to market have to be identified and resolved—from the scarcity of critical materials never before consumed in large quantities to the siting of massive structures that disturb the view of influential public figures. And, of course, after decades trying to protect wildlife from oil spills and other calamities, we must avert our eyes as windmills annually massacre millions of birds, many of them supposedly protected as endangered species.

Failure to solve any of these problems can doom the whole enterprise, stranding investments. Picking winners and losers in this interconnected risk management puzzle is like playing ten games of roulette simultaneously—you can only win if every bet comes in. Yet this has not dissuaded the Department of Energy from smacking your money down. So, how is our Nobel Prize-winning high roller doing?

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