Classic Partisan Thinking

Kevin Drum writes

On the right, both climate change and questions about global limits on oil production have exited the realm of empirical debate and become full-blown fronts in the culture wars. You're required to mock them regardless of whether it makes any sense. And it's weird as hell. I mean, why would you disparage development of renewable energy? If humans are the ultimate creators, why not create innovative new sources of renewable energy instead of digging up every last fluid ounce of oil on the planet?

I am sure it is perfectly true that there are Conservatives who knee-jerk oppose every government renewable energy and recycling and green jobs idea that comes along without reference to the science.  But you know what, there are plenty of Liberals who knee-jerk support all these same things, again without any understanding of the underlying science.  Mr. Drum, for example, only recently came around to opposing corn ethanol, despite the fact that the weight of the science was against ethanol being any kind of environmental positive years and years ago.  In fact, not until it was no longer cool and caring to support ethanol (a moment I would set at when Rolling Stone wrote a fabulous ethanol expose) did Drum finally turn against it.  Is this science, or social signalling?   How many folks still run around touting electric cars without understanding what the marginal fuels are in the electricity grid, or without understanding the true well-to-wheels efficiency?  How many folks still run around touting wind power without understanding the huge percentage of this power that must be backed up with hot backup power fueled by fossil fuels?

Why is his almost blind support of renewable energy without any reference to science or the specifics of the technologies involved any saner than blind opposition?  If anything, blind opposition at least has the numbers on their side, given past performance of investments in all sorts of wonder-solutions to future energy production.

The reason there is a disconnect is because statists like Drum equate supporting government subsidies and interventions with supporting renewables.  Few people, even Conservatives, oppose renewables per se.  This is a straw man.  What they oppose are subsidies and government mandates for renewables.  Drum says he has almost limitless confidence in  man's ability to innovate.  I agree -- but I, unlike he apparently, have limitless confidence in man's ability to innovate absent government coercion.  It was not a government program that replaced whale oil as an illuminant right when we were approaching peak whale, it was the genius of John D. Rockefeller.  As fossil fuels get short, prices rise, and people naturally innovate on substitutes.  If Drum believes that private individuals are missing an opportunity, rather than root for government coercion, he should go take up the challenge.  He can be the Rockefeller of renewable energy.

Postscript:  By the way, it is absurd and disingenuous to equate opposition to what have been a series of boneheaded government investments in questionable ventures and technologies with some sort of a-scientific hatred of fossil fuel alternatives.  I have written for a decade that I long for the day, and expect it to be here within 20 years, that sheets of solar cells are cranked from factories like carpet out of Dalton, Georgia.


  1. Chris Kahrhoff:

    but how does it relate to harvard and princeton?

  2. annonerz:

    "Kevin Drum writes" -- you can stop reading now.

  3. john mcginnis:

    If I buy 20 acres twelve miles from the nearest commercial power pole a solar based system with judicious selection of appliances are the only way to go. The capital costs of running that commercial power line will pay for the solar system. Subsidies or not. In an sub/urban area solar is mostly a loser.

  4. Louis Nettles:

    I'm trying to explain my disbelief in CAGW, hatred for CFL light bulbs and my enthusiasm for the new long lived 800lm $13.00 LED bulbs manufactured by CREE and sold by Home Depot. Could it be my belief that one of these things actually makes sense?

  5. skhpcola:

    Weren't you an energetic advocate for carbon taxes just a couple/several years ago? Those are nothing but an ecoscam, albeit from a different perspective. Or has your thinking on that evolved a bit or a lot? I explicitly remember reading your posts on the topic and thinking, "Dude is smart about most things, but he's just another statist thug that wants to control peoples' lives."

  6. MingoV:

    "... I long for the day... that sheets of solar cells are cranked from
    factories like carpet..."

    That will not happen unless electricity prices skyrocket (which is unlikely given the reserves of oil and natural gas). Solar cells cannot produce electricity efficiently enough to replace oil, gas, coal, nuclear, and hydroelectric energy. However, solar heating (of water and homes) in areas with sufficient sunshine is cost-effective today.

  7. Andrew_M_Garland:

    Consider this business plan. I will sell candy bars, drinks, and sandwiches for far less than the competition. You can examine my spreadsheets. This is a winner. I will lower my costs through a revolutionary idea. I will place the goods on shelves in the morning, and people will pay for the goods on the honor system, leaving the money in a small box. I will collect the money in the evening. I will save on overhead by not employing any staff or cash register clerks.

    I hear the shouting now. "You're nuts. Some people will steal your goods, and the money too. You will be broke in 5 days." I might object that most people are honest and will follow the rules. But, I would have to agree that some immoral people would ruin this plan. Oh well.

    Now, consider this business plan. I will empower politicians to select the best and the brightest to subsidize the best energy plans for a glorious future. Naturally, the investments will be huge and somewhat risky. That is why the fraidy-cat private markets won't do this necessary work.

    I hear the shouting now. "You're nuts. Some people will bend the projects for their private benefit, and most of the money will just disappear with no viable project remaining. You will be broke in 5 years." I might object that most poltiicians are honest, patriotic, and will follow the rules. But, I would have to agree that some immoral politicians and businessmen would ruin this plan. Oh well.

    Here is the funny thing. An even louder shouting arises that "Government is good. Let's plan for a glorious energy future. Don't let a few immoral people spoil what can be a great plan and a better society. Don't be so pessimistic. You have an irrational hatred for government."

    Both of these plans must entirely fail for the same reasons. They must both work on trust. Even if most people and politicians are honest and good, it only takes a minority to steal all of the money. Each plan can only work in world of angels. So, they can't possibly work.

    Why do most people immediately see the problems with the sandwich plan, but can't see the problems with the energy plan? This mystifies me.

  8. 0ptimist:

    They don't have to. The point is that the production technology will improve to the point where they can be made cheaply and quickly, in mass quantities. Full scale replacement of other energy sources is not necessary for solar to find a place in the market. For what it's worth, I suspect the kind of mass production he references will be here much sooner than 20 years.

  9. Bob Smith:

    "If humans are the ultimate creators, why not create innovative new sources of renewable energy"

    As if innovation can be conjured on command and ignore physics to boot.

  10. mesocyclone:

    A liberal friend posted on facebook a headline from a (government paid for study) that conservatives, presented with a choice of two essentially identical goods, one with a "good for the environment" and the other without, are more likely to pick the one without. Well, that's me.

    But he concluded that conservatives hate the environment because of that, rather than the rather obvious conclusion that conservatives are tired of having environmentalism shoved down their throat, and see no harm in a tiny, environmentally insignificant protest.

    Btw... wind farms, a darling of enviros, are a real eyesore in the Midwest. The darned things are all over the place. Meanwhile oil wells are little bitty things in comparison. If you ever look at weather radar for Dodge City, you will see four very persistent rain storms - actually clutter echos from these ugly and impractical things.

  11. obloodyhell:

    }}} I have written for a decade that I long for the day, and expect it to be here within 20 years, that sheets of solar cells are cranked from factories like carpet out of Dalton, Georgia.

    And *I* have written for more than a decade that it will still be a niche market no matter that they do this. The best purpose for something like this is to heat the hot water in your hot water heater (which *IS* a sigficant part of your electric bill) -- but why do this this way? Just make the piping system run through a wall that gets lots of sunlight... :-S Or haven't you noticed, if you have one, that the tap water that first comes out of a wetwall exposed to the outside changes temperature with the seasons and sunlight? Why convert sunlight to electricity to do this? Just create a wall designed to absorb heat and run pipes through it that pre-heat the water going into the water heater.

    The amount of sunlight that hits the surface of the earth is too diffuse, period. It's a single kW per SQUARE METER at the best. So for every kW you want, you need to cover at least a single sq meter -- with 25% conversion, that becomes FOUR sq. meters. With day/night, you'll need to collect for the day for use at night, so at least EIGHT sq. meters.

    for each and every kW of power you want to have available.

    You can multiply up and down for insolation, for battery storage, and so forth -- but the areal coverage to even power a house substantially is enormous.

    And this stuff does not operate anywhere near full capacity when dirty (so keep it clean, constantly), and deteriorates with time (usually about 50% original capacity after 5+ years). Yes, this is subject to your production process and exact form for the productive substrate. But your chief focus HAS to be to get this both CHEAP and MASS PRODUCED. You want to engineer in longevity AND high conversion values, as well? You're placing FOUR constraints on the production process, not even ONE of which is trivial?

  12. obloodyhell:

    I can't find it but one of the blogs I frequent, some years ago (perhaps Coyote) had a picture of an oil rig in Cali that was quite NOT the "eyesore" that typical wells are. It looked quite nice, in fact, IIRC it was right on the waterfront in the middle of the populated area -- probably LA or San Diego. You probably would have looked at it and not even realized what it was.

  13. obloodyhell:

    You can be all the 0ptimist you want, the energy DENSITY is the issue here, and the reason that private industry does not bother with this folderol idea unless heavily subsidized by STEALING the money out of MY pocket to fund it.

    If and when there is a way to actually make it PAY for itself, then private industry will JUMP ALL OVER IT.

    Until then, the idea is BUNK.

    The only -- repeat ONLY -- method of solar power I've ever heard of that MIGHT make inroads is Ocean Thermal, and that works because it uses the vast surface of the ocean as a solar collector for you -- and you just use the temperature differential between the surface and a couple hundred feet down to run a heat exchange process that you derive energy from. Depending on the system you use (closed or open) you either pollute the upper waters with upper water fish, or you pollute the lower waters with lower water fish.

    In both cases, barnacles are a problem. In both cases, you have to develop better than current systems for deriving energy from a low-energy temperature differential. About the only thing that seems like it might work here is Lonny Johnson's JTech device, which I haven't heard anything more about since it made a splash about 3 years ago.

    So there are at least two issues with developing that, along with, of course, the endless array of neoLuddite Green whackos who will oppose anything of the sort.

  14. obloodyhell:

    Exactly. Niche market.

  15. obloodyhell:

    Idiots who went there but never took a real science course at either are all in favor of it.

  16. jimc5499:

    Hey Kevin, I want to build a nuke plant to generate electricity. Are you in favor of it? I didn't think so. Nuff said.

  17. NormD:

    Hydropower anyone? - The Greens are all in favor of renewable energy EXCEPT the form that is actually useful.

    In California we could generate huge amounts of additional renewable energy by:

    1 - Upgrading the generators on existing dams
    2 - Adding generators to existing dams that don't have generators

    But the Greens won't allow it.

    BTW, adding a dam or two or raising the levels of existing dams would also supply badly needed water to California. Since the 1960s the population of California has doubled but no new dams have been built. The Greens like it that way since that gives them a reason to impose their "superior" lifestyle on people.

    I grew up in Marin County in the 1970s where the Greens restricted any new sources of water so they could declare a water emergency and restrict building in the county. Worked OK until we had a serious drought in the late 1970s and everything went to hell. No one was allowed to water outside plants. MMWD employees patrolled the streets looking for violators and issuing expensive tickets. Neighbors turned in neighbors. We had to save the water from our dishes and clothes washing and hand water plants we wanted to keep alive. Eventually they had to block off one lane of the Richmond Bay Bridge to run a pipeline to get more water into Marin.
    the Richmond Bay Bridge
    to run a pipeline to get extra water into Marin.

  18. HenryBowman419:

    It may be true that, even if solar panels are absolutely free, then use of such for residential purposes may be uneconomic. Here, I quote from a letter from an Albuquerque-based engineer:

    Thursday, January 15, 2009

    Free Solar Power Is Hoax

    By James P. O'Loughlin

    Placitas Engineer

    The article N.M. Solar Energy Plan Expanded, about the state Public Regulation Commission's promotion of grid-tied photovoltaic (PV) power generation states that homes and commercial establishments that invest in PV installations will have “free” electricity.

    I evaluated such an installation for our house using Public Service Company of New Mexico PV information on its Web site. I checked the results against more sophisticated resources and found the PNM results to be in good agreement.

    For my house, the required system has a DC rating of 4 kw to accommodate a match to our average energy consumption of 475 kw-h per month. The PNM Web site states that a PV system's cost is about $10,000 per kw, or for our case about $40,000.

    This is consistent with the numerous PV system components and integrated packages available, plus the installation, fees, periodic inspections, maintenance, taxes, insurance and other incidentals. Based on a 20-year life and 6 percent cost of money, this comes to a monthly cost of $286.57. The monthly cost for the same amount of energy from PNM service is $42.75 — where is the “free” electricity?

    There is an insurmountable fact of nature that forces photovoltaic to be several times more expensive than conventional power generation: The sun doesn't shine for 24 hours a day. This requires that a PV generation installation must have a power rating that is about six times higher than a continuously running convention installation for the same energy output.

    At this time, PV panels account for around 50 percent of a system's cost, or $5,000 per kilowatt. The other part of the PV system is based on mature technology, the cost of which cannot be reduced. The only way to reduce the PV power generation cost is to reduce the cost of the panels. Even if we take the most extreme, totally unrealistic case of reducing the PV panel cost to zero, the immutable factor of six in power rating still dominates and results in a cost of $143.29 for $42.75 worth of electricity.

    The cliché about investing in research and development to decrease the cost of panels and make PV power generation competitive is an unachievable myth that is fanatically pursued by the government and other groups having various and peculiar reasons.

    When reality is not acceptable, the government can fix it with political alchemy. Through the influence of pressure groups and lobbyists, state and federal governments decree that photovoltaic power generation must be implemented. To fix the inherently expensive PV power generation problem, governments provide tax credits, incentives and other forms of subsidy to cover up the excessive cost.

    This does not reduce the actual cost; it just transfers it to the general taxpayer or ratepayer.

    There are both state and federal incentives. PNM has a PRC approved plan that pays 13 cents a kilowatt-hour for grid tied PV power. Actually PNM doesn't pay it. It is charged to rates paid by their regular customers to help subsidize PV power. Even with this money shuffling, those who buy into PV power installations still pay considerably more for electricity and will never recoup their investment cost. The rest of us get stuck for the subsidized difference.