Global Warming – Mitigate don’t Exacerbate!


In response to concerns about global warming and other environmental/energy concerns, various schemes, proposals, and entire industries have arisen to replace current and future conventional energy production applications. These alternatives are described as “green”, “sustainable”, “carbon neutral”, or “earth friendly” energy production methods.

This position paper is intended to show that this alternative energy strategy approach to global warming is deeply flawed. It is uneconomic as well as not directly environmentally beneficial. The proper approach is to set up a trust fund –financed by an energy tax- to spend money directly on environmental projects to improve the environment and mitigate the effects of global warming. The emphasis should be on sound science, planning, and investing in projects with measurable return in terms of human and ecological benefits.

Alternative Energy Limitations – Electricity is the Key

In the US, the production of CO2 due to energy use can be more or less evenly divided into three categories: electricity generation, transportation, and everything else.

In terms of the everything else part, what we are talking about is heating, for living space, hot water or industrial processes. The alternative for purely carbon neutral production is solar which is limited by location. Solar water heaters are common in places like Israel which has the technological capability combined with a desert climate. In non-desert areas, and for uses that require a lot of energy you cannot save enough energy even to offset the equipment production costs (which in a large part reflect the energy used to produce and transport the equipment). Face it, if you could heat your house with solar energy, it wouldn’t be cold enough that you would need to heat your house. In a cold climate, or to make a lot of heat for an industrial process the only alternative to burning something for heat is electric heat.

For transportation, there are two alternative energy options. These are some sort of manufactured liquid fuel, such as hydrogen or ethanol, or electric propulsion.

Biomass fuels can never be completely carbon neutral. They will always require some sort of non-renewable input in terms of transportation, fertilizer, infrastructure, etc.  The problem with corn based ethanol having no carbon benefit has been widely documented. Sucrose based ethanol used in Brazil is touted as better from a carbon point of view but that is due to several factors not applicable here in the US. The harvesting is done by hand on mainly virgin (ex-rainforest?) land, and the main fuel used for production is the stalks themselves. Stalk burning is inefficient and could never be done in the US due to pollution concerns. Once cane production is expanded it can be expected to be mechanized to a similar extent as corn, unless we were to decide to rely on a large permanent peasant population willing to harvest cane by hand at subsistence wages. While growing cane does not require as much nitrogen fertilizers as corn it is not soil nutrient neutral and will require either fertilizers or the clearing of additional land which in itself produces a lot of greenhouse gas.

Hydrogen production and electric propulsion have two problems. The first and main problem is that they require electricity be generated in the first place. The next is that the infrastructure required in terms of plants for battery and hydrogen production are polluting nightmares of the first order. For electric cars the main technical obstacle is lack of batteries with a practical energy storage capability.

One can hope that the battery storage problem will eventually be solved, and since almost all batteries used in the US are already produced in China, the pollution associated with production will at least be out of sight and far away. That leaves us with alternative forms of electricity production as the key if we decide to pursue the alternative energy path to reduce CO2 production.

In terms of feasibility, the forecast for alternative forms of electric generation are nowhere near as bleak as described above for transportation or heating. It is technically possible to generate all the electricity we need from a combination of nuclear, hydro (critical from a system control point of view) and wind turbines using existing technology. However, not even these technologies are carbon neutral. Nuclear fuel requires that vast quantities of uranium be mined, transported and enriched. (The enrichment costs/energy use have not been a factor in the past due to the vast infrastructure that was created to manufacture nuclear weapons.) To transport wind power from when/where it is generated to when/where it is needed will require a tremendous build up of infrastructure for energy transmission and storage. The plants to generate the power represent a tremendous investment in physical infrastructure that the public is mainly unaware of.

For example, our illustrious (in his own mind) billionaire stadium building mayor of NYC has proposed wind turbines be distributed around the city to generate electricity as a greenhouse gas saving measure. Putting aside the costs of distributing the generation, the number of turbines that would have to be installed to make any significant difference in electricity use should give New Yorkers some pause. If you drive up the FDR drive, as you pass the UN you can see the four smoke stacks of the Ravenswood Electric Plant on the Queens side. The biggest of those stacks is for the boiler for “Big Alice” - a 40 year old 1000MW Allis-Chalmers steam turbine generator. Since the typical maximum output from the medium sized (football field sized rotors) wind turbines being built today is around 1.5MW that would require 667 turbines to equal the capacity of “Big Alice”. Except that “Big Alice” runs baseloaded at 1000MW the equivalent of around 70% of the time while the capacity factor for the wind turbines currently under construction in (more windy) upstate NY is forecast at 22%. Therefore, you would actually need 2121 wind turbines to equal the energy output of “Big Alice”. Given the low summer winds (even offshore) it would probably require 5,000 turbines to replace “Big Alice” on the hottest summer day of the year when electricity load peaks.

Conservative estimates are that if a significant portion of renewable energy plants were brought online, electric rates would probably increase by a factor of 3-5 times, bringing the cost of electricity in the US in line with that of Scandinavian countries that heavily invested in hydro, nuclear and wind power.

Impact on the Electrical System

The way the electrical system is structured in the US (and the rest of the world) there are several important limitations. Electricity cannot easily be transported in large amounts (because it is AC) and it cannot be stored but must be generated as needed. If supply gets out of balance with load, and if voltage levels are not kept in line to maintain current flows, the system collapses resulting in a blackout. Blackouts in Scandinavia have been attributed to high levels of wind power penetration triggering instabilities as storms moved through the area. (Note – the biggest electric utility problem with wind turbines had been instability and voltage collapse due to the nature of the way the generators in these machines work. This has been greatly but not completely eliminated in the design of the later model wind turbines.)

As far as the transmission of electric power, some strides have been made with the use of DC for controllable long distance power transport. Such DC controllers, while very expensive, can also provide for additional system stability control. However, any way you look at it, thousands of miles of additional transmission lines will be required to realize even a fraction of the wind/solar electric energy potential in the US.

Except for hydro, all the alternative electric generation methods that have been discussed all have one major failing in that the levels of generation are not controllable but are dependent on the energy source. Nuclear generation is not really variable at all but must be kept at the same level (baseloaded). For wind and solar, the energy available is determined wholly by weather. Wind in particular is highly variable. What this means is that as these renewables become a greater percentage of the generation mix, additional conventional units must be kept online to provide load balancing and reserve functions. Once the renewables provide a significant portion of the load, a means for storing energy will become a necessity. The only effective large scale energy storage uses pumped hydroelectric storage plants. (Electric cars with “smart” chargers may have a role in the future as well.)

Economic/Political Problems with Alternative Energy

If we were to make the decision through either mandates, subsidies or regulation to shift to wind, nuclear and hydro plants, what would the overall impact on greenhouse gases be? Since Coal is so abundant world wide (in China there are coal seams 100 feet thick), most likely any coal that is currently being mined in the US would no longer be mined, for a direct CO2 benefit. However, with such an increase in electricity costs we must assume that any manufacturing still left in the US that requires any electricity will go directly to China. (There are several aluminum plants around the country sited near cheap sources of electricity that would surely shut down.)  In China, almost all electricity comes from coal as compared to less than 50% of the electricity in the US. Any transfer of production from the US to China probably results in almost a doubling of associated greenhouse gas production, not even factoring increased transportation.

What would the economic and political effects of shutting down US coal production? Is it even politically and practically feasible? What happens to fossil fuel use in the rest of the world as decreased demand in the US causes fuel prices to fall? Would we be spending more for less energy so that energy can be more cheaply used elsewhere?

The more important issue is the means that this change would be achieved. It is unlikely consumers would sit still to see their electric rates double every few years as these “green” energy sources go online as the result of a direct mandate or carbon taxes. More likely, as is the current case with wind power, subsidies would be put in place to shield consumers from the true costs associated with alternative energy. Once these subsidies are in place they will take on a life of their own with political constituencies arising to protect the subsidies. This will put the US Government firmly in place as the spending money every year not to meet human and environmental needs but to subsidize energy production and hence usage. One only has to look at the situation with corn ethanol production. Due to political influence, (Obama has been a long time beneficiary of the corn lobby) not only are more mandates and subsidies being proposed for corn based ethanol, but import duties on more environmentally friendly Brazilian ethanol are being maintained.

Environmental Problems with Alternative Energy

It is wise to look back in history. Back in the 60s when Con Edison proposed a pumped storage project on Storm King Mountain the Sierra Club was adamantly opposed. (The Sierra Club has a knee jerk opposition to any kind of Hydro project based on history. It was formed to oppose water projects in the Sierras that provide a reliable source of water to San Francisco.) One of the arguments it made was that the Indian Point nuclear project being built at the same time was a supposedly more environmentally friendly project – providing clean pollution free energy. (In partial defense of the Sierra Club, the original proposal for Indian Point included cooling towers.) Only after Nuclear Power became more prevalent did the environmental problems become evident.

Current “green” energy projects are sure to follow down the same path from environmental savior to environmental outlaw. Wind turbines themselves have been known in utility circles as “volt sucking, bird whackers” for years.  Solar cells, batteries, transmission equipment are all not environmentally friendly products (although they will most likely be produced in China).  In Europe there has been a major shift to diesel cars partially because of the CO2 benefit of the slightly more efficient engines. However just last month a study indicates that the micro particles of soot, mainly from diesels, are contaminating glaciers and may be more responsible for shrinking glaciers than global warming.

Also, the major infrastructure that will be built to support the shift to alternative energy can only serve to be environmentally harmful. Who knows what effects may arise that exacerbates climate change or other environmental problems?

However, probably the biggest draw back is the limited environmental benefit.  There may be a global warming benefit and an air pollution benefit, but that is it. Biological diversity is not enhanced, sprawl is not prevented, aquifers are not recharged, and habitat is not protected. We will be in the position of subsidizing energy use through subsidies all in the interest of reducing CO2 emissions. What if that is merely offset by CO2 generation elsewhere? All this money being spent will be money that is not spent on other things, including beneficial projects like mass transit, wetlands restoration, or public lands acquisition.

Global Warming Skepticism and Uncertainty

The majority of scientists support the theory that human activity is causing global warming at a rate not seen in recent geologic times.  Currently, global warming skeptics are cast in the same lot as creationists or snake handlers. This is even though the average environmentalist has no idea what the yearly discharge of fossil fuel carbon dioxide is equal to in terms of a percentage of CO2 already in the atmosphere (slightly less than 2%). The average person also does no know that 30% of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is exchanged as part of the natural “carbon cycle”. The models that predict global warming are extremely complex and are generally run on super computers. The intent of this section is not to say there won’t be global warming, only to introduce the concept that there is uncertainty around the entire issue.

Scientists have been wrong before. In addition, there is great debate as to how bad global warming will be and how much must be done in terms of curtailing use of carbon based fuels to have an impact on future global warming. It could be that it is already too late and there will be great global warming no matter what we do. It is likely that small incremental CO2 changes have no effect, or at the other less likely extreme it could be that no changes are necessary.

Alternative energy promises small changes in carbon dioxide output at great cost. If it has a minor impact it is a waste of money since response to global warming will be required anyway. If global warming is not really a significant problem in the future it is also a waste of money –  money spent for no benefit. Alternative energy will prove beneficial only under a very narrow (and hence unlikely) set of circumstances.

Basis of Economic Boom Times

Advocates of alternative energy subsidies and mandates are currently framing these schemes as a way to stimulate the economy. They also try to make the case that green energy could result in a new economic boom similar to the Internet boom of the 90s.

I find that argument preposterous. I am old enough to have lived through some booms including the stock boom of the 60s, commercial real estate/oil boom of the 80s, as well as the internet boom of the 90s. What marked each boom was something new. It was almost always something that consumers or businesses didn’t even know they needed. In the 60s the idea of stock ownership for the masses came into being. The real estate boom of the 80s built malls and shopping plazas for all the suburbanites that sprawled out of the cities, as well as revitalized downtown “River Walk” type areas. The dot com boom provided computer and telecommunication services that were completely new. All these innovations were something that people wanted anew – not merely a repackaging of something they already used.  Alternative energy spending promises nothing but an increase in cost for a product (mainly electricity) that is already abundant and taken for granted.

Alternate Approaches

The list of negative impacts of rapid climate change is frighteningly long. Habitat loss leading to species extinction, water supply impacts, encroachment by non-native species, sea level rise, increased damage due to storms, and desertification are just a few. However, climate change or not, are these not pressing problems already? According to most climate change models, warming is just starting, but aren’t we already in a “great extinction” of the kind that wiped out the dinosaurs? Desertification has been a problem for as long as there has been agriculture, and as coastal areas are developed damage due to storms and tsunamis has claimed more and more lives.

Global warming or not, there are severe environmental problems associated with the rapid growth of human population. Projects to address these issues directly are needed, and these projects can have the added benefit of mitigating global warming as well.

Examples of beneficial project would include improved mass transit as it not only reduces energy use but also constrains sprawl. The Everglades Restoration Project (now being scaled back since the election cycle is past) is an example of a project which will improve water quality, prevent future storm damage and restore wildlife habitat by buying out sugar growers. These are examples of direct expenditures that will have lasting benefits no matter what global warming scenario plays out.

Cap and Trade is Entitle and Scam

Wall Street loves cap and trade. It lets them make money trading paper. However, what is the paper really worth? Its worth entirely related to government regulation, not any real benefit. The opportunity for political influence, manipulation and fraud is just too big for this scheme to beneficial. What and who determines who gets how much of a cap? Favored industries will get generous caps to continue and to make additional profit. The German equivalent of the EPA which regulates trading estimates that 20% of the carbon credits traded there are fraudulent – offsets for non existent tree farms in Costa Rica, windmills in China that would have been built anyway, etc.

Of course the proof is in the pudding. CO2 emissions in Europe have been growing, not shrinking under a Cap and Trade system.

Why Environmental Groups Support Alternative Energy

I believe that most Environmentalists see the benefit of a Carbon Tax, but avoid it like the plague because that idea is widely believed to have sunk Al Gore’s presidential candidacy. American’s support for any environmental issue is directly related to the impact on them. They are all for regulations on big corporations, fur trappers, farmers or even small business but don’t like to be told to spend more to drive less or live in a smaller, closer in house. As a result environmentalists have used the approach of “hidden” taxes. Setting CAFE efficiency standards for cars causes them to cost more to be more efficient, but the cost is hidden from the consumer/voter.

I think Alternative Energy is viewed by environmentalists as a similar hidden tax. Force utilities to purchase a certain percentage of renewable energy may cost more than a Carbon Tax with the same effect on CO2 emissions, but the cost is hidden.

The Solution – a Trust Fund and a “Targeted” Energy Tax

Europeans and Americans have similar standards of living, but the carbon footprint of Europeans is much smaller than Americans. Is it because they have signed the Kyoto treaty? Absolutely not, as CO2 emissions increase in Europe over the last 10 years (mainly due to rapid economic growth in areas like Span and Poland) faster than they have in the US. Is everybody in Europe driving a high tech hybrid vehicle? No, there is almost no interest in overly expensive hybrids in Europe. The reason is because energy taxes have been in place in Europe since WW2 in order to constrain imports and tax consumption. As a result, Europeans not only drive smaller cars, they drive less, live closer to work and live in smaller houses. Rather than rely on air conditioning in the summer they have long vacations and reduced summer working hours to get out of the cities in the summer.

Here in the US there is almost no political support for a “Carbon” tax to reduce CO2 emissions. The idea seems elitist to those on the left in that people of limited means will be supposedly affected more than well off individuals. Those on the right see this tax as just another funding method for enabling government largess. There are also concerns that rural areas will be economically devastated. However, there are forms of taxation that enjoy wide support. The Social Security tax is regressive, but enjoys wide support due to the perceived direct benefit. The highway trust fund made our existing gasoline taxes possible and funded the Interstate Highway System by promising needed road improvements to drivers. Not many people are aware of it, but most of the land acquisitions for the Federal Wildlife Refuge System were financed through taxes on hunting and fishing equipment.

An energy tax for direct investment in an Environmental Fund would be the closest equivalent to the politically popular taxes mentioned above. It should statutorily limit what the government can spend the taxes on (private property protections should be included) and should be acceptable to the right. It can provide economic development/subsidy funds for rural areas to offset the negative impact of the taxes on rural people. (It should not include Obama’s lousy idea of credits to poor people to offset energy costs – it would defeat the benefit of discouraging energy use. What an energy plan – nothing to increase production, but credits to increase consumption.)

Through the use of a trust fund and energy taxes, we will be in a much better position to meet whatever the environmental challenges are in the future.