Wake up from the green dream

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

The vi­sion of a “green” econ­omy fu­eled by wind, sun and re­new­able fu­els is pow­er­fully ap­peal­ing. But there’s a huge dis­con­nect be­tween that vi­sion and the re­al­ity of Amer­ica’s en­ergy needs.

The wide­spread use of fos­sil fu­els — oil, nat­u­ral gas and coal — has en­abled the United States and other in­dus­tri­al­ized coun­tries to cre­ate un­prece­dented pros­per­ity. The in­con­ve­nient truth is that no one has yet de­vel­oped an al­ter­na­tive to fos­sil fu­els ca­pa­ble of pro­vid­ing en­ergy on a com­pa­ra­ble scale at a com­pa­ra­ble cost.

As the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion pushes for a mora­to­rium on deep­wa­ter drilling and ear­marks an­other $2 bil­lion in stim­u­lus funds for so­lar en­ergy com­pa­nies, Amer­i­cans need to rec­og­nize that de­vel­op­ing cleaner en­ergy sources and re­duc­ing re­liance on fos­sil fu­els is not im­pos­si­ble, but it’s a chal­lenge much more com­pli­cated than bumper stick­ers sug­gest.

Shift­ing from one en­ergy source to an­other is dif­fi­cult be­cause their costs vary greatly and they are not nec­es­sar­ily in­ter­change­able. Some 84 per­cent of the en­ergy we Amer­i­cans con­sume comes from fos­sil fu­els to­day. Only 8 per­cent comes from re­new­able sources — most of that from hy­dro­elec­tric power.

For all the hype over wind and so­lar, the re­al­ity is that they con­trib­ute very lit­tle to our en­ergy sup­ply, with wind ac­count­ing for less than 1 per­cent of to­tal U.S. en­ergy con­sump­tion and so­lar for just one-tenth of 1 per­cent. To­gether, they could power the coun­try for all of three days a year.

What’s more, re­new­ables are ex­tremely ex­pen­sive rel­a­tive to fos­sil fu­els be­cause of the huge up-front cap­i­tal in­vest­ments needed to de­velop them — some­thing that won’t change dra­mat­i­cally any time soon even if govern­ment man­dates and sub­si­dies con­tinue to in­crease and there’s a sharp rise in fos­sil fuel prices.

More­over, petroleum, nat­u­ral gas, coal, nu­clear power and re­new­able en­ergy are not in­ter­change­able and can not nec­es­sar­ily be sub­sti­tuted for one an­other. Wind and so­lar power, for ex­am­ple, can­not be used for trans­porta­tion. And nu­clear power can be used only to gen­er­ate elec­tric­ity.

To make in­tel­li­gent choices, Amer­i­cans need to see the big pic­ture. They need to un­der­stand that nearly 28 per­cent of to­tal U.S. en­ergy use goes to trans­porta­tion and that 95 per­cent of that comes from petroleum, while just 2 per­cent comes from nat­u­ral gas and 3 per­cent from re­new­able en­ergy.

Amer­i­cans need to un­der­stand that in­dus­try con­sumes about 21 per­cent of to­tal U.S. en­ergy. Some 42 per­cent of that also comes from petroleum, 40 per­cent from nat­u­ral gas, 9 per­cent from coal and10 per­cent from re­new­able en­ergy, mostly hy­dro­elec­tric.

Our homes, of­fices and busi­nesses con­sume ap­prox­i­mately 11 per­cent of the en­ergy we use. Some 16 per­cent of that comes from petroleum as well, 76 per­cent from nat­u­ral gas, and 1 per­cent each from coal and re­new­ables.

Fi­nally, our elec­tric util­i­ties con­sume just over 40 per­cent of the en­ergy we use. Just 1 per­cent of that comes from petroleum, 9 per­cent from hy­dro and other re­new­able sources, 17 per­cent from nat­u­ral gas, 21 per­cent from nu­clear power and 51 per­cent from coal.

The point is: Fully 84 per­cent of the en­ergy we con­sume comes from petroleum, nat­u­ral gas and coal. Even with the govern­ment heav­ily sub­si­diz­ing and pro­mot­ing green en­ergy with some $80 bil­lion in tax cred­its and sub­si­dies in the 2009 stim­u­lus bill alone, the En­ergy In­for­ma­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion projects that the United States will still likely get three-fourths of its en­ergy from fos­sil fu­els 25 years from now.

The “green dream” needs to face re­al­ity.

Tim Shaf­fer

The 1979 ac­ci­dent at the Three Mile Is­land nu­clear power fa­cil­ity south of Harrisburg, Pa., sym­bol­izes the dangers of the prob­lem-plagued nu­clear power in­dus­try.

Jose M. Oso­rio

The nation’s largest ur­ban so­lar plant, with more than 32,000 so­lar pan­els, stands on 40 once-va­cant acres in Chicago’s West Pull­man neigh­bor­hood.

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