The Politics of Alternative Energy
Editors note: Our 3-part series, “The Politics of Alternative Energy” is reprinted in full in this article
“Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” Winston Churchill’s dictum could have been coined for the green advocates of the renewable energy revolution; a revolution that demonstrates a thorough-going disconnect between the political rhetoric and a grasp of the physics and economics vital to energy realism.
Remember Germany’s ‘Green Chancellor’ Rhetoric: In 2006 Angela Merkel famously promised to rid her country of coal and nuclear power replacing them with renewable energy sources. Reality: Within just three years Merkel was actively promoting the construction of 26 new coal-fired power stations and demanding special protection for German heavy industry via free cap and trade permits. By 2010 she was praising a deal to grant Germany’s nuclear plants a 12-year extension of life. So what happened? Well a vocal rebellion of German industrial leaders warning against the loss of international competitiveness might have had something to do with it. Rhetoric again: In April this year, however, after Merkel began backing away from the nuclear energy extension deal following the Fukushima disaster, the Green Chancellor’s opportunistic flip-flopping looks set to bring on her own political fall-out.
Rhetoric: Remember on the green jobs front when President Obama warned Americans that “countries like Spain, German and Japan” are “surging ahead of us”? Obama wanted to create 5 million green jobs and set up a green jobs Czar. Reality: A study in Spain in 2009 revealed that in fact 2.2 jobs were destroyed for every ‘green job’ created. The Center for American Progress, whose CEO had headed up Obama’s transition team, calculated it would take government spending of $100 billion to create 2 million green jobs, a bill to the U.S. taxpayer of $50,000 per job created. And in February this year a UK report confirmed that funding the green sector costs more jobs than it creates. Rhetoric: Eurocrat Andris Pielbalgs has been a front-runner in the renewable drivel stakes with assertions such as: “Wind energy can replace a large proportion of the polluting and finite fuels we currently rely on. Reality: “Soon we ‘celebrate’ the 20,000th wind plant, without replacing even one single small plant of conventional energy,” Ferdinand Furst zu Hohenlohe-Bartenstein, Chairman, Federal Association for Landscape Protection, Germany.
Will wind ‘replace’ current conventional power sources? Rhetoric: “Wind energy is one of the most promising renewable energy technologies, and is an area in which there have already been many developments and improvements to make electricity generation more effective”. So says the EU Commission website on renewables. Reality: The British Wind Energy Association has been forced to admit wind power facilities would need 75 percent of its infrastructure back-up by hydrocarbon back-up facilities; UK generating industry players, like E.ON, say wind would need over 90 percent hydrocarbon back-up; while a 2009 House of Lords report suggests wind power would need 100 percent back-up.
Rhetoric: Speaking on “Earth Day” in 2009, President Obama decried the fact that only three percent of U.S. electricity is generated from renewable, mainly wind, sources – and held Denmark up as a leading model; the oft-quoted Danish alterative energy ‘miracle’. Reality: Aase Madsen, the Chair of Energy Policy in the Danish Parliament, calls the Danish wind program “a terribly expensive disaster.” Commissioned to report on Danish electricity exports in 2009, Danish think-tank the Centre for Political Study (CEPOS) found that Danes paid the highest residential electricity rates in Europe (partly due to wind industry subsidies), that 90 percent of new jobs were technology jobs transferred from other industries with only 10 percent of wind industry jobs being newly created, and that GDP took a hit of US $270 million because of wind subsidies.
Just for good measure: “Wind turbines do not reduce carbon dioxide emissions,” says Flemming Niseen, Head of Development, West Danish Generating Company, Elsam.
Rhetoric: The British wind industry and Government have each argued that wind power has “no direct subsidies”. Reality: Wind and other renewables are almost entirely subsidised by a complex ‘hidden’ regime of feed-in tariffs, taxpayer cash and preferential tax credits (more in the final part 3 of this series). In a 2003 Energy White Paper, the UK Government has admitted it “will provide support of lb1 billion per year by 2010 to the renewable industry”. Sir Martin Holdgate, former chairman of the British Renewable Energy Advisory Group, sums up the contribution of wind farms thus, “The trouble with wind farms, they have a large spatial footprint for a piddling little bit of electricity. You would need 800 turbines to replace the output of a coal-fired power station.” Confirming that fossil fuels, not renewables, will continue to be our main source of energy for decades to come, science writer Dr Matt Ridley, states: “We would have to build 100 times as many wind farms as we have today in order to get even 10 percent of our energy from wind. And we’d soon run out of locations to put them.”
As Congressman Peter Stark commented of US wind farm construction, “These aren’t wind farms, they’re tax farms”.
Dr Howard Hayden, professor Emeritus of Physics, University of Connecticut, puts the total dependence of renewables in perspective: “With the right subsidies, wind could become a viable energy source. And, with the right subsidies, gasoline could be made free, and 2-carat diamonds could be given away in cereal boxes. How is it that wind, with a 4,000-year head start, is such a small player in the energy scene? Could it be – just possibly – that the answer has something to do with the physics instead of economics and politics?”
Internationally-recognized energy and climate expert, Dr Richard Courtney, makes the case more graphically. “The New Age dream of a world operated by wind farms will remain a dream because the laws of physics do not allow it in an industrialized world. If wind power were economic then oil tankers would be sailing ships.”
Rhetoric: In the face of all this hard evidence of the failure on renewable energy sources to defeat the physics of energy and laws of economics, the UN IPCC released its latest report on renewable energy development in May 2011. Headlining is this IPCC assertion: “Close to 80 percent of the world’s energy supply could be met by renewables by mid-century if backed by the right enabling public policies.” Reality: Welcome to Planet UNIPCC. With the “right enabling public policies”, of course, we could all hitch a ride on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic paying space shuttle, too. Dale Allen Pfeiffer, writing about photovoltaics, does the math to defeat the solar science fiction too: “The U.S. would require 17 percent of the planet’s entire surface area, or 59 percent of the land surface to produce solar energy to replace its current daily oil consumption.”
Perhaps the ultimate irony for political Green Dealers is that the same energy-intensive industries they blame for high CO2 emissions will be the main ones to benefit from massive public largesse in the form of subsidies to ‘clean it up’. A recent report suggests General Electric and Total are currently considering entering the race for solar development contracts. Big Power and Big Oil players, including E.ON, RWE and Shell have lately called for “deep and rapid” cuts in CO2. And let’s not forget the sudden ‘greening’ of the world’s investment bankers – those who met in London in October 2008 specifically to discuss how best to cash-in on the lucrative carbon-trading business.
In 2007 the European Investment Bank calculated it would cost the EU 1.1 trillion euros over the next 14 years to pay for its Renewable Energy Roadmap to be implemented. The entire EU budget at that time was 100 billion euros. Asked who would pay for it, then EU president Angela Merkel, in a moment of unreserved honesty, responded, “With the best will in the world, I can”t tell you that.” Taxpayers beware politicians who haven’t done the math?
Ecologist Dr John Etherington’s pre-emptive epitaph for renewables as “the minting of money for the undeserving, aided and abetted by the uneducated” may be rhetoric, but it’s also reality. As we have quoted elsewhere, “He who refuses to do arithmetic is doomed to talk nonsense”.
In politics, as in life, it has always been thus.
Sydney Herald columnist Richard Glover believes the time has come for all “climate-change deniers” to have “their opinions forcibly tattooed on their bodies”. Ah yes, Nazi-style totalitarianism, officially-sanctioned and enforced beliefs with the physical marking of dissidents. That’s the spirit, Richard.
Overlooking the stark fact of misrepresentation – no one denies that climate change is a reality, that is what climate does, change or vary over cyclical periods – what we, and quite a few others including countless scientists, do deny is that the recent warming period which flat-lined around 12 years ago, is entirely within normal, historic, temperature parameters.
But right there in the Herald columnist’s anger is revealed an underlying desire: to close down free speech and dissent. Better still, as CS Lewis depicted in The Last Battle (the battle against public square deception) stop thinking altogether:
“Now don’t stand arguing, please,” said Shift. “What does an ass like you know about things of that sort? You know you’re no good at thinking, Puzzle, so why don’t you let me do your thinking for you?”
“I’m the only one Aslan is ever going to speak to. He can’t be bothered talking to a lot of stupid animals. He’ll tell me what you’ve got to do, and I’ll tell the rest of you”.
Greenism’s climate alarmists are clearly worried. With a myriad of green taxes and subsidies forcing up energy bills coupled with the abject failure in cutting global carbon emissions and with the shale gas revolution offering a much cheaper and far more realistic alternative, the renewable energy bandwagon is proving an expensive commodity. In the absence of an articulate and convincing argument able to swing the public, the fallback position for all anti-democratic thinkers, as always, is silence the opposition. All the signs are that the green frontal assault on democracy is under way.
Chief among the most direct anti-democratic constructs of government is the complex ‘hidden’ network of green taxes, levies and subsidies obfuscating the real cost of renewable energy. Such is the nature of that scandal it warrants an article of its own (coming next in part III of this short series of 3). But first up are the increasingly desperate efforts of leading green voices revealing them to be no friend to free speech.
Former environmental journalist and filmmaker, Phelim McAleer, has found that alarmists, including Al Gore, don’t like him asking the inconvenient questions. McAleer has had his microphone switched off at a Gore press conference, been strong-armed out of a press conference for asking the “wrong questions” of scientists and politicians at the UN-backed Copenhagen climate summit, and plain assaulted on live television by environmentalists. Currently, Gasland director Josh Fox has used his legal team to get YouTube to remove a McAleer short that clearly shows Fox caught out factually over his portrayal of water faucets set on fire. At time of writing McAleer has set up Fight Gasland Censorship to back fight the issue in court.
A short film made by McAleer at the celebrity-attended launch of the eco-scare documentary The Age of Stupid, which maintains flying to be the greatest eco-threat and that man will be extinct by 2055, plainly shows eco-activist filmmakers and supporters don’t like being faced with their hyprocrisy over their personal flying arrangements. More pertinently, we might also wonder why it is left to independents like McAleer to ask the sceptical questions that ought to be the business of the media mainstream.
In the UK, the anti-alarmist film The Great Global Warming Swindle so enraged environmentalists that they succeeded in forcing a media watchdog into censuring Channel 4 which broadcast it. The Climate-gate scandal also revealed how leading UN IPCC scientist Michael Mann and colleagues in the UK wanted to “lose” the scientific evidence for the Medieval Warming Period. Mann and co wanted to pressure editors to shun the work of sceptic scientists. In the wake of Climate-gate we learned that the University of Virginia has shelled out $500,000 in legal expenses in a desperate attempt to prevent more of Mann’s emails and documentation receiving public scrutiny. As one observer of the Mann v Freedom of Information debacle points out: “If academics do not like the scrutiny that comes with being paid by the taxpayers, they should stop accepting public money.” Fair enough?
Whatever happened to the old-fashioned public square back-and-forth – and let the people decide? Why are alarmists so afraid of public debate? Perhaps because they are plainly not very good at it; after all, it is hard when you only have speculation on your side and all the hard facts are on the other side. Equally, poll after poll is also revealing a general public increasingly not buying into the alarmist message.
Some scientists and students alike, it seems, would also prefer to silence even the few journalists who are prepared to ask difficult questions. However, some environmental advisors are more open about the anti-democratic thrust of modern greenism. In Germany, RWE CEO Fritz Vahrenholz, one of the countries chief green government advisors, has admitted that decarbonisation can only be achieved by the “limitation of democracy – both nationally and internationally”.
So it should come as no surprise at all that it’s the European Union that has been able to fund a pioneering world lead in renewable energy infrastructure; the EU not being subject to the accountability and scrutiny of any electorate. It has diverted billions of euros of public cash into a renewable energy program that the public is becoming increasingly aware comes at enormous, fossil-fuel eclipsing, cost to them. Simultaneously, the EU has put every tax levy and tax break obstacle it can in the way of oil, gas and coal industries; the same fossil-fuelled industries that drive the wealth creation of EU states.
While Americans still have the luxury of voting in and out their political representatives, the same is not possible when it comes to the 27 European Commissioners and the EU President. Forget the European Parliament. That’s just for public consumption. It’s the unelected European Commissioners who call the real policy shots. It is ironic that as the Arab Spring brought a wave of optimism that the Middle East’s culture of totalitarianism could yet be thrown off by popular grassroots movements, Europeans appear to be sleepwalking in the opposite direction.
Increasingly, the new Green-ism appears able to make obfuscating the true cost headway only by riding roughshod over the will of the people. Gore, Fox, Hansen, Mann and journalists like Richard Glover have become the aggressive outriders for the cause. But, as energy companies increasingly feel the mounting anger about spiking domestic energy bills, where as much as one-fifth can be subsidizing failing renewable energy and decarbonisation programs, the pro-democratic blowback for political greens may not be long in coming.
“If in the long run we are the makers of our own fate, in the short run we are the captives of the ideas we have created”. These words of economist and political philosopher Friedrich Hayek’s today resonate loudly in the carbon “idea” – that the West should fast-track a low-carbon economy no matter what the socio-economic cost.
For the moment, as climate science remains in its infancy in understanding CO2 issues – as the U.S. Supreme Court has lately reminded us (more later) – Western governments have developed a global narrative far from conducive to public debate. It is replete with rhetoric that claims that renewable energy has the capacity to hold a power plant candle to fossil fuel energy without subsidy. And it is political rhetoric with the unintended consequence of forcing countless millions into fuel poverty.
But the carbon “idea” as it directly affects renewable energy and decarbonisation programs is marked by a surprising disconnect, between a public expected to fund yet which is largely excluded from the debate and for whom the true economic cost is being systematically obfuscated.
Once again, the “British experience” reveals in microcosm the core issues writ large for all industrial societies, as a speech delivered by Sam Laidlaw, chief executive of British Gas owned Centrica, at The Economist UK Energy Summit in late June revealed plainly.
Laidlaw warned that Britain would have to abandon its carbon emission reduction targets altogether if the public continued to resist escalating domestic fuel bills. Making the critical link between rising energy costs that “keep the lights on” and generating electricity from more expensive lower-carbon sources, Laidlaw identified a “disconnect” between the public’s understanding of the role played by renewable/carbon targets and higher utility bills.
Calling for “an honest and transparent debate with Government, consumers and businesses” on the central issues, Laidlaw believed the public needed to “take ownership” of the policies of the Government as Britain was “rapidly approaching a tipping point in the energy story of this country and there is a risk that society is not being realistic about the path ahead”.
The Centrica boss was well able to back up his assertion. Laidlaw pointed out that the UK’s energy regulator, Ofgem, had warned that investment aimed at decarbonisation of the power industry in line with stated government policy for emissions targets by 2020, would mean an increasing cost to the end consumer of between 23 and 32 percent. However, according to a Centrica-commissioned poll, while a third of the public was willing to pay an additional lb100 on their annual bill to ensure decarbonisation and security of supply, only 1 percent would be prepared to pay the extra lb500 the Ofgem projection says is needed.
The survey also revealed that only 25 percent of the public felt it was vital for the government to stick to its low carbon targets if it meant higher bills. As Laidlaw summed it up, without wider public acceptance of higher energy bills to achieve renewable and de-carbonization goals, British carbon emission targets would have to be “ditched”. Of the true cost of alternative energies and low carbonization, Laidlaw stated “the public needs to know the price; and the public needs to take ownership of the decision, along with the energy companies and the government”.
Isn’t that how democracy should work? The increasingly urgent fact is that what every democratic industrial society urgently needs is to take ownership of the carbon debate over the three Big C’s, climate, carbon and cost issues. As the expression “climate expert” is something of an oxymoron, the place of the informed and concerned layman in debate is just as critical. As a result of a lack of public involvement in debate, a largely ‘hidden’ regime of green stealth taxes is able to mask the true cost of renewable energy and decarbonisation policies – and the extent of taxpayer subsidy for both.
But Laidlaw wasn’t finished. He related that his company had met with other UK major energy players with an agreement emerging that around lb10 billion further would need to be forthcoming from homeowners to pay for a new back-up network of generators to supplement the volatility and intermittency of wind farms.
Over in Europe, E.ON’s Joergen Kildahl has warned the EU that its tough carbon reduction goals for 2020 were no longer realistic given Germany’s commitment to phase out low-carbon nuclear power stations. Just last week, Germany’s second largest utility RWE announced that power prices in the country would need to rise to “plug a supply shortfall” caused by closing the nation’s nuclear plants. According to the London-based research group, Policy Exchange, the EU should drop some of its renewable energy targets to cut the cost of “fighting climate change” which rely on “immature technologies”. Even EU transport ministers have voiced concerns over the threat to European industry competitiveness if the political push towards arbitrary emission goals persists.
The Scottish Parliament has even outpaced the Westminster Parliament in its rush to subsidize alternative energy sources, with First Minister Alex Salmond claiming Scotland could generate all of its electricity from renewables by 2020; a claim given short-shrift by Professor Ian Fell, emeritus professor of energy conversion at Newcastle University. Fell maintains that the maximum that could be achieved by Scottish wind farms over a timescale of nine years would be 40 percent. Yet more evidence of a political “disconnect”? And only then, Fell stated, by utilizing the “most expensive method of generating power”. In the face of Scottish Power’s management hiking prices from 10 to 19 percent, the prospect of further levies that “will double Scottish power bills” hardly looks a vote winner. And even the UK’s own Committee on Climate Change has advised the UK to build “more nuclear, less offshore wind power” to have any chance of meeting EU emission goals.
It is the largely left-leaning political ideologues who support fast-tracking the green energy, low-carbon revolution; the same proto-socialist, centralizing of power, zealots who so often claim the greatest compassion for society’s poorest. However, there seems precious little concern for the millions currently being forced into fuel poverty by rafts of green taxes. It seems when it comes to social engineering, an ideological green utopia trumps compassion for the poor every time.
In the UK, even the left-leaning Institute for Policy Research has recently warned that new green ‘stealth’ taxes could push tens of thousands into fuel poverty while, according to the latest report from the IEA, is doing nothing to reduce emissions. The IPPR were referring to the UK’s unilateral decision to set the ‘floor price’ of emitting carbon at lb16 per ton from 2013, rising to lb30 by 2020.
With the issue increasingly boiling down to just how much the public ought to be willing to pay to fund the carbon “idea”, the lack of public discourse on key issues is telling by its absence. That is almost certainly because many ‘green’ politicians, scientists and journalists long ago nailed their faith and reputations to the carbon “idea”. The prospect of renewed public debate when they know only too well that the carbon-climate debate remains far from settled is hardly in their interest.
Enter a timely reminder on “taking ownership” in a democracy from the U.S. Supreme Court.
The U.S. Supreme Court, normally a hot-bed of divergent left v right politics, was on June 20 unified 8-0 in a decision over carbon emission limits for industry. But it was in the court’s “opinion” delivered by “acclaimed liberal” Justice Ruth Ginsburg that carbon “idea” zealots of all stripes were reminded of one or two cogent facts. First, Ginsburg stated that “not all scientists agreed on the causes of the rise in global temperatures”. (That will have come as a shock to the UN IPCC and much of the mass media.) Second, it was in the public interest for “opposing views” to be read by all such was the potential social impact. Ginsburg even suggested where to get good reading material! Try starting with the writings of Professor Freeman Dyson – an unabashed skeptic – Ginsburg suggested. The Justice also noted that carbon dioxide is necessary, ubiquitous and that the rush to limit it should be weighed against “our nation’s energy needs and the possibility of economic disruption”.
Lawrence Solomon went so far as to suggest that the United States Supreme Court had “become the world’s most august global warming skeptics”. Possibly. But we think the Supreme Court was making an even more fundamental point – and one essentially in agreement with Laidlaw’s call. Where an “idea” – or put another way, a theory – has such a profound life-changing price tag, those being asked to pay for it need to “take ownership” when it comes to government policies.
Now that’s an “idea” we think has real democracy written all over it.