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Energy Abundance vs. Energized Politicians

12:00 AM, Oct 13, 2012 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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Green, in fact, is increasingly the color of choice for politicians around the world. Not even impending shortages of electricity capacity can deter the governments of Britain and Germany, to cite just two, from pursuing costly efforts to phase out more traditional sources of energy. In Britain, nuclear plants are reckoned to be so costly that without promises of subsidies, or permission to load costs on consumers’ bills, private sector companies will not build these plants. To meet promises for draconian cuts in emissions this and future governments will have to subsidize wind and solar power, neither source located near major consuming centers, and therefore requiring the construction of high-voltage transmission lines to move the power south.

In Germany, after the Fukushima disaster, Chancellor Angela Merkel reverted to her previous policy of phasing out nuclear power, calling for its replacement by 2022. Small problem number 1: The renewables surcharge that is loaded on German household utility bills is already unpopular and is set to go up still more, raising household utility bills by some 7 percent. Small problem number 2: The wind is in the north, consumers are in the south, and the almost 5,000 km of high voltage transmission lines needed to join supply with demand are wildly unpopular and tied up in litigation and by local opposition. Germany’s utilities, which will be around in 2022, when Ms. Merkel will have long been out of politics, know that renewables cannot meet Germany’s future needs, that the cost of carbon permits is so low that burning coal is economic,  that they will be held responsible for shortages and ever-higher prices, and so are building 23 new coal-fired power stations, with the blessing of Peter Altmaier, Germany’s environment minister who is concerned that expensive energy would slow Germany’s export machine.

In America, only a few utilities have opted to build new nuclear plants, while the more sensible ones rely increasingly on natural gas, and will continue to do so unless Fukushima recedes from memory, the government allows the nuclear waste depository facility in Nevada to open, and nuclear power becomes cost-competitive with gas and coal—all three highly unlikely. 

Meanwhile, the future of fracking is uncertain, and the government is severely limiting permits to drill for oil on federal lands and offshore. Environmental groups are suing to prevent the government from granting permits to companies that want to gobble up huge tracts of land for massive solar installations: the 45-story towers of the Ivanpah Solar project will take up 3,500 acres of land in the Mojave Desert and displace scores of desert tortoises, prompting the Western Watersheds Project to file suit to stop it. The path to lower CO2 emissions is also rutted with efforts by   local groups to prevent the construction of transmission lines to link wind farms with urban centers, and by the dire financial condition of many producers of renewable gear and electric vehicles who are finding it impossible to repay their government loans and subsidies because of higher-than expected costs and lower-than-expected demand.       

There’s more, but you get the idea. The age of nature’s abundance might prove to be an age of electricity shortages, of higher rather than lower carbon emissions as coal plants are pressed into service because renewables are too costly and unreliable and transmission lines unbuilt, supplies of natural gas are limited by restrictions on fracking, and petrol prices driven up by restrictions on drilling for new supplies of domestic crude oil. Dismal, indeed.

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