The Green and the Black

Tom Friedman divides the world into two kinds of people: “clean-energy hawks” like himself who believe that there are magical energy sources out there somewhere that:

are controlled by us and only go down in price as demand increases

and global warming denialists who:

believe the world is going to face a mass plague, like the Black Death, that will wipe out 2.5 billion people sometime between now and 2050. They believe it is much better for America that the world be dependent on oil for energy — a commodity largely controlled by countries that hate us and can only go up in price as demand increases

and

you’re willfully blind, and you’re hurting America’s future to boot

Let’s take a quick look at Mr. Friedman’s biography, shall we? He got an undergraduate degree in Mediterranean Studies which sounds like a melange of history, geography, anthropology, political science, and field trips to sunny places with good food and wine. Sounds good but it’s impossibly broad and vague and there’s every likelihood that such a major means he read a few books and otherwise learned nothing. It’s what we used to call a “Mickey Mouse major” or “Mick” for short. His masters degree is in Middle Eastern studies, again impossibly broad and vague.

I interpret his academic background as not having taken a mathematics course since high school trig, possibly never having taken a college level science course of any rigor, and possibly never having taken an economics course at all. Which in turn means he’s taking somebody else’s word for what he believes. He doesn’t have the background to do anything else.

Let me retort: what are these magical energy sources? He mentions none. I’ll answer: there are none.

The closest candidate would be nuclear energy which Mr. Friedman’s “clean-energy hawk” comrades have been fighting tooth and nail over the period of the last 35 years. Some, to their credit, are now seeing the error of their ways and are undergoing deathbed conversions. That may salve their consciences but it won’t undo the harm they’ve done all of their adult lives. I think there’s real promise in the small scale thorium reactors that are being experimented with but they’re still a few Friedman units away. Can we deploy them quickly enough?

And big nuclear reactors? Fuggedaboutit. They’re politically, legally, and economically impossible, largely due to the efforts of well-meaning dolts who think of themselves as environmentalists. And then, of course, there are the security issues.

Solar doesn’t fit. Whatever the imaginary economic future envisioned by solar power fans at the present state of the art it doesn’t have increasing returns to scale (remember Mr. Friedman’s claim?) and China will be the manufacturer of choice so “we” won’t “control” it in any meaningful sense. For practical purposes China has no labor laws, no environmental regulations, protections for intellectual property that mostly consist of wishful thinking, among the lowest paid labor forces in the world, plenty of capital to invest in the form of the trillions in foreign exchange sitting in their state-controlled banks, and a supine system of civil law. We will not be able to compete head to head against China in cheap mass manufacturing nor should we aspire to.

Leaving the immorality of bio-fuels aside for the moment, there are no prospects for sufficient biomass to replace oil and coal. Wind? The problem with wind power is that it takes land and that means that it’s responsive to the same forces of supply and demand that other goods are and will not provide increasing returns to scale. Besides, wind power has the problem of being most effective where it’s needed least.

I think that all of these things, i.e. solar, wind, bio-fuels (waste, algae, and crops grown on land too poor for food crops), and lots of others, are worth exploring and implementing as their economic merits warrant.

The sad reality is that there are no ready replacements for oil, coal, and natural gas. We’d be wiser looking for ways to mitigate the risks of that reality than denying it.

What gripes me most is where does Mr. Friedman’s dichotomy place me? I’ve been in favor of a carbon tax for thirty years but I think that “cap and trade” is ill-conceived, worse than doing nothing because the deadweight loss is likely to exceed the prospective gains. But Mr. Friedman doesn’t have the background or, apparently, the inclination to understand that and his informants are either in the same boat or have conflicts of interest which, shall we say, cloud their judgment.

Why are we hearing the assertion that bad, ineffective policies are worth putting in place because they’re a good start so much these days? If you’re driving from New York to Los Angeles a stop-off in Boston might be a start but it’s going in the wrong direction.

27 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw

    To me the discussions of alternative energy sources gets quite technocratic and reduces to two factors: (1) We live in a country with lots of coal reserves and a very developed coal-based infrastructure, and (2) we are living in the foreseeable future with relatively flat energy demand. I’m not even sure raising the price of carbon-based energy alone will be enough without the dynamism of increased growth. The conditions in the 60s and 70s, rising demand and rising energy prices, bolstered nuclear energy. I think without growth in the economy, you are more likely to get higher energy prices being passed onto the consumer who will use less energy. That may not be a bad outcome, but it’s not going to transform our energy sources.

  • I think that’s a pretty fair analysis, PD. Of course, I’m sitting here rather smugly in Chicago which has 85% of its energy derived from nuclear. My immediate reaction when people start talking about taxes, penalties, and so on is “You want to tax me so that the folks in other cities can take their time solving their problems?!?”

  • Andy

    Another self-anointed “expert,” Al Gore, has been pushing deep heat mining lately.

  • And big nuclear reactors? Fuggedaboutit. They’re politically, legally, and economically impossible, largely due to the efforts of well-meaning dolts who think of themselves as environmentalists. And then, of course, there are the security issues.

    Yeah, that is my thinking too, and dolt is too nice a word, lunatics is more like it. I’ve read the public hearings our company is required to hold and the nuclear nuts always show up and put forward the most amazing theories that explain all of their ailments and how the utility should be paying them and/or shutting out San Onofre.

    Leaving the immorality of bio-fuels aside for the moment, there are no prospects for sufficient biomass to replace oil and coal. Wind? The problem with wind power is that it takes land and that means that it’s responsive to the same forces of supply and demand that other goods are and will not provide increasing returns to scale. Besides, wind power has the problem of being most effective where it’s needed least.

    Right on all accounts here. And while the issue of most effective where its needed least is solvable (transmission systems) the Green Weenies fight those tooth and nail too. Toss in Banana-ism and Nimby-ism and you get what we have now, very long and lengthy battles that are very expensive to build the needed infrastructure. We hear from many of these same bone heads about how we should have a WPA style system to rebuild infrastructure then they turn around and oppose it.

    I think that all of these things, i.e. solar, wind, bio-fuels (waste, algae, and crops grown on land too poor for food crops), and lots of others, are worth exploring and implementing as their economic merits warrant.

    The sad reality is that there are no ready replacements for oil, coal, and natural gas. We’d be wiser looking for ways to mitigate the risks of that reality than denying it.

    What gets me is the outright lying many advocates too (or in Friedman’s case the reptition of the lies told by others) that it will be cheaper, employ people and so forth. The reality is 100% the opposite. If it is cheaper and eco-friendly people would switch. A utility company would have a huge incentive to make such changes. Far, far, far less hassle in terms of siting, licensing, and building. It would be cheap, so for a regulated monopoly easy money. Its renewable and not subject the vagaries of some kook in a robe in some far off desert…so stable prices meaning stable rates meaning less hassle during rate cases. There is almost no downside. So if it is cheaper, eco-friendly and avialable why is not being deployed? Some crazy story about conspiracies with oil companies? I’m sorry oil is used very little in generating electricity. This type of thinking is nothing other than pure delusional thinking.

    What gripes me most is where does Mr. Friedman’s dichotomy place me? I’ve been in favor of a carbon tax for thirty years but I think that “cap and trade” is ill-conceived, worse than doing nothing because the deadweight loss is likely to exceed the prospective gains. But Mr. Friedman doesn’t have the background or, apparently, the inclination to understand that and his informants are either in the same boat or have conflicts of interest which, shall we say, cloud their judgment.

    Which means that unwittingly Friedman is everything he ascribes to the “Blacks” but just to freaking stupid and ignorant to realize it. Do yourself a favor….stop reading his rubbish.

  • Brett

    And big nuclear reactors? Fuggedaboutit. They’re politically, legally, and economically impossible, largely due to the efforts of well-meaning dolts who think of themselves as environmentalists. And then, of course, there are the security issues.

    The security issues aren’t too bad (there are far, far easier ways to get radioactive material for “dirty bombs”, and the fuel in nuclear reactors generally can’t be used for bombs without extensive enrichment).

    It’s a real pity, because nuclear power might as well be God’s gift to clean electricity, particularly with the new gas-driven turbine plants that don’t need the extensive freshwater supplies the old ones did. The plants don’t take up too much space, provide lots of power, and (unlike solar and wind), I can realistically imagine a low-car economy basing their power supply on them (you could build a nuke plant next to a rail line and supply it that way, if you had to).

    Solar doesn’t fit. Whatever the imaginary economic future envisioned by solar power fans at the present state of the art it doesn’t have increasing returns to scale

    Not to mention there are environmental costs to making solar panels, if I recall correctly (it has a rather nasty toxic byproduct).

    In any case, solar is almost irrelevant – I doubt it will amount to 5-10% of the US power supply by 2050.

    Wind? The problem with wind power is that it takes land and that means that it’s responsive to the same forces of supply and demand that other goods are and will not provide increasing returns to scale. Besides, wind power has the problem of being most effective where it’s needed least.

    Exactly. Funny enough, the fact that you have to supply these giant turbines spread out all over a vast track of largely uninhabited land (there are sea turbines, but they seem to be unpopular) generally means that you’ll probably need supply and repair networks based around automobiles. Nuke plants could potentially be supplied by rail.

    That last part especially amuses me. People like to talk a lot about a “smart grid”, but barring the use of superconductors, there are huge transmission losses in sending large amounts of power a long way. That already exacerbates the problem with wind, which is that it is an intermittent power source most of the time.

    The sad reality is that there are no ready replacements for oil, coal, and natural gas. We’d be wiser looking for ways to mitigate the risks of that reality than denying it.

    Well, there’s those Carbon Capture ideas, assuming they actually work on a large scale.

    In the meantime, the US should probably be using a combination of rising gas taxes and subsidies to move the country towards natural gas- and hybrid-vehicles, both of which emit much less CO2. The US has quite a bit of natural gas domestically as well.

    But Mr. Friedman doesn’t have the background or, apparently, the inclination to understand that and his informants are either in the same boat or have conflicts of interest which, shall we say, cloud their judgment.

    Friedman’s basically a weather vane for the concerns and ideas of what you could call the “liberal establishment”. You see it throughout his writing career from the 1990s onward – when globalization was all the rage, he wrote a book promoting that, for example.

    Toss in Banana-ism and Nimby-ism and you get what we have now, very long and lengthy battles that are very expensive to build the needed infrastructure.

    This would be a lot easier if the Feds had eminent domain power (if I recall correctly, only the states have it, and they’re much more susceptible to the NIMBYs. ).

    The reality is 100% the opposite. If it is cheaper and eco-friendly people would switch.

    Friedman would probably argue that that’s the result of a misaligned economic environment in the US that doesn’t factor in the externality of CO2 production and a subsidy structure that favors coal and oil production. Were we to institute a carbon tax, or even just a strong gas tax, the incentives would change fairly quickly.

  • As of this year, it is now cheaper to produce power with wind than it is coal.

    I would also highly suggest that you read the cover story of this month’s scientific American, which breaks down the costs of completely ridding the entire world of fossil fuels by 2030. Long story short: it’s doable.

  • Drew

    Dave Schuler for President.

  • Friedman would probably argue that that’s the result of a misaligned economic environment in the US that doesn’t factor in the externality of CO2 production and a subsidy structure that favors coal and oil production. Were we to institute a carbon tax, or even just a strong gas tax, the incentives would change fairly quickly.

    I always here this about oil and coal. I don’t know about coal, but I do know that oil is taxed,

    http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/energyexplained/index.cfm?page=gasoline_factors_affecting_prices

    So I find these claims about subsidies rather dubious. I’d much rather see the net subsidy/tax.

  • L Karch

    “Besides, wind power has the problem of being most effective where it’s needed least.”

    And I might add that wind power is most available when it is least needed: i.e. spring and fall.

    There are plenty of electric utilities that “peak” in the summer and/or winter, but none that I’m aware of that “peak” in either spring or fall.

    It is also instructive that Denmark, that nice little ecoliberal country with the highest percentage of deployed wind power capacity, hasn’t closed any its thermal electric plants. Must be a lesson there.

  • I’ll take a look at it, Alex. Frankly, I’m skeptical of the claim about wind power. Despite the economic slowdown, the Chinese are still building coal-fired power plants. That would suggest one of several possibilities: 1) there’s a cost differential between China and the United States; 2) the Chinese are misinformed; 3) coal is cheaper than wind here and in China; 4) China has other reasons for continuing to build coal-fired plants.

    If #1, why would that be? I know that building a coal-fired plant is cheaper in China than it is here. That might be the difference. I doubt #2. I think that the Chinese leaders are smarter and better informed than ours.

    If it’s #4, it means that a world conversion away from coal is highly unlikely. Even if we were to close every single coal-fired electrical generation plant here in the U. S., at China’s present rate of increase it would have little effect on total worldwide carbon production.

  • PD Shaw

    Steve, I can say that in the State of Illinois, coal is subsidized by the legislature by paying for roads, including private roads, for hauling coal, paying for equipment for coal extraction, paying for scrubbers that would allow a plant to burn high-sulfur Illinois coal, with various technolgy grants, and by the state agency who writes the mining permits for the owner/operator. I’ve argued with a state legislator about this and he contends that Kentucky subsidizes coal more and Illinois needs to do more to be competitive.

    I do believe that there are sales taxes on coal, but generally the money is getting funnelled back into research grants and new technologies. Coal is King!

  • Excellent takedown of Friedman’s pretenstions. He might have been an excellent reporter – he really has an eye for detail – but he is an awful analyst. And I say this about his analyses of the Middle East, the area of his expertise.

    In short, he substitutes clever catchphrases for analysis.

    He has risen to the level of his greatest incompetence.

  • PD Shaw

    On wind, my local utility was forced to buy an amount equivalent to 18% of its energy use from a wind farm in order to construct a new plant without having to defend appeals from the Sierra Club. The utility figured that with the money it would make with larger, more efficient coal burning plant, it would make money even if it had to give the wind power away for free. There doesn’t appear to be any intention to use the wind power, so somebody in Northern Iowa is getting subsidized wind energy from my utility.

    I think part of the backstory is that utility upgrades were retarded by the Clean Air Act of 1990, and now a number of coal plants are finally expanding with serious increases in efficiency and cleanliness, but not on carbon issues.

  • Andy

    I think we’re missing the other, bigger, half of the equation which is energy for transportation. That primarily comes from oil, much of which is imported. Moving to electricity or something derived from electricity (ie. hydrogen) is going to require a huge increase in electrical production and hundreds of billions in infrastructure. I don’t see any of that happening anytime soon.

  • I think we’re missing the other, bigger, half of the equation which is energy for transportation. That primarily comes from oil, much of which is imported. Moving to electricity or something derived from electricity (ie. hydrogen) is going to require a huge increase in electrical production and hundreds of billions in infrastructure. I don’t see any of that happening anytime soon.

    Nope, because we are going to be allocating huge amounts of resources to health care, social security, and most likely see higher taxes–i.e. lower growth.

    But hey, I’m tellin ya….somewhere in there is a magic pony!

  • PD Shaw

    Steve Verdon for President. Magic ponies for all!

    I have to disagree about the NIMBY thing. Speaking for Illinois, we love nuclear power plants. Communites w/nukes have the best schools and have a base of higher paid workers. The closest nuke plant to me is about a half hour away and it was designed for two reactors, but only one was built because of construction overruns, re-regulation after 3-mile, and recession. The plant has been re-permitted to build the second reactor, but their waiting to see market conditions change. I believe people in that community would pay to have a second reactor built.

    To me that means there is not enough economic growth in the Midwest. Certainly may be different in California, but I understand Texas might be building some.

  • PD Shaw

    Oh yeah, we also love terrorists! Send us your GITMO rejects and federal dollars!!!

  • PD,

    Just out of curiousity when was the last time a nuke plant was built in Illinois? Where in Entergy based anyways. Last I heard they (IIRC) were moving through the approval process, but not sure if they are planning on building a new nuke plant.

  • PD Shaw

    Steve, the plant I’m talking about is at Clinton, Illinois, which I believe might have been the last plant built in this country. It received its early site permit approval a couple of years ago, and it was the first plant to do so, which isn’t too strange since there is already a reactor there. The local press coverage was kind of strange. I would describe the company’s statements as keeping our options open, testing the regulatory waters, and waiting until energy market fundamentals can justify construction.

    To defend Andy’s statement, I wouldn’t be surprised if plant construction was approved if there were credible electric cars in the future. I don’t think there is, presently.

  • PD Shaw

    On re-reading I don’t know if I answered the question. The Clinton nuclear power plant was built in ’87. The reason the second reactor wasn’t built is usually given as: (1) construction cost over-runs, (2) second round of regulation following 3 mile island and (3) lowered energy demand from the early 80s recession. Based upon what I know of the construction industry in Central Illinois in the 80s from people in the business, the biggest factor appears to be the failure to contract the risk of cost increases to contractors and subcontractors.

  • I love me a good Friedman take-down. Bravo!

  • pst314

    “He got an undergraduate degree in Mediterranean Studies which…sounds good but it’s impossibly broad and vague”

    Not necessarily: I believe that serious scholars are getting degrees in that area, when they want to study not only Classical Greece or Classical Rome but the interactions of the various cultures of that time.

    (Not that this has anything to do with Thomas Friedman’s expertise to comment on current events, an expertise which seems a bit doubtful. And hasn’t he been sucking up a lot to the Saudis? And doesn’t he live in a huge energy- and resource-guzzling mansion? Good reasons to treat him with derision and contempt when he deigns to lecture us peons on how we should live frugally.)

  • pst314

    “His masters degree is in Middle Eastern studies, again impossibly broad and vague.”

    And an academic area which is deeply corrupted by leftist ideology.

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