May 1, 2009
Another day, another denier comes forward to challenge the views of Al Gore and the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The number of scientists who are speaking out for the first time is heartening — I take it as a sign that the climate of fear is subsiding, and that reason may soon reign in this politically charged debate.
But I find one aspect of the coming out of the deniers to be tiresome — a seemingly obligatory statement to the effect that they care about the environment, often coupled with bromides on energy policy that are not only trite but wrong.
Take Leonard Weinstein, now a Senior Research Fellow at the National Institute of Aerospace, formerly a top scientist at NASA where he worked for 45 years, along the way amassing 11 patents and some 50 awards, including being named the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Engineer of the Year in 1999. This week, Weinstein formally declared himself a sceptic by releasing a paper in which he concluded “that there is NO real supporting evidence and much disagreeing evidence for the AGW[anthropogenic global warming] theory as proposed.”
Then Weinstein gratuitously ventures into territory outside his science ken through this seemingly safe statement: “Decreasing availability of oil and anthropogenic pollution (not greenhouse gasses) are real issues. Acid rain, smog and dirty water sources do need to be fixed. The problems associated with high fuel prices, and dependence on sources of energy from possibly less than friendly foreign countries are critical. While we can’t solve the problems with a single magic bullet, more nuclear power plants, along with wind and solar power, could fill much of the gap. There are solutions, but first we have to identify the correct problems.”
Yes, it’s important to identify the correct problems, and the non-problems, not just on global warming but on energy policy.
More nuclear, wind and solar as a solution to high fuel prices and oil imports? Not a chance, at least not anytime soon.
First, nuclear, wind and solar cannot today substitute for oil, which primarily fuels cars and is a feedstock for plastics. Nuclear, wind and solar are primarily used to produce electricity. Even if electric vehicles that ran on affordable batteries existed — despite the hype, no battery breakthrough has yet occurred — these three would still not substitute for oil because all three are uneconomic.
In large part, nuclear, wind and solar are uneconomic for the same reason: They are inflexible technologies that cannot be dispatched. Unlike other methods of generating electricity — from fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas or from falling water — nuclear, wind and solar systems cannot moderate their output to meet society’s fluctuating demands for power. Nuclear reactors run flat-out 24/7, wind technologies depend on whether the wind happens to blow, solar technologies on whether the Sun happens to shine.
Because power companies make little or no money at periods of low demand, and are lucrative when meeting peak needs, power technologies that can be dispatched tend to be money makers and those that can’t tend to burn money. Of the three, only solar technology — because its production costs continue to drop and because it produces power during daylight hours, when demand is higher and the need for dispatch lower — is likely to become commercially viable in the next decade.
Next, Weinstein worries about the decreasing availability of oil, and America’s reliance on hostile suppliers. In fact, the world’s oil reserves have increased by 36% over the past two decades, excluding the massive unconventional reserves in Canada’s tar sands and America’s oil shale. As for American dependence on hostile countries, this is more myth: America’s only suppliers that could be considered hostile are Venezuela, which meets about 6% of U. S. needs, and Russia, which meets 2%. The entire Persian Gulf meets only 12% of U. S. needs, and that 12% comes from three allies: Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait.
The true enemy of American energy independence is the American government, whose politically driven regulations unduly restrict environmentally sound fossil fuel development while perversely subsidizing uneconomic energy-producing and energy-consuming industries.
Finally, Weinstein treats fossil fuels as environmental pariahs. In fact, decades of environmental pressure has led to immense improvements in coal and other fossil fuel technologies, making them no less virtuous than many renewable fuels. At the same time, some renewable technologies are losing their aura: New research shows that ethanol can be a greater threat to air pollution and water supplies than gasoline, and wind farms have become the most unwanted of neighbours.
Weinstein’s straying in energy policy shouldn’t dissuade people from checking out his illuminating analysis of anthropogenic global warming, found at climaterealists.com. He and the others who are coming out of the closet deserve kudos for speaking out at all. When sceptics are able to speak without feeling compelled to ward off accusations that they are environmental pariahs, we’ll know that the climate of intimidation has entirely dissipated.