April 20, 2012
We want to propose a new perspective on “clean energy.” As environmental studies majors, we have seen the impacts of fossil fuels and are often the first to advocate clean energy policies. But what are the true ramifications of what we advocate? Alex Epstein is the Founder and Director for the Center for Industrial Progress. He specializes in the energy debate and takes a fundamentally opposite view of the general “environmentalist” perspective. In his article “Four Dirty Secrets about Clean Energy,” Epstein seeks to expose supposed truths about so-called “clean energy” and clean energy policy. While it is not necessarily new information, his points provoke some thoughts about the ultimate consequences that come with clean energy policies.
Epstein’s first Dirty Secret is “If “clean energy” were actually cheaper than fossil fuels, it wouldn’t need a policy.” Epstein quotes various clean energy proponents like Al-Gore who make the claims that renewable energy sources are ultimately cheaper than fossil fuels. They say that while the initial implementation would be expensive, in the long run they would provide infinite amounts of energy. For instance, he provides the often quoted fact that enough sunlight falls on the face of the earth every forty minutes to satisfy our energy needs for a full year. If we could harness such energy, it would be “free forever.” These same proponents make the argument that as fossil fuels quickly deplete in supply, their prices will drive higher and higher, becoming more expensive. Epstein argues that these things aren’t true. He says that harnessing all the sunlight that landed on the Earth is nowhere close to feasible and would need to be implemented on such a massive scale but could never be achieved. He also says that if supplies of fossil fuels were diminishing as rapidly as claimed, then people in the energy market would make fortunes in the futures markets. The clean energy proponents say that fossil-fuel companies are short sited and don’t realize the eminent shortage we will face soon. Epstein argues that this is false, that these companies spend billions of dollars on research to ensure the viability of their companies and industries.
There are many misconceptions within the environmental industry. One of the primary flaws of clean energy that is often overlooked is the financial feasibility of such sources. Analyzing from an economist’s view, if renewable energies were so profitable then the markets would reflect this and more investment and development would go into these areas. However, the alternatives of renewable are far more attractive to investors because of the greater chances of profit. We are often confronted with the fact that fossil fuels are rapidly depleting and people only care about short-term profits. However, if these claims were true, then individuals would then make huge profits in the futures market. This does not appear to be happening.
If renewable energy sources were truly cheaper than fossil fuels despite their initial costs, history has shown that they would win out as investors seek to place capital in the most profitable area. An example to prove this is the relationship between crude oil and natural gas. Previously oil was the most profitable form of energy however in recent years, due to a many number of reasons, including scarcity, natural gas is now more financially profitable and as such future investment is being made in this field. Therefore if renewable were more profitable history would suggest that they would already be invested heavily in. One could therefore infer that renewable energy still is not competitive because it is more expensive and therefore need to become more efficient before their initial costs compensate for their long pay back time and there are competitive in a free market.
The second Dirty Secret is “Clean energy advocates want to force us to use solar, wind, and biofuels, even though there is no evidence these can power modern civilization.” Epstein sites the fact that only 1% of the world’s energy needs are satisfied by various renewable energy sources. He says that the reason renewable sources can’t compete with fossil fuels is because of energy density. While there is a lot of energy in sola and wind, it is so dispersed that to harness them to any effective degree requires far more land, labor, and equipment than fossil fuels. Epstein argues that such requirements will always keep renewable energies far more expensive than fossil fuels. He also says that these sources of energy are unreliable. Sun depends on the weather and wind can be intermittent. Therefore, the energy production of these sources isn’t consistent and often require backup energy sources, which are often fossil fuel sources. Epstein refutes the often quoted “conspiracy” theory that renewable energy isn’t implemented because big fossil-fuel loving companies aren’t allowing their adoption. Epstein argues it is the fundamental nature of this energy source that keeps it from being adopted. These sources can’t satisfy human needs in an efficient way.
There are fundamental differences between the quality and density of energy provided by fossil fuels and those of sustainable sources. The energy of the wind and sun is far more dispersed than that of oil, coal or even nuclear energy. This means that larger plants are required to harness the energy, thus creating a larger impact on the environment. The idea that there is ample energy out there to be harnessed is correct however the resources and land required to enable us to harvest this energy is substantial. Furthermore, because of intermittency in production there is a need for excess plants to be built and geographically dispersed in order to compensate for the fluctuations in supply.
Epstein’s Dirty Secret #3 is “There are promising carbon-free energy sources–hydroelectric and nuclear–but “clean energy” policies oppose them as not “green” enough.” He makes the argument that environmentalist and those concerned with reducing carbon emissions even reject zero carbon emission energy sources that actually have the potential to meet human energy needs. Epstein says these individuals attacked the nuclear power industry in its infancy with “lies and propaganda” to make its growth and expansion nearly impossible. He says these tactics are still being used today when people site the situation in tsunami-stricken Japan and the issues that are happening with those nuclear reactors; they use it as another reasons for the dangers of nuclear power. He claims that anti-nuclear proponents usually say their main concern with nuclear power is safety both with regards to the nuclear reactor plant and the radioactive wastes the process produces.
He says these proponents site the radioactive element of nuclear power as a danger for people living in an area surrounding a nuclear plant. He counters this concern with the fact that even solar energy is considered radioactivity. He makes the point that simply because the energy source is radioactive, it does not mean that alone makes it dangerous. He says a person receives more radiation exposure walking during the day then living next to a nuclear plant. He then addresses the popular image of a failing reactor exploding or being bombed by terrorists, causing a “Hiroshima” type scenario. He says this is a hyperbolic concern for the main reason that the uranium in nuclear reactors are not explosive and such an event would not cause an explosion that people are often concerned about. Epstein says that if these attackers’ main concern was truly safety, they would see that nuclear power is one of the safest forms of energy currently available. He says the best indicator of a technology’s safety is “how many deaths it has caused per unit of energy produced and that “In the capitalist world, nuclear power in its entire history has not led to a single death from meltdowns radiation, or any of the allegedly intolerable dangers cited by nuclear critics.”
Epstein then addresses the concern people have with the waste that is produced through the process of making nuclear power. He argues that the concern is not nearly as threatening as anti-nuclear proponents make it out to be. He says “the amount of waste is thousands of times smaller than for any other practical source of energy, that it can be safely stored, and that there are many technologies for utilizing the waste to generate even more energy.” He labels these concerns as simple hysteria that attacks nuclear power simply because it is “unnatural” and therefore must be bad. He attacks anti-nuclear proponents for advocating so much government regulation of nuclear power that they effectively halted the growth of such a promising industry. He says the required safety regulations that have been imposed only work to hike up the price of this power source and make building a new power plant nearly impossible. He says that today anti-nuclear proponents site the dying nuclear power industry as a result of natural market forces that make it unable to compete with other sources of power. Epstein argues that this isn’t the case at all. He says that nuclear power was highly competitive when it first appeared as a viable energy source. Epstein claims it had massive potential to provide large quantities of cheap, zero-emission energy until all the regulation effectively killed the industry.
Epstein says that nuclear power is not alone. These same advocators of zero-emissions energy have spent just as much work trying to dismantle hydroelectric dams. He says these dams have enormous quantities of energy to provide at zero-emissions cost. He argues that the attackers are not concerned simply with carbon emissions, but having any impact on nature at all.
Epstein makes a few interesting points with his third dirty secret. Obviously by this point in his article we see that Epstein is concerned more with human progress than with the state of the natural world. So while he is not as concerned about finding zero-emission energy sources, he claims that even when people who are finally find a clean energy source that can actually meet human power needs, they still reject it. Well this is a valid point, I think Epstein is guilty of down playing the dangers of nuclear power just as much as the people he sites as hyping it. While he is right that unit of power produced per death caused is extremely low with regards to nuclear power, he makes the false statement that nuclear power has resulted in no deaths. If I had the chance, I’d like to ask how he can make such a claim when there are glaring examples of just that, the main of which being Chernobyl. We of course know that Chernobyl was a particular case because of the poorly built infrastructure and the lack of expertise, but that does not change the fact that people died because of it. The initial responders to the explosion didn’t wear protective gear and were exposed to high levels of radiation, dying within the next few weeks. While again deaths per unit of energy produced make these particular deaths statistically insignificant, it does not make it zero as Epstein boldly claimed. Epstein also seems to misunderstand people’s perception with radiation. The radiation from the sun and the radiation produced by nuclear power are drastically different. Both have the potential to cause physical damage, but it is all about degree of exposure. It takes far more solar radiation to cause the type of damage that the same amount of nuclear radiation would cause. This is not to neglect the fact that we are exposed to far more solar radiation, but the concern with anti-nuclear proponents is those disastrous instances when fantastic amounts of radiation is released and people are exposed. Again, siting the Chernobyl event, billows of radiation were released into the atmosphere and spread throughout Europe.
Epstein also says that we can store nuclear waste safely. Again, I wish he had gone into detail in his article about how exactly defines safely and how we believes nuclear waste is stored. From my studies at least, I believe nuclear waste is usually stored on site of nuclear plants in pretty basic structures. While it is true I do not know this for sure, I have studied such proposed storage plans like Yucca Mountain and even that is unable to provide housing. Epstein does make a valid point overall that nuclear power is a practical energy source and emits zero-emissions. He does, however, seem to downplay its dangers just as much as others overplay them.
Epstein’s final “Dirty Secret” is “The environmentalists behind clean energy policy are anti-energy.” Epstein makes that argument that ultimately, environmentalists are not concerned with pollution, but with human progress and development. He says that the “minimal impact” approach that is advocated is fundamentally “anti-energy.” He says that even if energy policy outlawed all forms of fossil fuels and only allowed renewable forms of energy like solar, wind, and geothermal, environmentalists would be against it. He says that because of how inefficient these renewable sources, they would have to be implemented on massive scales. Huge stretches of land would be covered in solar panels and wind farms. Geothermal requires thousands of feet of drilling into the Earth. Just implementing these technologies would require fossil fuel consumption to create them. They would fundamentally alter the environments they are placed. Epstein the total impact on the environment would be greater than fossil fuels because of energy concentration. Fossil fuels are so energy dense that the energy can be harnessed in a much smaller space with fewer resources. Renewable forms of energy require altering entire landscapes. He says environmentalists would never get behind such an impact. He claims that ultimately, environmentalists want human development and progress to stop and diminish. He says when pushed, environmentalists ultimately say that the only solution is conservation, population control, and the cessation of development. He quotes a few figures known for their “clean energy” stances that say people ultimately need to live more modestly. He argues that the only way for that to happen is with more government regulation in every aspect of our lives to make sure we are living modestly. He says the end result of this movement is “pure destruction.” Epstein argues that with industrial development, humans can respond and adapt to our environment. He sites the catastrophes that environmentalists warn will inevitably come if something isn’t changed. Epstein argues that humans are not simply going to be subjected to these catastrophes with no defense. Instead, he says industrial energy and development make “catastrophes non-catastrophic.” He sites such situations like a drought in Africa that kills thousands every year. While that is the case there, in the U.S. industrial development has led to irrigation that makes deserts some of the most productive and desirable places to live. Epstein says what the world needs is industrial development which betters the human condition. He says the only way to achieve this is to completely halt the pursuit of “green” policies that are fundamentally anti-development and progress.
Epstein’s final point is remarkable. The inefficiencies of renewable energy are no secret to anyone. What would happen if we actually did heavily pursue them and try to replace fossil fuels with them completely? They would require implementation on a massive scale to meet human energy needs. Such implementation would undoubtedly have a huge impact on the environment. Is that what environmentalists really want? Seeing as the biggest problem environmentalists have with dams is their alteration of the environment, I will assume implementation of solar and wind on the scale needed would face just as much opposition as dams. So then what needs to be done? Humans have to stop development and live modestly. But how would that be enforced? What does that mean would have to happen in our daily lives? How many luxuries that we enjoy and take for granted would we have to give up and how would that be enforced? Would we simply be monitored every moment of our lives to ensure that we are living modestly enough? What would be the punishment for non-compliance? And this is only concerning already developed countries. What about developing countries? Do we have to stop them from developing too? Or do we allow them to reach a modest level and stop them? Is it right or fair to impose such restrictions on other countries? These questions have to be answered if we really want to pursue renewable energy. Their inefficiencies only mean two outcomes: massive scale implementation that has a huge environmental impact, or halting development and enforcing everyone to live modestly, however that is defined. As humans we respond to our environment and alter it to suit our needs. This makes us fundamentally different from all other organisms on the planet. Development is altering our environment to make it more suitable for our needs. Should we change our nature? As environmental studies majors we should really consider the ultimate consequences of even our actions, which on the surface sound very good. But what will be the real cost if we get what we advocate for? How will it be enforced and what will that mean for our individual liberties? How much are we willing to give up and how do we feel morally about forcing our policies on others? We owe it to ourselves to really search all perspectives to finally make what we can truly say is the right approach to the problems we face today.
Corey Bustamante is a junior double majoring in Environmental Studies and Economics.
Richard Charlesworth is a senior majoring in Environmental Studies and minoring in Architecture.