Commentary

Government’s Big Energy Folly

The West’s relentless campaign for “green” energy is finally running into economic and political reality.

Despite massive subsidies to purchasers, the world’s biggest producer of solar cells, China’s Suntech, went bankrupt last year. There’s simply too little worldwide demand for this inefficient source of electricity.

The West’s relentless campaign for “green” energy is finally running into economic and political reality.”

Because the sun is below the horizon half the time, is low in the sky in the winter, and clouds block up to 90 percent of its incoming energy, relying on it for dependable energy seems like a poor idea at the outset. Add the fact that solar-panel efficiency drops dramatically as dust accumulates, and the result is an actual solar power “capacity factor” of around 20 percent. It is closer to 90 percent for more traditional power plants.

In light of these facts, who is going to seriously invest in solar? Despite an uptick in share prices in the past year, a basket of solar-energy stocks purchased a decade ago would have blown a irreparable hole in your 401(k).

Solar is not alone. There’s more blowing in the wind. Britain’s largest offshore wind farm has just been canceled, also for lack of private investment. Wind is the world’s most expensive energy source, and one has to wonder how long taxpayers, who won’t voluntarily invest in such boondoggles, will put up with governments using their money to do so.

At least the sun and wind create power on their own, but the government also foists a “green”-energy source on us that can actually consume more energy that it produces: the corn-based ethanol mandate.

Here at least creeps in a bit of sanity — finally. After mounting pressure, the Obama administration had ratcheted down its 2014 ethanol mandate, from more than 18 billion gallons to “only” 15 billion gallons. Why? Because a mandate of more than 18 billion gallons would have increased the ethanol concentration in gas above the current 10 percent, further degrading engine performance and shortening engine life. People like the government wrecking their cars even less than they like paying taxes.

Aside from hurting vehicle engines, ethanol fails to do anything about dreaded global warming, thanks to the amount of energy it takes to produce it, and the amount of stored carbon that goes into the atmosphere when marginal lands are turned over to corn.

It makes the most environmental sense to simply cut the ethanol mandate to zero, but the massive infrastructure — distilleries, storage facilities, rail lines and more — that support ethanol production employs thousands, even if the jobs aren’t “green.” The small towns of Iowa and Wisconsin are not going to go gently into the night. So it makes the most political sense to keep it alive, continuing the culture of government dependency that has become the soul of big agriculture.

The follies of government intervention in big energy are there for all to see — in the ethanol mandate, in massive wind farms that pollute the landscape, and in the financial disasters of the solar-power industry, where Solyndra was just the beginning, and Suntech is hardly the end.

The argument that “green”-energy subsidies are temporary, short-lived, and only required until improved technology makes them profitable has been proved false. They are obviously more permanent than transient.

What’s really hurting solar and wind power is the inability of lawmakers (or anyone else) to anticipate major changes in energy supply and technology. In 1992, when the wind-power subsidy was first passed, the reigning myth was that the United States was rapidly running out of fossil fuels, especially natural gas.

Of course, everyone was wrong. Advances in drilling technology and the discovery of massive worldwide fields of gas-bearing shale have made gas-fired electrical generation about one-fourth the cost per unit of power than offshore wind. It’s therefore unsurprising that investors favor profitable and dependable gas over wind and solar, which require subsidies to survive.

Setting energy policies in stone is a foolhardy proclivity of modern government, and it actually impedes progress toward a more energy-efficient future. When the government confiscates money from the many and disburses it in subsidies to the few, there’s less available for investment.

Washington needs to realize that taxpayers are much more comfortable investing their own money in the technologies of their choice, rather than being coerced to throw it at solar farms, environmentally damaging ethanol and windmills.

Patrick J. Michaels is the director of the Center for the Study of Science at the Cato Institute.