25 January 2011

The Nation (magazine)


Mr. Fenton’s article could use some work – a researcher and stronger facts and figures in particular. But his central argument is sound – the current debate is not a debate. Little fact underlies the discussion. There’s a lot of claim of belief rather than logical assessment.

I have a general understanding of the technologies and economics involved, and I have been studying the issues for a quarter century. Here’s a few facts I do know: $250 billion a year leaves the US for oil from countries that don’t like us much. Our technological developments (our engineers and scientists developed the first deployed photovoltaic panels) are being brought to scale by other countries (China in particular, followed by the EU and Japan). Add to this the specter of climate change and the potentially devastating economic (to say nothing of the environmental) effects and it is a nasty brew.

Some of his facts are in essence correct. According to the DOE, buildings account for approximately 37% of US energy consumption. For each $1 billion spent in building energy reductions, we avoid approximately $2.5 billion to build new coal plants. Reducing building energy consumption can be achieved at a net overall economic benefit. The building sector is largely a domestic industry. Most materials and equipment are manufactured here (though many of the high value and high efficiency/high tech components are now being manufactured elsewhere). Construction and renovation jobs cannot be outsourced.

But what is most startling in the comments to Fenton’s commentary is the notion that clean energy technologies require massive subsidies to be competitive. I am going to leave out of this discussion the external costs of fossil fuels, like acid rain, particulate pollution, elevated asthma rates, climate change, two wars, the list goes on. The fossil fuel industry receives massive subsidies and has for decades consistently. Nuclear power is the beneficiary of some of the largest in the energy sector relative to production, and a new plant hasn’t been completed in 20 years. Clean energy subsidies are sporadic, limiting investment because there is an inability to plan. Washington politicians like to talk about removing entitlements and balancing the budget, but when it comes to pork, there is no restraint. There is no free market, merely corporate socialism. Let’s start by removing all subsidies to energy and putting all the players on a level field. Maybe then we can discuss a carbon tax, which would be particularly advantageous to get us off of foreign oil. Use that tax money to reduce corporate taxes, especially on small businesses.

Or we can continue to dither while the Chinese, Indians, and EU plan, which alas, I fear, is the probably scenario. It looks like it’s got to get a lot worse before it gets better.

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