There’s something I really hate about long drives on unending interstates yet something I love about drives lasting the same amount of time on winding back country roads, as long as there is not a small town cop with a radar gun who thinks he is Sheriff Buford T. Justice and you may be hauling Carrie, Junior Buford’s wife-to-be who has had second thoughts about waltzing down the aisle with sonny boy.
But I digress.
Having recently enjoyed some long drives in the country I saw some pretty large wind farms. When I first saw the multitude of huge windmills slowly turning I thought they were beautiful, almost majestic. Seemingly pure of purpose symbolized by their all white coloring. My first response was almost visceral; I felt a certain pride, a certain feeling of “aha, we have found a solution to our fossil fuel problem.” Here we have these big mega-generators using natural, clean, wind turning and turning to create the power we need to heat our homes and power our factories.
Their presence loomed large, turning, turning, turning, seemingly without effort or noise (I was travelling in excess of the 70 mph speed limit and my windows were closed). They worked and worked, minute by minute and hour by hour without complaint, without so much as emitting a belch much less any nasty greenhouse gasses. Then, like a metaphorical slap in the head by one of those bad boy blades, I was jolted back to reality. How much energy did it take to fabricate this gyrating behemoth? How much fossil fuel did it take to move that thing and put it in place? And how does the cost of electricity compare between these Don Quixote ferocious giants and fossil fuel burning plants and nuclear facilities?
No surprise, the business world is way ahead of me. The NYT published an article by Matthew Wald and Tom Zeller in today’s (11/7/10) paper titled, Cost of Green Power Makes Projects Tougher to Sell. They tell one story about a Michael Polsky who owns a large wind farm. Last year, Michael had no problem selling his electricity to the local power company at a premium. But this year, the state decided that it was not in their constituents best interests to pay more for power from Mike and his windmills than the same power generated by fossil fuels.
This scenario is being repeated across the country and by the third quarter of this year, wind generator installation have fallen 72% from last year’s levels. Bottom line is that electricity generated by wind is more expensive than that generated by fossil fuel. Why buy something that is exactly the same as something else for more money?
Mr. Polsky calls these decisions short sighted. I call them ultimately rational.
Would you voluntarily pay more for an item that is indistinguishable from another item because someone said it would be better for you in the long term with no guarantee that it would be so?
The article states, “Companies that make solar cells and wind machines argue that a national energy policy is needed to guarantee them a market that will allow their industry to develop. Clean power will be an important industry globally for years, they say, and if the United States does not subsidize renewable energy now, it risks falling far behind other countries. “ When you read, “national anything policy” think taxes, think of some group of politicians who wouldn’t know the difference between a Darrieus model and the horizontal-axis variety artificially directing money and resources to something that they think is in your best interest.
And if you proceeded along that road and bought the more expensive version of electricity because that charlatan Polsky (and some government mandate) convinced you that things would be better in the future and we wouldn’t “risk falling far behind other countries,” is it possible that by doing so you could actually be causing more harm?
In the famous words of that oh-so-hot but much maligned Sarah Palin: “You betcha.”
If we decide to violate what I characterize as natural physics by spending money on wind power when it is more expensive than fossil fuel, we are redirecting resources artificially. Rather than allowing technology and innovation to find the real long term solution, we are deciding what it is before it is proven.
It may be wind power. It may be solar. And it may be something we have not thought of yet and that is exactly the point.
Despite what one may think after the recent QE2, where Ben “get them printing presses rolling” Bernanke xeroxed about $600B into the economy, investment capital is not infinite in supply. So if we violate the natural physics of this money looking for the real “best investment” in power by telling it we have the answer before we really do, we may be diverting it from the real, real long term solution.
Choosing to subsidize wind power will provide it a financial crutch that may prohibit it from ever really walking on its own. Let these wind farm investors squirm. Let them feel the forces of nature motivate them to become more efficient; to naturally find solutions to increase the efficiency and reduce the cost of wind powered energy.
Isn’t one bad chemistry experiment like ethanol based fuels enough?