Diary

Rhapsody in Green: The Nightmare Continues

Alert readers may have heard recent mention of a new report that has come out of Spain, analyzing the outcomes of that country’s big “green energy” drive – a drive that is frequently held up to us as a model for emulation.

The results have been – to say the least – not only disappointing, but very negative. The salient economic highlights are findings that: 1) For every four “green” jobs created, nine other jobs were destroyed; 2) Among those “green” jobs, only 1 in 10 was a real, full-time job. None of this is a surprise; “alternative energy” requires overly-massive use of scarce resources – resources that can only be taken away from better and more productive activities.

But rather than belabor the point, it’s simply easier to point interested readers to the report itself. You can find it here; that link takes you directly to the .pdf file to download. The report is 51 pages long and begins with a good executive summary – and the file size is only 667kB, so it should download in a jiffy.

But when it comes to doing a circuit of the latest goings-on in the world of The Green Nightmare…. we’re just getting started.

The “Green Dream” is rapidly devolving into a “Green Nightmare” of zero-results foolishness, corruption, rent-seeking, and political destabilization. Good intentions do not obviate bad results – as physics has this strange habit of always winning. And those bad results are spilling out in all sorts of directions that go far beyond the mere supplying of energy.

Much, much more below the fold….

Another nation which is frequently held up as a model for “green energy” is Germany; this is particularly notable – since for much of North America northern, foggy Germany is a closer climatic analog than is warm, sunny Spain. So how is that one working out?

The world looks to Germany to be a leader in Green Energy. There’s been a great deal of hype surrounding Chancellor Angela Merkel’s very ambitious goals of dramatically reducing the county’s emissions by 2020.

Yet the German experience should also provide some pause to President Obama and others proposing such changes in the United States. It turns out that goals are potentially unrealistic, perhaps even dangerous, for numerous reasons. One reason that makes them so unrealistic is that they are seriously hamstrung by effectively cutting off the single largest source of CO2-free energy available anywhere in the world right now: Nuclear Power.

This reflects how much Germany has been influenced by green politics. In the years of the Socialist-Green government stretching from 1998 – 2005, nuclear power was considered an anathema. The Green party has its roots in the anti-nuclear power movement of the seventies. One of the most important items on their agenda when they came into power was to completely eliminate Germany’s use of nuclear power in the now infamous Atomaustieg or Nuclear exit which mandated that Germany no longer use nuclear power by the year 2020.

Much of that should sound familiar on this side of “the pond” as well. But to clarify a key aspect, in 1998, as a condition of joining a coalition government headed by Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democrats, the Green Party demanded a concession that Germany would shut down all of its nuclear power plants. This was pure politics, and was simply an attempt to impose an ideology onto reality.

There have been numerous consequences, such as:

Ironically Germany remains one of the leading countries when it comes to nuclear technology. Areva, France’s nuclear leviathan has a large R&D facility here in Germany…. The German engineers working here in Erlangen are regularly sent abroad to help with the building and maintenance of nuclear plants throughout Europe and the rest of the world.

I’ve actually dined with German nuclear engineers in Kyiv (Kiev), who shake their heads in amazement that they are spending most of their time these days traveling to nuclear projects in Ukraine and Russia, with nothing to do at home. (Similarly, nuclear engineering Ph.Ds I know who work at the nuclear power R&D center at Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee have long noted that by far the greatest interest in their work comes from…. China and Taiwan.)

But, ultimately, green fantasies can’t keep the lights on. So if you want to de-nuclearize, what happens?

Germany’s desire to reduce greenhouse gases and live without nuclear power has taken some almost absurd turns over the years. For one thing, Germany appears to be turning to its single cheap and abundant supply of energy, albeit a very dirty one, coal. Germany has both some cleaner anthracite and a lot of very dirty bitumen mines. These mines provide an enormous portion of Germany’s electricity….

To meet the country’s electric power needs with nuclear power off the table, Germany is being forced to build more plain old coal-fired power plants. Great, isn’t it?

In addition to wind, the German greens have been trying to believe that solar power is workable. However, as noted above, there is one very significant problem:

The single most absurd aspect of the Green’s [sic] desire to eliminate Germany’s reliance of [sic] nuclear power are massive subsidies that it has provided for both solar and wind power generation. Germany, while not the gloomiest country in Europe, is not exactly sunny. It has huge annual amounts of precipitation and dark, grey winters.

Does that sound familiar? It should to anyone in the more northerly parts of North America – where sunshine is a rather scarce commodity.

But perhaps the most frightening aspect of all goes beyond the silliness and hideous expense of “alternative energy.” The mindless drive for “green energy” is leading to even more disastrous consequences:

Germany has shunned nuclear and coal in an attempt to use wind and solar. Renewable sources are not only much more expensive but also cannot begin to provide the amount of energy at economical rates. Germans are also big fans of natural gas but the problem is Germany has very little of it. Germany has had to import its natural gas, some from fairly reliable partners like the Netherlands and the United Kingdom but mostly from an increasingly assertive and authoritarian Russia.

So rather than promote independence in energy, Germany’s green policies are making it ever more dependent on an autocracy.

This moves the mindlessness of “green energy” beyond the problem of economic waste – to one of dangerous geopolitical consequences. In Germany’s case, the unfulfillable green fantasy is forcing Germany to make up the difference with, among other things, large amounts of imported Russian natural gas. As a consequence, Germany is increasingly becoming “Finlandized” and virtually a client state of Putin’s Russia. Germany is increasingly acting as a sort of Russian interests section inside the EU and NATO (neither of which is Russia a member); as a stunning example, last year Germany used its veto power inside NATO to more-or-less single-handedly block all NATO efforts to even begin the process of opening membership paths for Ukraine and Georgia – two vulnerable post-Soviet states that are frantically trying to build bridges to “the West” as protection against yet another re-absorption into the latest rendition of the Russian empire.

In addition, Germany is planning to join Russia in building a direct (and ecologically-questionable) gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea – to bring Russian natural gas directly to Germany, bypassing Germany’s fellow EU member countries in eastern Europe.

Not surprisingly, these events are (justifiably) setting off alarm bells across eastern Europe – where episodes of Russo-German “cooperation” in the not-too-distant past (such as the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement of 1939) are still remembered. Will Germany be all too happy to bargain-away the “new Europe” eastern countries (and fellow EU members) back into a tacitly-acknowledged status of being inside the “Russian sphere of influence” in exchange for natural gas supplies? Given the German behavior inside NATO with regard to Ukraine and Georgia, that’s an entirely legitimate concern.

It’s strange to see how the mindless German drive for “green energy” is leading – via a pigheaded chain of causality – to the political destabilization of central and eastern Europe.

But let’s move on.

Germany is an obviously-poor setting for solar energy. In contrast, sunny Australia seems to be a good location.

In Australia, there is a plan in place that should sound familiar. Householders are given a large subsidy for the installation of private solar panels – with one of the notions being that when panels are generating electricity not needed by the household, that surplus electricity can be sold back onto the grid.

How is this plan working out?

Brisbane environmental lawyer Jo Bragg and her [“]partner[“], Gary Kane, spent $28,000 on three roof panels to generate solar power for their home in the inner Brisbane suburb of Highgate Hill.

After receiving a federal government rebate of $8000, they hoped to recover their investment in a cleaner planet within a few years by selling excess power into the mains electricity grid.

In the three months to April, they used 1384 kilowatt hours and produced 388 kilowatt hours of excess power, for which they received the princely sum of $12.96 after taxes.

Looking at the exchange rate as of last Friday (29 May), the Australian dollar is trading at about $0.78 U.S. So to translate to U.S. dollars, the panels cost about $22,000, the Australian federal government provided a rebate of about $6,200, and in three months of use they received a little more than $10 for the power their system returned to the grid.

At that rate, it will take nearly 400 years to recoup the investment (and that has to assume no further maintenance or upgrading costs).

Naturally, the response from Ms. Bragg is that more subsidies are required – but let’s not go there.

Of course, one important aspect of solar panels is that they don’t just fall from the sky in whole form. They have to be manufactured; the manufacturing processes involved are very similar to those used in the semiconductor industry. These processes require the presence of a lot of very nasty materials, chemicals, and gases – both as inputs and as outputs; the groundwater contamination problems at the sites of many “original” (1950s/1960s) semiconductor manufacturing facilities are now well-known.

Well, for some reason, the manufacturing infrastructure for solar technology – for both input materials and for panel manufacturing – seems to be migrating (to lamentation from some other jurisdictions) to China. Hmm. Why might that be the case?

The first time Li Gengxuan saw the dump trucks from the nearby factory pull into his village, he couldn’t believe what happened. Stopping between the cornfields and the primary school playground, the workers dumped buckets of bubbling white liquid onto the ground. Then they turned around and drove right back through the gates of their compound without a word.

This ritual has been going on almost every day for nine months, Li and other villagers said.

In China, a country buckling with the breakneck pace of its industrial growth, such stories of environmental pollution are not uncommon. But the Luoyang Zhonggui High-Technology Co., here in the central plains of Henan Province near the Yellow River, stands out for one reason: It’s a green energy company, producing polysilicon destined for solar energy panels sold around the world. But the byproduct of polysilicon production — silicon tetrachloride — is a highly toxic substance that poses environmental hazards.

“The land where you dump or bury it will be infertile. No grass or trees will grow in the place. . . . It is like dynamite — it is poisonous, it is polluting. Human beings can never touch it,” said Ren Bingyan, a professor at the School of Material Sciences at Hebei Industrial University.

That’s nasty stuff – with nasty consequences. But once again, we can see the consequences that flow from mindless “green” drives and the subsidies that they require – in this case, horrible environmental contamination in China is being caused by subsidies foisted onto the “problem” and artificially inflating demand. These sorts of chemical byproducts can be dealt with safely – those methods are already known. But they are rather expensive – so, not surprisingly, solar component manufacturing is naturally migrating to jurisdictions that have lax environmental laws and no open political processes for the affected citizens to stop the contamination – a sad reality of what is supposed to be a big step up in environmental care.

So while China is becoming home to the ugly realities of solar component fabrication, and is well-known for its rapid construction of more and more new coal-fired electric power plants, it is also making large efforts to expand its nuclear power capacity:

China’s nuclear power sector will triple in size over the next decade. According to the latest data from the National Energy Administration, China will activate 24 new reactors by 2020. That new capacity should allow the country to more than quadruple the quantity of electricity it generates from fission.

With 11 reactors now in place, China has about 9.1 gigawatts of nuclear capacity. Within a decade, that capacity is expected to hit 40 GW, thereby doubling nuclear’s share of the Chinese electric market from 2 percent to 4 percent.

The latest units being built are at the Sanmen Nuclear Power Plant in Zhejiang province. The three-phase scheme, with an investment of more than $5.9 billion earmarked for the first phase, will incorporate the application of the third-generation pressurized water reactor technology AP1000 introduced from US-based Westinghouse.

In contrast to the solar component mess described above, China is wisely choosing to import (safe and reliable) nuclear engineering technology from the United States (and, in other projects, from France and Germany). And as I noted above, friends who work in nuclear engineering R&D at Oak Ridge National Lab have long noted that most of the interest in their work comes from China and Taiwan.

But it’s not only China – a similarly-rapid ramping-up of the construction of nuclear power plants is also underway in South Africa:

Eskom appears to be kickstarting its massive nuclear energy plans again.

The utility, which halted its nuclear bidding programme for Nuclear-1 in December last year, has now revised its application to the environmental authorities, asking to be allowed to combine authorisations to develop Nuclear-1, Nuclear-2 and Nuclear-3 power stations at all three coastal sites earmarked for the nuclear programme.

The wider world seems to have figured what to do to get the safest, most-reliable electricity at (this is important) the lowest cost.

Meanwhile…. we haven’t picked on wind turbines in awhile (or in this essay at all), so let’s stop for a moment and rectify that shortcoming.

They “explode!”

On calm days, they burst into flames!

In that first one, it’s interesting to see one of the turbine blades fly off and scythe down the turbine tower like a blade of grass. But the second one is rather disturbing – since it’s obvious from both the other windmills and from the nearly-vertical rise of the smoke pall that this is happening on a calm day. Are wind turbines a spontaneous fire hazard? I don’t know, but it’s an interesting question to ask (and have answered) – given the “plans” kicking around to put these things all over the heavily forested ridgelines of various mountainous parts of the country.

But in equally serious matters, the “wind bubble” is showing unmistakable signs of bursting. For example:

The UK’s only wind turbine manufact­uring plant is to close, dealing a humili­ating blow to the government’s promise to support low-carbon industries.

Vestas, the world’s biggest wind energy group, said today that it would close its Isle of Wight facility, which employs about 700 people and makes blades for wind farms in the US.

The group had planned to convert the factory in Newport so it could make blades for the British market, but said this morning that the paralysis gripping the industry meant that orders had ground to a halt. Such low demand could not justify the investment, Ditlev Engel, the chief executive, told the Guardian.

When something requires huge subsidies to be viable, a sharp recession has a way of putting a stop to those subsidies – and wind power just isn’t viable without massive subsidies.

This implies that wind power is a racket – basically, a great way of taking taxpayer monies (via subsidies) and directing them into your own pocket. Well, if that’s indeed the racket in question, what kind of “organization” might take an interest in getting in on a few pieces of the action?

Anti-Mafia magistrates in Sicily have opened a sweeping investigation into the wind power sector where local officials, entrepreneurs and crime gangs are suspected of collusion in the construction of lucrative wind farms before their eventual sale to multinational companies.

Italian and EU subsidies for the building of wind farms and the world’s highest guaranteed rates, €180 ($240, £160) per kwh, for the electricity they produce have turned southern Italy into a highly attractive market exploited by organised crime.

The creation of jokes (and other related forms of humor) will be left as an exercise for the reader.

But none of this should really be a surprise – when you dump large amounts of “free money” on the floor, various devious characters will appear and find ways to game the system to channel great gobs of that free money into their own pockets.

Another good example of this kind of “gaming-of-the-system” (link is to a .pdf file) is:

…. it has now become apparent that China is creating HFCs [hydrofluorocarbons – ed.] – with 12,000 times the global warming potential of CO2 – for the purpose of being paid to destroy them under Kyoto. This is what such schemes have always created, from the British in India offering bounties for poisonous cobras – which led to mass breeding of the creatures – to the modern-day version of that ploy.

To translate that into street English, various players in China (and apparently in India as well) have looked carefully at various incarnations of payments to polluting countries – in the guise of “greenhouse gas emission reduction payments.” Seeing that the cost of manufacturing the offending substances (in this case, HFCs) is much less than the payments earned for their destruction, these players are cranking up the production of HFCs for the sole purpose of then being paid a very nice “profit” for immediately destroying them. This is probably procedurally correctable – but it tells us (once again – plus ça change and all that) that all attempts to promote inherently-uncompetitive “alternative energies” will – by their very nature – set up systems that can be gamed and exploited by fraudsters.

The games of “Mafia Wind” and HFC creation-and-destruction are obviously feeding some nice returns into certain pockets. But ultimately they are small potatoes; the real big money (and big opportunity for cheating one’s way to undue influence) is provided by various “cap-and-trade” proposals.

How do we know that? Well, just from recent experience with another cap-and-trade area:

A woman who traded air pollution credits among Southern California businesses admitted in federal court today that she defrauded a New York investment firm.

Anne Masters Sholtz, 40, of Bradbury, pleaded guilty this afternoon to one count of wire fraud, a charge that carries a potential penalty of five years in federal prison. By pleading guilty, Sholtz admitted her involvement in a scheme in which she used forged documents and her knowledge of trading pollution credits to defraud AG Clean Air, a New York-based company that trades in energy credits.

That was four years ago, but the lesson is clear – if you keep a dirty kitchen, you will attract roaches.

Of course, we’re also now finding out that if you hand something like cap-and-trade over to Congress, it quickly transforms itself into cap-and-pork:

On May 15th Henry Waxman and Edward Markey, the Democratic point-men on climate change in the House of Representatives, unveiled a bill that would give away 85% of carbon permits for nothing, with only 15% being auctioned.

Oops! The permits will now be handed out as pork to favored interests – and the Obama budget plans now have a $600 billion hole in them (since the “take” from auctioning permits won’t be there). Leave it to Congressional leftists to take a bad response to a completely non-existent problem – and make things even worse.

But just as important, when one boils away all the fluffy gauze of rhetoric that gets spun around cap-and-trade, one basically finds that it amounts to a crippling energy tax. Not surprisingly, this is equally crippling to economic development and job creation.

A good example is presently unfolding in Louisiana. Nucor is (surprisingly) now the nation’s largest steel producer. Nucor has always been a well-run company, and has been the most visibly-successful of the “new steel” corporations – those who, rather than using large blast furnaces and the rawest of raw materials, use electric arc furnaces and scrap steel as the input. Since they do not face the constraint of requiring easy access to iron ore, coke, and limestone, “mini-mill” operators such as Nucor have a great deal of geographic flexibility in where they choose to locate their facilities.

Early in 2008, Nucor announced that it was going to build a new steel mill – with a total direct investment of $2 billion and the direct creation of 700 jobs. Due to the economic downturn, the construction of that mill is on hold – pending a revival of the demand for steel. Nucor has boiled the site selection down to two locations – Louisiana and Brazil. While they wait, the choice may be forced by any cap-and-trade legislation coming out of Washington:

Global demand for iron/steel will be met one way or another so the Nucor facility or something like it will be built somewhere in the world (by Nucor or someone else)…. If this facility is built in the U.S. by Nucor, it will be the most efficient, most environmentally friendly facility of its kind in the world – a facility utilizing “best available control technology” (BACT) as defined by the U.S. EPA.

Nucor runs a good ship. But there are realities in the world – and not every ship is run as well as is Nucor:

If a facility like this is built in another country [by someone other than Nucor – ed.], it is very likely to have less stringent emission control equipment because environmental standards are lower in Brazil and many other countries versus the U.S. There is a significant risk that adoption of a new industrial greenhouse-gas control policy by the U.S., without similar commitments from other countries, could hurt both our economy and global climate change [sic – ed.] because it could encourage large manufacturing operations to be developed in countries that have lower environmental standards than the U.S.

There are two take-aways from this:

1) If Nucor builds the plant in Brazil rather than Louisiana, they will build it to meet high standards – the only difference is that no jobs will be created in the U.S.

2) If Nucor doesn’t build this plant, other (less-scrupulous) players will meet the demand for steel but do so in a much more environmentally-detrimental way. (This is basically what is happening with the location of polysilicon-for-solar-components manufacturing in remote parts of China.)

That’s what these sorts of “cap-and-trade” schemes boil down to for regular folk – the jobs get exported, and in many circumstances the net environmental impact is even worse.

But in any case, this entire problem compresses down to a frightening reality – the constraints are all based on rationality and real constraints…. and these are things that various “green fantasies” not only choose to ignore – they must ignore them to continue in existence.

An example of the level of silly irrationality to which greenism has sunk was recently provided by (of all outfits) Domino Sugar – which recently announced that it was selling carbon-free sugar. I don’t like to put in a non-functional link, but I will on the odd chance that it comes back. That’s the link to the company’s recent announcement, and one can only assume that it was pulled in (deserved) embarrassment after receiving a good deal of (deserved) ridicule – but the vigilant Anthony Watts has preserved a visual record here.

This is, of course, great fun. The basic form of a sugar molecule is C6H12O6, and the combination molecule of “sucrose” (plain old table sugar) is C12H22O11. So “carbon-free sugar” is…. water.

So we now have carbon-free sugar – and doubtless carbon-free ethanol cannot be far behind. Apparently, there’s been little progress on carbon-free charcoal – although that one should be rather easy.

Okay, I’ll stop the fun there – and note that the Tiger has a surprising number of obtuse readers who can’t handle a joke. We all know what’s really going on here, but the way it came out is unforgivably silly. I’ll just let Tony Watts provide the non-punchline:

Ok, I’m being a bit extreme, I realize the idea is to promote a carbon neutral production of sugar.

But really, couldn’t the marketing people at Domino realize how stupid this claim sounds? I’ll bet the guys at the Domino company labs are having a fit. I’d love to see the emails that went flying when they learned of this one. Beakers were probably flying across the lab too.

But some companies will do anything to appear green these days, because they want to keep that “other green footprint” high.

Ah, the sweet smell of success.

Indeed.


That’s a lot of turf to cover, and it’s difficult to come up with an appropriate summary.

Perhaps the best one that can be offered is to ponder the common thread that seems to run through all of these stories – and of the “green fantasy” in general.

The more contact that the various “green dreams” have with reality, the more they appear to be a modern-day form of some sort of “children’s crusade.” Basic aspects of simple physics have to be willfully ignored – and that’s on top of the need to also ignore basic realities of economics, politics, and sociology.

During my travels around the world, I’m frequently invited to lecture to university engineering students. One of the general notions of engineering that I always try to convey is that good engineering – on a day-to-day basis – requires a level-headed understanding of constraints and trade-offs; in particular, it is necessary to understand the trade-offs inherent in any challenge, and to manage those trade-offs to best advantage for the situation at hand. Constraints provide the limits – and serve to demarcate the boundaries beyond which some genuinely new innovation will be required.

“Green energy” requires intentional neglect of both trade-offs and constraints. The present trade-offs are very poor, and the constraints are also a very harsh reality. The most important need would be some fundamentally-different event grounded in physics – comparable to the late-19th century determination that matter could be converted to energy. However, even with that finding, it took another half-century to achieve a viable technology. With nothing new appearing in the realm of fundamental physics, it is very unlikely that some change is actually imminent; it would be foolish to plan on such a miracle occurring at all – let alone to assume that it would also rapidly translate into a viable technology.

For the moment, the entire “green drive” has to rely on the poor use (and profligate waste) of scarce resources – whether those resources are tangible or financial. This profligate waste of resources starves other projects – those of at-least-equal (or higher) value – of needed investments. This will leave everyone poorer in general, the energy challenges unresolved, and other more valuable outcomes stillborn.

“Greenism” requires a childish failure (or unwillingness) to recognize that having a high standard of living (which includes good health) has impacts on the wider world – impacts that cannot simply be wished away, but that must be dealt with via sober handling of the inherent trade-offs.

Hopefully, some adult rationality will soon return to this landscape; we can’t afford the alternative (pun intended) much longer….