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America's Unrequited Love of Alternative Energy

Like many Democrats, President Obama wants to believe -- wants desperately to believe -- in the technologies that can safely be assumed to be alternative. Most of them are used for electricity generation; and while in principle they are many, in reality they are few. Two in fact: wind power and solar power. Hence, the Solyndra affair and the willful missteps that led up to it.

Though subsidized with tax breaks and other incentives, wind is established – and embraced by utilities, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Solar has had a harder time getting a hold in the marketplace.
It's not that solar doesn't work, but that it's expensive and beset with other problems.

Enter Solyndra, looking like the next generation of solar -- if you will, the new-and-improved solar. First, it used new materials in its solar cells instead of the dominant silicon. Second, it offered an entirely different kind of panel made up of rows of long, cylindrical tubes, or “modules,” designed to capture more of the sun's rays than a traditional flat one.

When I first saw these displayed at an Edison Electric Institute convention, I was intrigued and filmed a short segment for my television program on the technology. It appeared to offer a big step forward – the kind that believers in alternative energy would like to take. They'd like to vault ahead of the limited market penetration (about 3 percent for wind and hardly measurable for solar).

Leaving out the behind-the-scenes politics, Solyndra was compelling for any White House that wanted to be seen as befriending alternative energy technology. This included the administration of George W. Bush.

There's still much of the Solyndra story that has not been told, particularly the role of the Chinese in swamping the world market with cheap silicon cells. Yet, Solyndra was a sophisticated company and it must have known that China was the Goliath to its David. Also, the Department of Energy must have known how fragile Solyndra's market position was.

Yet, fatally, when politicians and scientists want something to happen, they are no wiser than teenaged lovers.

A much bigger question than why the government loved Solyndra too much is why are Democrats, and liberals in general, so passionate about alternative energy? Since the 1970s, they've held out hope that electricity can be made in less than traditional ways, although those ways are proven and abundant; but as with all large industrial actions, they aren't without consequences.

Coal, which provides about half of our electricity, is dirty to mine, transport and burn. It can be cleaned up somewhat, under the rubric of “clean coal.” Natural gas -- now in abundance because of improved drilling and extraction technology in combination with better turbines -- offers a modified environmental impact and is less damaging than coal to extract; and twice as clean as coal to burn. It provides about 25 percent of our electricity and is in growing demand, but it's still controversial.

Then there's nuclear. And here's the rub: It accounts for some 20 percent of our electricity and maybe 80 percent of the controversy in electric generation. Nuclear is a favorite of electric utilities the world over because it's so efficient. One large reactor is available round the clock and produces as much electricity as 1,000 windmills.

But it's been the target of environmentalists since its golden age of expansion in the 1960s.The attacks have covered such a range of issues, from radiological emissions to cooling water flows to the disposal of wastes, that one has to conclude that there's an extreme pathology involved.

If traditional power sources are troublesome and nuclear is detested, there  must be alternatives, no?

Thus, the love affair with wind and solar. It's a case, perhaps, among Democrats of not being so much in love as in love with love, overlooking, as love does, some major flaws, like the unpredictability of wind and the cost of solar.

Obama, coming from Chicago where Exelon operates 17 reactors, must know something about the efficiency of nuclear. But his support for it has been
contradictory: He has talked up nuclear but canceled the Yucca Mountain repository (at a cost to taxpayers of $15 billion), bowing to Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and to many in his party and in the White House.

The difficulty with coal and the hatred of nuclear, has left Democrats in need of some dream-angel form of energy to love. The Solyndra affair will pass, but Democrats longing for something other than the obvious in energy won't.

By. Llewellyn King

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. His e-mail is lking@kingpublishing.com




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  • Anonymous on September 30 2011 said:
    The hatred of nuclear is simple. Nuclear is ostensibly hard to understand, while - at least superficially - wind and solar are easy.I sent an elementary and funny version of a paper that I am going to give at an international conference to five Swedish journalists, and I could feel their animosity, although they are in Stockholm and I am in Uppsala. The topic was just too complicated. How the hell did I get so smart that I could understand it.The pathetic thing about nuclear in the US is the behavior of Dr Chu and his foot soldiers. Why couldn't he or some other Nobel Prize winner meet with the president and explain the issue to him in non-technical language.In Sweden the managers and technicians understand nuclear and what it can do, but with a few exceptions their mouths are frozen shut. Consequently, more and more money is or will be earmarked for nonsense.
  • Anonymous on September 30 2011 said:
    F.B.: I would be glad to read your paper, if I can access it somehow. Right now nuclear power stands a better chance in countries like France, Russia, China and India than here in the USA. We should be grateful to these nations for all they are doing to show the world that nuclear power can work, if there's the political will to make it happen.
  • Anonymous on September 30 2011 said:
    Government needs to implement a meaningful carbon tax and use it to REPLACE taxes on production, labor and investment.Unfortunately this is not POLITICALLY feasible in the US because the global warming crowd has bungled the sales jobs for a meaningful carbon tax.1) If the solution to too much CO2 in the air is to use less fossil fuels, why is NOT the solution to too much federal debt to use less government?2) If the optimal amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is 350 ppm (current=389 ppm) because that is the optimal concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere that life as we know most likely can continue, why is 18% of GDP (current =25% GDP) NOT the optimal size of the federal government since that is the size that most likely yields maximum economic growth?Or just Google "LMADster" for more info.
  • Anonymous on October 01 2011 said:
    Hi Alex. Eventually I will publish - or try to publish - that article in this forum. But first I have to go to the conference for which that paper is written, and give a well deserved lesson to anyone thinking that they know more about nuclear economics than my good self.

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