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The Green New Deal: A War Against Energy (Part 1)

In early February, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unveiled her Green New Deal to great fanfare and media hype. The plan calls for a “massive transformation” of the U.S. economy by moving away from fossil fuels to “100% clean and renewable” energy in ten years, while creating more jobs and health care for all (among much else).

Almost immediately, numerous commentators pointed out the massive impracticalities of the plan and its accompanying FAQ (see, for instance, here, here and here). Many also noted the plan’s essentially socialist character. Why, notes the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberly Strassel, is “government-run health care . . . somehow a prerequisite for a clean economy”?

The combination of the plan’s impossibility with the moral righteousness that accompanied its release raises broader questions about what’s really behind it. Clearly something deeper is at work. But what?

In 2011, I wrote an article that examined in great detail the implications of similar green proposals to radically transform our energy economy, and I explored the deeper philosophical premises and motives driving such proposals.

The article was published in Why Businessmen Need Philosophy, a collection of essays aimed at business leaders about the ideas behind Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. But it has never been readily available in an online format.

Given the attention that the Green New Deal is receiving, we thought it would be a good opportunity to make my 2011 article more easily available by republishing it in New Ideal. Enjoy!

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Energy Privation: The Environmentalist Campaign Against Energy

Keith Lockitch | April 2011

In Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, one of the mysteries driving the plot involves a motor that taps an unusual source of energy: it draws static electricity from the atmosphere and converts it into useable power. Two of the novel’s heroes discover the broken remnants of a prototype in an abandoned factory, and then spend much of the novel trying to figure out how the motor works and searching for its unknown inventor.

The motor, and the urgent mystery surrounding its invention, dramatize a crucial idea: the enormous value of energy to human life. The characters who find the motor—railroad magnate Dagny Taggart and steel tycoon Hank Rearden—being two of the country’s leading business executives, are able immediately to envision its tremendous potential. “Don’t you understand what this means?” says Taggart.

It’s the greatest revolution in power motors since the internal-combustion engine—greater than that! It wipes everything out—and makes everything possible. . . . Who’ll want to look at a Diesel? Who’ll want to worry about oil, coal or refueling stations? Do you see what I see? A brand-new locomotive half the size of a single Diesel unit, and with ten times the power. A self-generator, working on a few drops of fuel, with no limits to its energy. The cleanest, swiftest, cheapest means of motion ever devised. . . . Hank, do you know what that motor would have meant, if built?

“I’d say: about ten years added to the life of every person in this country,” replies Rearden,

if you consider how many things it would have made easier and cheaper to produce, how many hours of human labor it would have released for other work, and how much more anyone’s work would have brought him. Locomotives? What about automobiles and ships and airplanes with a motor of this kind? And tractors. And power plants. All hooked to an unlimited supply of energy, with no fuel to pay for, except a few pennies’ worth to keep the converter going. That motor could have set the whole country in motion and on fire.1

While a motor “converting static energy into kinetic power” is an element of science fiction in Atlas Shrugged, what it symbolizes is a fact of the highest importance. The ability to harness energy on an industrial scale was an unprecedented liberating force, freeing mankind from the unrelenting hardship of brute physical labor.

The life-and-death value of energy

Before the Industrial Revolution, survival at the level of barest subsistence required a backbreaking struggle, powered chiefly by human and animal muscle.

In 1800 more than three quarters of the U.S. labor force worked on farms, toiling from dawn to dusk to produce quantities of food barely adequate for nutrition, struggling against drought and pestilence, aided only by crude wooden tools and the brute strength of draft animals.2

Today less than 3% of U.S. workers farm vastly greater quantities (and quality) of food, with the heavy labor done by diesel tractors and combine harvesters, automated irrigation systems, and the machinery in modern chemical factories that mass-produces highly effective pesticides and fertilizers.3

With every new advance in motive power—from the steam engine to the internal-combustion engine to electric turbines and motors and beyond—came vast new possibilities for the expansion of human productivity and the improvement of human life.

The advent of motive technologies fueled by highly concentrated energy sources blasted the barriers of preindustrial energy—barriers imposing strict limitations on the productivity of labor and severe restrictions on travel and trade. In the early nineteenth century, getting across the country, say from New York to Chicago—a distance we routinely fly today in a matter of hours—required weeks of grueling travel by stage coach.

The ability to harness energy on an industrial scale was an unprecedented liberating force, freeing mankind from the unrelenting hardship of brute physical labor.
The production of goods was limited to the small-scale operations of cottage industries, and shipping was constrained by the endurance of lumbering draft animals or by wind-powered sailing vessels whose top speed was on the order of ten mph.4 Today industrial-scale energy fuels a global trade worth trillions of dollars, with automated factory equipment churning out all manner of life-enhancing goods and with petroleum-powered trucks, freight trains, and cargo ships carrying them all over the planet.

Yet even today, large numbers of people still suffer for lack of industrial-scale energy. About 1.5 billion people have no electric lighting, refrigeration, computer technology, electronic devices or medical equipment—no access to electricity at all.5

About 2.5 billion people—more than one-third of the world’s population—have no source of energy for heating or cooking other than biomass fuels such as wood or animal dung, and the resulting smoke from open fires is a leading cause of death in undeveloped countries.6 The World Health Organization estimates that about 1.6 million people die every year from respiratory diseases directly attributable to indoor air pollution—almost as many as die annually from AIDS.7

Similarly, for lack of freshwater and sewage infrastructure built and powered using industrial-scale energy, “over 1 billion people globally lack access to safe drinking-water supplies, while 2.6 billion lack adequate sanitation.” Consequently, “diseases related to unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene result in an estimated 1.7 million deaths every year.”8

And for lack of an adequate capacity for food production and distribution, chronic undernourishment affects more than 1 billion people.9 The result is that in parts of the world today—particularly in parts of Africa—life expectancy is under forty years. It hasn’t been that low in the industrialized world since the eighteenth century—and today, in industrialized countries life expectancy is closer to eighty years.10

Industrial-scale energy is an indispensable, life-saving value. It has completely transformed human life for the better in the industrialized world. And the benefits of industrial development will come to undeveloped countries only if they develop the infrastructure for the large-scale production and use of energy, as India and China are currently doing.

We take energy for granted

But despite the vital role that energy plays in our lives, most of us tend to take it for granted. We, in the industrialized world, rarely think about the countless benefits it provides, or about how difficult life was (and still is) without it.  We have such reliable systems for the production and delivery of energy that we use it without giving it much thought.

We are largely ignorant about the sheer scale of the infrastructure and of the continuous investment of capital and resources and brainpower required to discover, extract, transport, process, market and deliver the energy that fuels every aspect of our global economy. We don’t think about everything that’s involved in keeping the gas flowing out of the pump or the electricity out of the wall.

Because we take the incredible benefits of industrial-scale energy for granted, we much more readily accept the claim, put forward by environmentalists, that our use of energy is a problem desperately in need of a solution.

For decades environmentalists have been telling us that man-made emissions of greenhouse gases—especially the burning of fossil fuels in our cars, factories, and power plants—are “interfering” with the earth’s climate. The resulting climate change will supposedly disrupt human life and activity, a threat that they insist requires immediate preventative action aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Our continued use of industrial-scale energy is literally a matter of life and death. It’s crucial to examine more closely and carefully the environmentalist movement’s proposed transformation of the global energy economy.
Almost always absent from the discussion, however, are the enormous values we reap from carbon-based fuels. If human life and happiness are the standard, can we afford to eliminate or even radically reduce our use of these sources of energy?

(Of course if you dream up, as many environmentalists do, scare stories like frequent “killer storms worse than Katrina and Gustav,” or “drought over half the planet,” including a “permanent Dust Bowl” stretching “from Kansas to California,” or rising sea levels displacing “more than 100 million environmental refugees,” then even the massive benefits of carbon-based fuels may seem insignificant in comparison.11)

But, you may be thinking at this point, most environmentalists are not proposing that in reducing greenhouse gas emissions we must do without industrial-scale energy altogether. Rather, we will simply have to shift from carbon-based fuels to “green energy.”

And because we are ignorant of the huge amount of thought and effort that was necessary to create our current system of industrial-scale energy, we much more readily accept their assertion that this shift is doable, easy, and even economically beneficial. But is there in fact reason to believe this?

Our continued use of industrial-scale energy is literally a matter of life and death. It’s crucial to examine more closely and carefully the environmentalist movement’s proposed transformation of the global energy economy. Just exactly what changes are being proposed to this vital system and just how carefully have they been thought through?

What the environmentalist movement is proposing is not just to tinker with our present system, but to alter it completely. To see this, consider its attitudes toward the energy sources that currently supply most of the world’s energy.

Green opposition to carbon fuels

Let us begin with oil and coal. These have been utilized on a large scale for only a few hundred years, but they are the fuels which, in a historically brief span of time, have completely transformed human life.

The large-scale production and use of coal began in England in the eighteenth century. As the chief fuel for the newly invented steam engine, coal was the dominant energy source powering the Industrial Revolution, which opened the floodgates for a stream of life-saving benefits unimaginable in the preindustrial era.

Today, coal supplies more than a quarter of the world’s energy (just over 27%), including nearly half of all the electricity generated in the United States.12, 13

Most of the world’s energy—more than 86%—is supplied by coal, natural gas and oil. Yet, these are the sources we are told we must stop using because of their “footprint” on the atmosphere.
Oil was first produced commercially in the 1860s, following Edwin Drake’s famous drilling of the first successful oil well in Pennsylvania in 1859. Initially valued for its kerosene content, oil revolutionized the illumination industry, bringing the benefits of inexpensive lighting to the masses of people unable to afford its expensive predecessor, sperm whale oil.

When kerosene lamps were supplanted by electric lighting in the late nineteenth century, oil in the form of gasoline and diesel went on to revolutionize the transportation industry, making possible a previously unimaginable degree of personal mobility.14

Today, oil provides around 36% of the world’s primary energy and supplies the overwhelming majority of its transportation fuel.15, 16

Together, oil and coal provide nearly two thirds of the world’s energy. These are fuels relied on heavily by the five billion people who do have access to electricity and the four billion who don’t have to cook over an open fire.

Yet, they are not merely opposed by environmentalists, but are vilified with a disturbing degree of moral hatred.

James Hansen, the NASA climate scientist who has played a leading role in promoting the climate issue, has called for criminal trials against the CEOs of fossil fuel energy companies, such as ExxonMobil and Peabody Coal.17 Oil is regarded as being in roughly the same category as heroin or crack: a self-destructive addiction that we desperately need to shake, and coal is attacked in even more vitriolic terms.

In Hansen’s view, the productive activities of the companies and business executives involved in the mining, transportation, and use of coal constitute “high crimes against humanity” on a par with the Nazi Holocaust. “Coal-fired power plants are factories of death,” he writes, and the coal trains that supply them are “death trains—no less gruesome than if they were boxcars headed to crematoria.”18, 19

Were the environmentalists’ proposed transformation of the energy system completed, it’s safe to say, we no longer would have much access to oil or coal.

While not denounced in quite such incendiary terms, the third major form of fossil fuel energy, natural gas, is also opposed on environmentalist grounds.

Natural gas provides nearly a quarter of the world’s energy (23%), and it is less “carbon intensive” than oil or coal—that is, burning it produces about half as much carbon dioxide as coal for the same amount of energy.20 (This is because each methane molecule has four hydrogen atoms to burn along with every atom of carbon, whereas typical coals have only around one hydrogen atom for every two carbons.21)

For this reason, some environmentalist groups have expressed qualified support for natural gas as a so-called bridge fuel that could smooth a transition away from coal and oil. (Famously gaffing on NBC’s Meet the Press, Nancy Pelosi even called natural gas “a clean, cheap alternative to fossil fuels.”22)

The environmentalist movement has been fighting nuclear energy since long before claims about man-made climate change became its dominant crusade.
But whatever muted support some environmentalists might have for natural gas, that support is highly conditional. As the Natural Resources Defense Council notes, “expanded use of natural gas can result in significantly lower cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide if it is used to displace those higher carbon fuels. However, a greater supply of natural gas in and of itself may or may not result in reduced emissions. . . . If natural gas displaces energy efficiency, renewable resources, or more efficient fuel or vehicle investments, then it would increase cumulative emissions”23—in which case they would presumably oppose it.

And ultimately, the environmentalist goal is to eliminate all carbon-emitting fossil fuels, including natural gas.

A New York Times editorial opposing a proposed offshore terminal facility for importing liquefied natural gas explained that one of the “major problems with Broadwater was that the benefits it promised—convenient satisfaction of the region’s energy needs—would inevitably shield us from the hard choices that have to be made to develop cleaner energy sources and usher in a world less dependent on traditional fossil fuels of any kind.”24

But the world’s dependence on “traditional fossil fuels” is not really a matter of “convenience.” We rely on them substantially to meet our critical energy needs. Most of the world’s energy—more than 86%—is supplied by coal, natural gas and oil.25 Yet, these are the sources we are told we must stop using because of their “footprint” on the atmosphere.

So what “cleaner” options do environmentalists offer as acceptable alternatives?

Green opposition to nuclear and hydroelectricity

What about nuclear power or hydroelectricity? These are both sources of energy that contribute significantly to world energy production and neither of them is carbon-based.

Nuclear power currently supplies about 6% of the world’s energy, or 15% of its electricity. About one-fifth of America’s electricity comes from nuclear power plants, while other countries rely on it much more. France, for instance, gets more than three-quarters of its electricity from its fifty-nine nuclear plants. Hydro, too, supplies slightly more than 6% of the world’s energy, or more than 16% of its electricity.26

The sub-atomic processes that release nuclear energy do not emit CO2, nor does the process of extracting the kinetic energy of water falling through electric turbines. But despite the fact that neither nuclear nor hydro produces greenhouse gas emissions in the process of making energy, neither of these sources is regarded as part of the “solution to global warming.”

Three decades before An Inconvenient Truth, the smash eco-hit was The China Syndrome. The environmentalist movement has been fighting nuclear energy since long before claims about man-made climate change became its dominant crusade. And nuclear power’s potential as a safe, proven, carbon-free means of providing a substantial portion of the world’s electricity has not changed that one bit.

Most of us assume that environmentalists have a plan for meeting the world’s energy needs, despite their rejection of every significant source currently used for that purpose.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, “expanding nuclear power is not a sound strategy for diversifying America’s energy portfolio and reducing global warming pollution.”27

WWF “strongly opposes” nuclear power, arguing that “replacing fossil fuel fired power stations with nuclear energy simply replaces one fundamental environmental problem by another”; the group’s position is that “the use of nonrenewable energy resources such as fossil fuels and uranium have to eventually be reduced to zero—a phase out of fossil fuel and nuclear power.” 28

The Sierra Club calls nuclear power “a bad choice,” while Greenpeace calls it “an expensive and dangerous distraction from the real solutions to climate change,” adding that “every dollar spent on nuclear power is a dollar stolen from the real solutions to climate change.”29, 30

As for hydro, environmentalists have opposed hydroelectricity even longer than they have nuclear power.

John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, famously fought the construction of a dam in Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley.31 And even though he lost his battle when Congress authorized the dam in 1913, his followers have continued his efforts ever since. The Sierra Club’s “History of Accomplishments” proudly lists numerous successful campaigns to block dams.32

On environmentalist grounds, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees hydro in the United States, has recently shown more of an interest in demolishing small hydro dams than in issuing licenses approving new ones.

In 1997 it refused to renew the license for the Edwards Dam, a privately owned 3.5 megawatt hydro facility on Maine’s Kennebec river, and took the unprecedented step of ordering the structure demolished against its owner’s will. Edwards was torn down in 1999, becoming the first dam destroyed by government edict for environmental reasons.33 A New York Times editorial reflecting on the tenth anniversary of the demolition, celebrated the fact that around 430 dams had been destroyed since Edwards—and looked forward to the anticipated destruction of others.34

Green energy revolution?

Oil, coal, natural gas, nuclear power, hydroelectricity. Altogether, these sources provide essentially all of the world’s energy—more than 98% of it, to be exact.35  They collectively supply more than 96% of the world’s electricity, while petroleum alone accounts for more than 94% of the world’s transportation fuel.36, 37

These energy sources are what currently power our modern world, and, given their indispensable role in agriculture, manufacturing, transportation, and all the other elements of industrial civilization, it’s no exaggeration to say that they are literally keeping us all alive.

Yet, mainstream environmental groups systematically reject each one as unacceptable forms of energy.

Clearly, what is being called for in terms of energy policy is not just a minor adjustment, but a total transformation of the whole way we go about producing and using energy: the way we generate electricity, the way we light and heat our buildings, the kinds of cars we drive and the amount of air travel we do, the way we power our factories and businesses, the way we transport goods and products all over the world, and so on and so on.

This is a sweeping and fundamental transformation that is being proposed. And just how radical a change it would be is significantly under-appreciated in the energy and climate debate.

Contrary to the implication of Gore’s statement, the energy delivered by sunlight and wind is, in fact, extremely weak.
No one who truly values human life could propose to completely cut off mankind’s access to energy. Yet, unless there’s a readily available alternative to our current methods of producing energy, that’s just what environmentalists seem to be proposing.

What most of us assume is that there is just such an alternative. We assume that environmentalists have a plan for replacing our current forms of energy and for meeting the world’s energy needs, despite their rejection of every significant source currently used for that purpose. And environmentalists certainly do claim to have such plans.

Indeed, there’s no shortage of would-be Energy Czars, each with his own plan for reconfiguring the entire global economy around his particular blend of preferred sources or methods of producing energy.

But the sources that all these planners mainly point to as the answer to our energy requirements—the “green” sources they all insist can be exploited economically, and in sufficient quantity, to supply our needs—are those making up the insignificant remaining 2% of world energy production: sources such as wind energy, solar power, geothermal energy, biofuels, etc.

Environmentalists claim that these various forms of energy are abundant sources of cheap, clean power. These are fuels that are “free forever” says Al Gore—in contrast to the “dirty, vulnerable, expensive, polluting fuels” that we currently rely on.38

Disparaging the “19th-century technologies that depend on dangerous and expensive carbon-based fuels” (electric turbines? the internal-combustion engine?), Gore hails his preferred “renewable” sources as the future of energy, praising the “21st-century technologies” that utilize them (windmills?).39

Environmentalists proclaim that the world is on the verge of a “green energy revolution,” which, once the vast potential of these renewable sources is unlocked, will power a booming “green economy” with unlimited possibilities.

Indeed, to hear the rhetoric describing the promise of these renewables one might think they were talking about something akin to the fictional motor in Atlas Shrugged—“the cleanest, swiftest, cheapest means of motion ever devised,” “an unlimited supply of energy” that “makes everything possible.”40

Fred Krupp, the president of Environmental Defense Fund, writes breathlessly about the “Climate Change Opportunity” that awaits. “Solving global warming,” he writes,

will create an historic economic opportunity. Energy is the biggest business in the world, “the mother of all markets,” says venture capitalist John Doerr, Google’s first funder. The winners of the race to reinvent energy will not only save the planet, but will also make megafortunes. . . . Fixing global warming won’t be a drain on the economy. On the contrary, it will unleash one of the greatest floods of new wealth in history.41

How do we unleash that flood of wealth? “What if we could use fuels that are not expensive, don’t cause pollution and are abundantly available right here at home?” asks Al Gore. “We have such fuels,” he declares.

Scientists have confirmed that enough solar energy falls on the surface of the earth every 40 minutes to meet 100 percent of the entire world’s energy needs for a full year. Tapping just a small portion of this solar energy could provide all of the electricity America uses. And enough wind power blows through the Midwest corridor every day to also meet 100 percent of US electricity demand. Geothermal energy, similarly, is capable of providing enormous supplies of electricity for America.” 42

Green energy realities

Unfortunately, however, scientists have confirmed a few other things as well, which undermine Gore’s conclusions.

While it is true that the total quantities of energy available in these sources is large, what he fails to mention is that it is spread out over enormous areas, which dilutes it considerably.

For instance, the figure Gore mentions regarding solar energy is accurate, but completely misleading. What he doesn’t emphasize, of course, is that all that solar energy is spread out over half the entire surface of the earth!

The relevant quantity in this context is not the total flux of energy, but the “power density”—that is, the amount of power available per unit area of the earth’s surface.

And contrary to the implication of Gore’s statement, the energy delivered by sunlight and wind is, in fact, extremely weak—these sources have a very low power density. To tap even “just a small portion” and extract a useful flow of energy requires gathering and concentrating all that power over vast areas, and—with today’s technology—is, in fact, not “free forever” but forbiddingly expensive.

Consider wind power, for example, which is considered the most promising renewable source and has seen the most rapid growth in recent years.

A modern wind turbine generates around 3 megawatts (MW) of electricity when it’s running. But this is typically less than a third of the time because wind blows intermittently, so on average one actually gets about 1 MW of usable electricity.

Vaclav Smil sums up his assessment of Gore’s “plan” in one word: “delusional.”
By comparison, a typical nuclear plant or a large coal-fired power plant generates around 1,000 MW of electricity. So to produce the same amount of power of just one nuclear or coal-fired plant takes about 1,000 wind turbines.

Note that the United States has around 600 coal-fired plants and around 100 nuclear plants. (700,000 windmills, anyone?) And while a coal or nuclear plant occupies, at most, a few thousand acres of land, the windmills—to collect and concentrate the same amount of energy—would have to be spread out over an area on the order of 200,000 acres.43

Note also that each windmill is a tower of steel twenty to forty stories tall that sits on an enormous base of concrete. Various estimates suggest that to build enough windmills to replace just one nuclear power plant would require somewhere between two and ten times more concrete and steel as was used to build the nuclear plant in the first place.44

In addition to their low power density, wind and sunlight are also unreliable as a source of stable, readily available power.

Subject to the vagaries of shifting clouds and unpredictable breezes, the skittish, intermittent power they supply adds a randomly fluctuating element to a system that, more than anything else, requires a stable, predictable flow of energy. Sudden, unexpected drop-offs or increases in supply can wreak havoc on an electric grid.

Unsuitable for supplying stable, base load power to meet the minimum daily demand on an electric grid—they are also unavailable to be dispatched at will to meet demand fluctuations. Where fossil-fueled generators can be cycled on or off as needed to supply reserve capacity, sunlight and wind cannot.

The more such sources are added to a grid, the more reserve capacity—typically in natural gas-fired generators—is needed as back-up.45

These are just some of the formidable obstacles to a rapid scale-up of renewable energy. Yet, it is these sources that the would-be planners of our “green energy future” are counting on for their grand schemes.

Old “Green New Deals”

In 2008 Al Gore proposed that the United States stop using fossil fuels and nuclear power altogether for generating electricity—that we “commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years.” This goal, he insisted, is “achievable, affordable and transformative.”46

Note first that Gore’s proposal would mean—as energy analyst Vaclav Smil points out—“writing off the entire fossil-fuel and nuclear generation industry, an enterprise whose power plants alone have a replacement value of at least $1.5 trillion (assuming at least $1,700/installed kW), and spending at least $2.5 trillion to build the new capacity.”

This would certainly be “transformative.” I’m not so sure about “achievable” or “affordable.”47

Consider also just how little the sources that Gore names explicitly—wind, solar and geothermal—currently contribute to electricity generation in the United States.

According to the most recent data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in the rolling 12-month period ending in November 2009, these three sources generated about 87 million megawatt-hours of electricity in the United States.

Perhaps the most surprising obstacle to “green energy,” however, is opposition from environmentalists.
This might seem impressive . . . until you consider that the total amount of electricity generated in the United States in that same period was just under 4 billion megawatt-hours, so the contribution from Gore’s preferred sources was a mere 2.2%.48

But aren’t these sources expanding rapidly?

Between 2005 and 2007, U.S. wind generating capacity nearly doubled, and it more than doubled again between 2007 and 2009.49 Indeed, the wind industry is currently crowing about its growth in 2009. The American Wind Energy Association triumphantly reports that “the U.S. wind industry broke all previous records by installing close to 10,000 megawatts of new generating capacity in 2009.”50

Again, this might seem impressive . . . until you consider that the total electric generating capacity in the United States is around 1 million MW.51 The additional 10,000 MW brings the total installed wind capacity in the United States up to only around 35,000 MW, or 3.5% of total capacity.

In the end all that the doubling and redoubling meant was that the contribution of wind power to U.S. electric generation went from 0.4% in 2005 to 0.8% in 2007 and then to 1.8% in 2009—and even this minimal increase was only possible “thanks to Recovery Act incentives” as well as state mandates forcing utilities to expand their reliance on these sources.52

Vaclav Smil sums up his assessment of Gore’s “plan” in one word: “delusional.”53

Slightly less delusional, but still dependent on the rapid scale-up of wind power, is the so-called Pickens Plan, the energy plan put forward by oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens.

Pickens’s idea is to build enough wind generating capacity to displace, not all fossil and nuclear electric generation, à la Gore, but just the natural gas generating capacity. Then, instead of burning natural gas to make electricity, Pickens would use it as a transportation fuel to temporarily displace the oil we burn in our cars and trucks.54

Of course, in addition to massive new wind capacity this would also require converting America’s fleet of some 250 million passenger vehicles to run on natural gas and making that fuel available at the roughly 120,000 gas stations that are not currently built to sell it.55, 56

Just as with Gore’s proposal, the “Pickens Plan” is not really a plan. As the Wall Street Journal’s Holman Jenkins Jr. aptly put it:

Asserting that something would be good to do is not “a plan.” Saying how to do it is “a plan.” By this standard, what the legendary oil man is devoting $58 million to pitch hardly amounts to a decent slogan.

He would replace natural gas in electricity production with wind, and use the natural gas to power cars. He fails to mention any practical theory of how to get there—that would really be “a plan.” Instead, he relies on the deus ex machina of Congress, waving a legislative wand to make people do things they would choose not to do, given the extravagant and unjustified costs involved. . . .

We pick on Boone (and exploit a pun) but his “plan” is emblematic of the brainstorms that always find a market when gasoline hits a cyclical peak. . . . Calls for Manhattan Projects and moon shots invariably decorate the op-ed pages at such times. In a form of social peacockery, the greater the misallocation of resources proposed, the more lavish the ovation—though here Mr. Pickens has already been outdone by Al Gore.

But these plans are fulfillments of ritual, not practical proposals—and their authors indicate as much by the economy of thought they put into them. Mr. Pickens is rightly contemptuous of those who accuse him of merely trying to make money off his natural-gas holdings—if money-making were the goal, he certainly would have invested a more diligent and realistic application of his noggin first. To imply otherwise is to insult the man.57

Hiding behind the peppy slogans and cheerleading for the “green energy revolution” are real and formidable obstacles, and an utter lack of anything remotely resembling a realistic plan to overcome them. Perhaps the most surprising obstacle to “green energy,” however, is opposition from environmentalists.

Just as environmentalists reject nuclear and hydro power despite the emissions-free character of these sources, numerous environmentalists are fighting vehemently against all manner of “green energy” projects intended to displace fossil energy production.

Subheadings have been added to the original text. The second and final part of this article will appear soon in New Ideal.

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  1. Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (New York: Dutton, 1992), pp. 289, 290.
  2. Richard J. Sullivan, “Trends in the Agricultural Labor Force,” in Julian L. Simon, State of Humanity (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1995), p. 126; see also Vaclav Smil, Energy: A Beginner’s Guide (Oxford: Oneworld Publications), p. 68.
  3. National Institute of Food and Agriculture, “About Us.”
  4. Smil, Energy, p. 78.
  5. International Energy Agency, “Access to Electricity,” World Energy Outlook (2009).
  6. International Energy Agency, “Transition to Modern Energy Services, World Energy Outlook (2009).
  7. World Health Organization, “Indoor Air Pollution and Health,” fact sheet no. 292 (June 2005),
  8. World Health Organization, “Water, Health and Ecosystems,”
  9. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “The State of Food Insecurity in the World.”
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  11. Joseph Romm, “An introduction to global warming impacts: Hell and High Water,” March 22, 2009,
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  13. U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Net Generation by Energy Source: Total (All Sectors),” April 20, 2010, table 1.1.
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  16. International Energy Agency, “World Energy Outlook 2008,” calculated from 2006 figures in World Reference Scenario, p. 506; report available at
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  18. James Hansen, “Coal-fired power stations are death factories. Close them,” UK Guardian, February 15, 2009,
  19. James Hansen quoted in Andrew C. Revkin, “Climate, Coal and Crematoria,” New York Times, November 6, 2007,
  20. U.S. Energy Information Administration, “World Energy Overview: 1996–2006,” International Energy Annual 2006.
  21. S. Pacala and R. Socolow, “Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies,” Science 305 (August 13, 2004): p. 969; See also Jesse H. Ausubel, “Renewable and Nuclear Heresies,” Int. J. Nuclear Governance, Economy and Ecology I, no. 3 (2007): p. 230.
  22. John D. McKinnon, “Pelosi on Natural Gas: Fossil Fuel or Not?” Wall Street Journal Washington Wire blog (August 24, 2008),
  23. Natural Resources Defense Council, “Finding the Balance: The Role of Natural Gas in America’s Energy Future,” January 2010,
  24. Editorial, “Sinking Broadwater,” New York Times, April 15, 2009,
  25. U.S. Energy Information Administration, “World Energy Overview: 1996–2006,” International Energy Annual 2006.
  26. For world energy figures, see U.S. Energy Information Administration, “World Energy Overview: 1996–2006,” International Energy Annual 2006; U.S. Energy Information Administration, “World Electricity Data,” International Energy Annual 2006, table 6.3. See also data from U.S. Energy Information Administration, “World Energy Production in British Thermal Units (Quadrillion Btu),” International Energy Annual 2006, especially table 2.9. For US electricity generation figures, see U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Net Generation by Energy Source: Total (All Sectors),” April 20, 2010, table 1.1. For France figures, see World Nuclear Association, “Nuclear Power in France,” page updated April 13, 2010.
  27. Natural Resources Defense Council, “New Nuclear Plants Are Not a Solution to America’s Energy Needs,” February 2007,
  28. WWF, “Position Paper: Nuclear Power,” May 2003,
  29. Sierra Club, “The Basics of Nuclear Power,” April 2008.
  30. Greenpeace, “Nuclear Power: Undermining Action on Climate Change,” December 1, 2007.
  31. Thomas R. Wellock, “The Battle for Hetch Hetchy,” Preserving the Nation (Wheeling, Ill: Harlan Davidson, 2007), pp. 60–65; See also Sierra Club, “Hetch Hetchy: Time to Redeem a Historic Mistake,”
  32. Sierra Club, “History of Accomplishments.”
  33. Carey Goldberg, “Fish Are Victorious over Dam as U.S. Agency Orders Shutdown,” New York Times, November 26, 1997,
  34. Editorial, “10 Years, 430 Dams,” New York Times, July 3, 2009,
  35. U.S. Energy Information Administration, “World Energy Overview: 1996–2006,” International Energy Annual 2006.
  36. U.S. Energy Information Administration, “World Electricity Data,” International Energy Annual 2006, table 6.3.
  37. International Energy Agency, “World Energy Outlook 2008,” calculated from 2006 figures in World Reference Scenario, p. 506; report available at
  38. Ted Johnson, “Al Gore Brings Climate Change Message to Beverly Hills,” Variety, November 13, 2009.
  39. Al Gore, “The Climate for Change,” New York Times, November 9, 2008,
  40. Atlas Shrugged, pp. 289, 290.
  41. Fred Krupp, “Climate Change Opportunity,” Wall Street Journal, April 8, 2008,
  42. Al Gore, “A Generational Challenge to Repower America,” July 17, 2008.
  43. Robert Bryce, Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future (Public Affairs, 2010), p. 86; see also Ausubel, “Renewable and Nuclear Heresies,” p. 233.
  44. Scott W. White and Gerald L. Kulcinski, “Birth to Death” Analysis of the Energy Payback Ratio and CO2 Gas Emission Rates from Coal, Fission, Wind, and DT Fusion Electrical Power Plants” (paper presented at the 6th IAEA meeting on fusion power plant design and technology, Culham, England, March 23–27, 1998 [rev. February 1999]); see also Ausubel, “Renewable and Nuclear Heresies,” p.234, and Benjamin K. Sovacool, “Valuing the Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Nuclear Power: A Critical Survey,” Energy Policy 36 (2008): 2940–2953,
  45. See, e.g., Bryce, Power Hungry.
  46. Gore, “A Generational Challenge.”
  47. Vaclav Smil, “Moore’s Curse and the Great Energy Delusion,” The American, November 19, 2008,
  48. U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Net Generation by Energy Source: Total (All Sectors),” Electric Power Monthly, table 1.1, and U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Net Generation by Other Renewables: Total (All Sectors,” Electric Power Monthly, table 1.1.A.
  49. U.S. Energy Information Administration, “U.S. Electric Net Summer Capacity,” report released July 2009.
  50. American Wind Energy Association, “Year End 2009 Market Report,” January 2010.
  51. U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Electricity Explained,” data for 2008.
  52. American Wind Energy Association, “Year End 2009 Market Report,” January 2010.
  53. Smil, “Moore’s Curse.”
  54. Pickens Plan, “America Is Addicted to Foreign Oil.”
  55. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, “Table 1-11: Number of U.S. Aircraft, Vehicles, Vessels, and Other Conveyances.”
  56. Vaclav Smil, “A Reality Check on the Pickens Energy Plan,” Yale Environment 360 (August 25, 2008).
  57. Holman W. Jenkins Jr., “Boone Doggle,” Wall Street Journal, August 6, 2008,

Keith Lockitch

Keith Lockitch, Ph.D. in physics, is a senior fellow and vice president of content at the Ayn Rand Institute. He focuses primarily on the intersection of science with current events and policy issues. He is a senior editor of New Ideal.

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