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You Will Miss Some Great Opportunities If You Believe Robert Bryce's "Myths About Green Energy"

Jul. 29, 2013 7:15 PM ET
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"Our energy needs will best be served by a mixture of traditional and alternate energy sources and we should not let Mr. Bryce's opinions keep us from investing in and developing the alternate sources."

Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, has written a number of entertaining books and articles about the energy industry. However, his latest book, "Power Hungry: The Myths of 'Green' Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future" (1) is an attack on "Green Energy". It is not surprising that he is not a fan of green energy as the Manhattan Institute receives large donations from the Koch Foundation and Exxon/Mobile. That may not mean he is biased, but Mr. Bryce's latest article "5 Myths about Green Energy" would make one wonder. He uses false comparisons, misquotes, scientific inaccuracies, and the omission of pertinent facts to try to make his case. Most myths are based on a small element of truth, but what Mr. Bryce claims as "myths" are mostly true and he has had to stretch to find reasons they are myths. You can judge. His five myths are:

Myth 1. Solar and wind power are the greenest of them all.

Actually, they are. If you trace the energy back to its source, you will find that all fossil fuel energy originally came from the sun's energy. Photosynthetic green plants formed fossil fuels by converting CO2 to carbon compounds and oxygen over many millions of years and it is stored beneath the Earth. Wind energy and hydroelectric energy come from the Sun as well and using solar energy directly cuts out carbon as the middleman. Their use would avoids many of the problems we have today with diminishing supplies and environmental damage from fossil fuel use.

Mr. Bryce criticizes solar and wind power for the "huge amounts of land to deliver relatively small amounts of energy". It seems a stretch when he compares the watts/area of wind farms with that of a gas well. What is the area of a gas well? And, what would he make of the Gulf oil spill that has produced no energy but covers an area the size of New Jersey? Mr. Bryce also says "Because the wind doesn't always blow, utilities must use gas- or coal-fired generators to offset wind's unreliability. The result is minimal - or no - carbon dioxide reduction." Actually, no one is denying the need for back-up sources but surely the alternate energy placed on the grid reduces the need for an equivalent amount of energy from fossil fuels.

Trying to make his point, Mr. Bryce goes on "Denmark, the poster child for wind energy boosters, more than doubled its production of wind energy between 1999 and 2007. Yet data from Energinet.dk, the operator of Denmark's natural gas and electricity grids, show that carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation in 2007 were at about the same level as they were back in 1990 before the country began its frenzied construction of turbines." Wrong. The truth is that Energinet.dk's 2007 Environmental Report says that from 1990 to 2007, CO2 emissions in Denmark were not flat but had an overall reduction of 23% . For comparison, the US's CO2 emissions rose by 19% during that time.

Myth 2. Going green will reduce our dependence on imports from unsavory regimes.

You would think this would be about importing 70% of our oil from the Middle East - but it's not. It is about importing rare earth metals needed for green technology from China. Mr. Bryce does not mention that we now import the metals anyway, and that reducing their use in catalytic converters and as catalysts in the fossil fuel industry would make up for much of the increased use in green technology. Also, perhaps, we should not consider our biggest creditor "unsavory".

Myth 3. A green American economy will create green American jobs.

It's true, as Mr. Bryce claims, that many of the manufacturing jobs for solar panels and windmills have gone abroad because of high labor costs in the US. However, for many years, the US did not have a sound energy policy and certainly did not promote the development of green energy. If the US had subsidized the production of alternate energy sources at even a fraction of what it subsidized the fossil fuel production, many of the green jobs would have stayed at home. Still, some manufacturing is done here and the installation, maintenance, and the business end of green energy cannot be outsourced.

Mr. Bryce also brings up the fact that the use of ethanol fuel only created 27,000 jobs rather than the 136,000 jobs a lobbying group predicted. A lobbyist's claim is a strange standard to measure by and he neglects that some ethanol was necessary to replace the lead and MTBE as antiknock compounds in gasoline.

Myth 4. Electric cars will substantially reduce demand for oil.

They could, if we do not let misinformation keep us from buying and investing in them. While admitting that the electric car "has long been recognized as the ideal" because it "is cleaner and quieter" and "much more economical", Mr. Bryce criticize them because" the same unreliability of electric car batteries that flummoxed Thomas Edison persists today". Mr. Bryce does not seem to realize that there have been a few improvements to batteries since Edison, such as the lithium ion battery he mentions elsewhere in the article. He claims another problem is that "the GAO reported that about 40 percent of consumers do not have access to an outlet, near their vehicle at home". Yes, but 60% do have. Is there a serious shortage of electricians or extension cords? Surely, the electric grid may need to be upgraded, but it will likely need to be upgraded, electric cars or not.

He also claims that electric cars are sidelined "by physics and math". They are not. One of Bryce's best is "Gasoline contains about 80 times as much energy, by weight, as the best lithium-ion battery." He neglects to say that you can use gasoline just once while the battery can be recharged hundred of times. Besides, a battery is just a storage device - and electric motors can convert energy to work much more efficiently than an internal combustion engine.

He does say, "Sure, the electric motor is more efficient than the internal combustion engine. " Isn't efficiency what it is about? The internal combustion engine is about 10% efficient at converting heat to work. A fossil fueled power plant, including transmission losses, is about 25% efficient, and modern electric motors are about 90% efficient. Considering that, electric cars charged by a conventional power plant are about twice as efficient in converting fuel to work. Those are reasonable as a study comparing "energy source to wheel efficiencies" rated the electric Tesla at 1.145 km/MJ and the gasoline powered Honda (HMC) Civic at 0.515 km/MJ. If alternate energy sources are used to produce the electricity, we could certainly reduce our demand for oil by using electric cars.

Myth 5. The United States lags behind other rich countries in going green.

Mr. Bryce says "Over the past three decades, the United States has improved its energy efficiency as much as or more than other developed countries, … except Switzerland and Denmark, and the United States achieved it without participating in the Kyoto Protocol or creating an emissions trading system like the one employed in Europe." He compares the reduction in CO2 emitted per dollar of GDP as a basis for this claim. He does not mention that the US has much further to go. The US has 6% of the world's population but uses over 30% of the world's energy and that the US emissions of CO2 rose by 23% over that time period.

Mr. Bryce writes as if our fossil fuel supplies will last forever and as if there are no environmental problems with their use. His plan for alternate energy is: "The United States will continue going green by simply allowing engineers and entrepreneurs to do what they do best: make products that are faster, cheaper and more efficient than the ones they made the year before." I could almost agree with that if we subsidize all energy sources at the same level and charge each source fairly for pollution it produces. Our energy needs will best be served by a mixture of traditional and alternate energy sources and we should not let Mr. Bryce's opinions keep us from developing the alternate sources.

Disclosure: Four generations of the author's family have worked in the oil business and he holds long positions in F, GE, WR, OKE, SYNM.

1) Bryce, Robert, "Power Hungry: The Myths of 'Green' Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future," PublicAffairs (2010)

(C) 2010 J.C. Moore

Disclosure: I am long F, GE, WR, OKE, SYNM. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

About the author: J.C. Moore

J.C. Moore picture

I am a retired physical chemist and teacher. My interests are science education, professional ethics, computational chemistry, and spectroscopy. After retiring, I established jcmooreonline.com where I write comments on current events from a science perspective.

Disclosure: I am long F, GE, WR, OKE.

Additional disclosure: Four generations of the author's family have worked in the oil business and he holds long positions in SYNM.

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