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Renewing Energy With Common Sense

In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Arnold Schwarzenegger stressed the economic benefits and environmental necessity of renewable energy expansion. Specifically (and unsurprisingly) the ex-Governator called for government to “level the playing field” of the energy sector through continued subsidization, then proceeded to cite and defend his record of “fostering” the expansion of renewable energies in California. At an American Enterprise Institute panel, visiting scholar Benjamin Zycher introduced decidedly more common-sense language to a public discourse dominated by appeals to fairness and equality. Though they are quite intuitive, these ideas receive remarkably limited press. For Mr. Zycher, renewable energy is unable to shed certain undesirable traits—traits that make the playing field inherently uneven in some respects:
  • The most obvious: renewable energy is inherently inconsistent. To borrow Mr. Zycher’s line, “The wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine.” And because the electrical grid must maintain consistent levels of power when renewable sources are not, natural gas plants make up the difference by cycling up and down with demand. This is inefficient and costly.
  • Location and grid infrastructure issues also put renewables at a competitive disadvantage. We construct wind and solar farms in the best locations first; as a result, the quality of sun and wind at forthcoming locations is likely to decrease. Alternatively, most new locations that do have valuable energy potential are located far from the population centers they source. As a result, capital costs must include the plant itself and substantial grid infrastructure expansion.
Yet high profile support and charitable rhetoric has consistently framed renewable energy as the sine qua non of environmental responsibility—and increasingly an issue of fundamental fairness. Advocates disseminate misleading statistics suggesting that subsidies of the coal, natural gas and oil industries dwarf those for renewables. The appeal is not to renewable energy as a means to cleaner air and water, but to a kind of false choice between right and wrong—in many cases a self-referencing definition of “fairness” and “equality.” The subsidization of renewables has become a quasi-moral issue—to such an extent that common-sense observations about wind and solar power are frequently (and unknowingly) ignored. This is not to say that the efficiency of photovoltaic cells will not improve with government funding. Or that wind turbines will not experience technological breakthroughs. And traditional energies certainly have obvious drawbacks of their own. However, it is crucial to the ground the debate by first acknowledging that renewables are constrained by some traits that cannot be innovated away.