One of the reasons for the recent spike in gas prices across our area is the rise in the price of ethanol (some refinery maintenance and the pipeline spill also contributed). So why would the price of ethanol be rising? It is the drought, of course. The price of corn has risen dramatically in anticipation of a worse than expected crop. There will also likely be a rise in the price of many foods, including meat. For consumers, it could be a double dose of expenses hitting American walllets, and, it doesn’t have to be that way. Grain ethanol (made primarily from corn), is mandated to be mixed with gasoline. The government forces gas distributors/companies to sell fuel with ethanol, and thus food (whether for animals or people) is burned in car engines. This policy kind-of made sense a decade ago, at least to try it out, but times have changed. I wonder how high food (or gas) prices will have to go before people decide to bring and end to “burning food”. If ethanol prices add another 10 cents to the price of gas will people start to get more upset? What about 20 cents? If the price of corn flakes jumps from about $3 per box to $5 per box, will people start writing their government representatives about the ethanol mandate? What do you think?
The problems with (grain) ethanol are many and a few of those problems affect other alternative energies as well. Wind and solar power receive quite a few subsidies from the government (not only in the U.S. but around the world). The putative reason for the generous subsidies is that it will be good for the environment, bring pollution levels down, and help stave off some of the theoretical future AGW. Without government subsidies, the alternative energy industry would be much smaller. I was surprised to find out that even wind power, which has the best EROI out of all the current technologies, receives massive subsidies from the government. There are multiple reasons why wind power is not as good as it is claimed to be, but one of the main reasons for me is that they spoil the natural landscape. I am amazed at how so many rich environmental advocates of wind power are “advocates” for turbines everywhere except in their backyard. When some people in wind turbine areas complain about the noise or the spoiled scenery, the generic reaction is “stop whining, it is good for you”. If you are not on the wind power bandwagon, like me, it is not looking good for the future. Massive wind farms are being fast-tracked for the Great Lakes. Some people are speculating we could get 80% of our power from alternative sources by 2050 if we install 2500 new wind turbines every year. 2500!
I can’t imagine where all of those turbines would go. If the government is going to spend the money and I can’t stop them, then I would rather see them buy solar panels. If the government was actually installing solar panels, maybe we wouldn’t continue to see bankruptcies like this one: Abound Solar. With solar panels, there is no need to spoil the natural landscape. We already have plenty of space for them – the space is called rooftops. Not only do we have plenty of space, but the power is generated exactly where it is needed, meaning there is not as much need for new transmission lines and all the headaches (environmental or otherwise) that go along with installing them. Don’t forget that solar power still has a good potential for improvement. Wind power is about the same as it was in the past and will not improve much (efficiency-wise) in the future.
Of course, the argument for subsidies is that no one would build alternative energy infrastructure if it wasn’t for government support. To that point, I would alternatively wonder how strong the environmentalist support actually is? There are plenty of very rich outspoken supporters of alternative energy. Maybe they should start making some real financial sacrifices for the future of the planet and put money up for all of the solar and wind power build-out. Billions of dollars of private wealth are certainly available from rich celebrities to obscenely wealthy environmentalist politicians. I would say a person is not much of an environmental activist if they only support new alternative energy infrastructure if it is paid for by someone else (through taxation or money printing).
On a more positive note, there is finally an entire country that is going to attempt going (nearly) fully solar. It is Tokelau. Population: about 1,700. The cost to outfit the island nation with enough solar capacity to meet its needs is about $7 million. Subsidized or not, this will be an important test bed to see how solar holds up through the years.
It seems there are no easy answers for our energy needs, or are there? One neglected energy source is thorium nuclear power. Of course, many people immediately shriek in horror at the mention of anything nuclear, but thorium nuclear power is much different then uranium nuclear power. It is cleaner. It is more efficient. It is cheaper. Is is safer. The waste material degrade much faster. I could go on. An interesting historical note is that thorium nuclear power was preferred by many scientists a few decades ago when nuclear power first got its start, but the likely reason it did not take off is because governments could not make nuclear weapons from the waste material. Thus we are currently stuck with uranium reactors. Here is the website of one of thorium’s chief supporters. I have blogged about it before as well. It would be a shame if this energy source was not exploited or at least tested.
Have a nice Monday! Meteorologist Justin Loew.