Wind? Biofuels? Get Real, a Contrarian Says

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c.2014 New York Times News Service

Every so often we need someone to put in a kind word for the devil, if only to remind us of unpleasant facts. On energy policy, we need someone willing to declare flat out that “if oil didn’t exist, we would have to invent it. No other substance comes close to oil when it comes to energy density, ease of handling, and flexibility.”

We need someone who says: Don’t kid yourself; coal will be around for a long, long time, as a cheap source of electricity across the globe. Someone who scoffs that anyone who believes in wind power and biofuels as a solution to the soaring demand for energy also believes in the Easter Bunny. And someone willing to argue that the most sensible long-term answer to the world’s unquenchable thirst for electricity is a revival of nuclear power, a reality that he says thinking environmentalists are coming to accept.

Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative research group, fills that role with zest. The author of four books on oil and energy, Bryce has written a new book well worth reading, though it will not sit well with those who applauded when Al Gore received the Nobel Peace Prize. The title of his breezy book — “Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper” — captures the headlong rush of Western culture’s endless drive for ever better technology. It is an extraordinary impulse that has created a world in which more people live longer and more comfortably than ever before.

The book amounts to Bryce’s emphatic, against-the-grain views on energy policy coupled to a once-over-lightly history of Western technology. His eccentric take on history bounces from the Panama Canal to Edison’s light bulb to the first computers, weirdly wrapping in excerpts on the AK-47 Kalashnikov automatic rifle, Olympic 100 meter times, and the Tour de France. He introduces puzzling techno-terms like “attoseconds,” which are billionths of a billionth of a second. (That, astonishingly, is the scale of time used in laser snapshots of the inner workings of an atom.) His historical vignettes do illustrate the benefits of Smaller Faster, etc., but they are like making an entire meal of amuse-bouches.

Bryce’s policy prescriptions will be more welcome in Houston than in the White House. He contends that the pantheon of environmentalists like Gore, Bill McKibben, Amory Lovins and Greenpeace — he calls them “the catastrophists” — are wildly optimistic, if not daft, in their extravagant hopes for wind power, solar cells and biofuels. He insists that his differences with them are not ideological but purely physics and economics: that their alternative possibilities are inherently too weak as fuels to scale them up to meet the world’s unceasing demand for more electricity.

From studies of wind farms he calculates that the average power density for wind energy is about one watt per square meter. A wind farm large enough to power just one data center for Facebook would require nearly 11 square miles of land, he says. On a far larger scale, the United States has about 300 billion watts of coal-fired generation capacity. So to replace it by wind power would sop up 300,000 square kilometers of land, about the area of Italy. Here he is tilting at windmills — no one has ever proposed shuttering the nation’s coal mines and relying on wind — but the comparison serves his contention that in the big picture, wind power will always be a minor player.

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Biofuels have a power density even smaller, only a third of wind’s, and thus they hog even more land, he writes. Bryce considers it a scandal and a gross misuse of government subsidies that 40 percent of the nation’s corn harvest already goes into producing corn-based ethanol, pushing food prices much higher as collateral damage.

He pounces on Lovins’ prediction that by 2050, the United States will draw 23 percent of its power from biofuels. That is “ludicrous beyond language,” he says. If an acre of switchgrass yields about 17 barrels of oil equivalent a year, then achieving that 23 percent would take up 342,000 square miles of cropland, the equivalent of Texas, New York and Ohio combined, he calculates.

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Bryce knows his way around an oil field, and he writes authoritatively about the constantly improving technology of extracting oil and gas. Thanks to those improvements, estimates of oil and gas reserves have shot up, defying repeated predictions that they were on the verge of topping out. Comparable innovations in wind energy or biofuels just aren’t possible, he maintains.

Disappointing for a man so sure of other data, Bryce waffles on the critical point of global warming. He declares himself a resolute “climate agnostic,” despite the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is a reality. Environmentalists might well see this as a convenient way to skirt the issue of the fossil fuel industry’s responsibility for endangering the planet.

He says he is neither an “alarmist” (a revealing choice of words) nor a “denier,” but tries to patch together an “incontrovertible” climate outlook that both “tribes” can accept: Carbon dioxide emissions are rising, dramatically so, and that will continue; the world will need vastly more energy in the decades ahead to raise the living standards of those in poverty; and if ever we needed smaller, faster, lighter, denser, cheaper, the time is now.

Bryce’s solution is “N2N,” a reliance on natural gas on the way to a more nuclear world. He is not the first to note that natural gas is relatively clean and available in extraordinary abundance. It generates electricity; it is the coming thing in propelling vehicles. Its use is already cutting CO2 emissions in the United States.

Bryce makes a case that nuclear power is clean and green and far superior to any other fuel in power density. His enthusiastic embrace of nuclear will astonish most readers, however, with his contention that the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan should be seen as a boon to the revival of nuclear power, rather than an obstacle.

At Fukushima, three reactors melted down with a substantial release of radiation, forcing as many as 300,000 people from their homes, and leaving still unresolved problems of cleaning up massive amounts of radioactive water. And yet, Bryce writes, even though the plant was wrecked by one of the most powerful earthquakes ever to rock the planet, the World Health Organization has concluded that radiation exposure due to Fukushima was low. No lives were lost to radiation — at least none so far.

Bryce is decidedly bullish on America, not least because of what’s happening in the oil patch. America enjoys the cheapest power in the industrial world, at 12 cents a kilowatt hour versus 26 cents in Europe and 24 cents in Japan. It leads the world in natural gas production, nuclear production and refined oil output. Thanks to the oil shale, it could soon eclipse Saudi Arabia and Russia in crude oil.

“The best way to protect the environment is to get richer,” he asserts. “Wealthy countries can afford to protect the environment. Poor ones generally can’t.”

Publication Notes:

‘Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper’

By Robert Bryce, 371 pages, PublicAffairs

United States - North America - Japan - East Asia - Asia - Al Gore - Bill McKibben

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