M.D. Harmon: "Renewable" Reality Check


A number of things are interesting about the recent (and unsuccessful, though apparently still continuing) campaign by the environmental Left to put a referendum question on the ballot this fall.

The initiative would require that Maine’s electric power mix contain 20 percent more “renewable sources” by 2020 than the 35 percent it does now (and the 40 percent it will in a few more years).

First, let’s say the obvious: Maine’s natural environment is a valuable resource, and it is cleaner than it used to be, thanks to initiatives dating back half a century. Antipollution efforts should be preserved and extended in reasonable ways.

But prosperity is vital, too, and it entails growth. This shouldn’t become a “payrolls vs. pickerel” dichotomy, but it’s possible to wonder if the sponsors of the initiative campaign understand that.

The Maine Citizens for Clean Energy Coalition said just a couple of weeks ago that they were “confident” they could get the 57,277 signatures they needed to get on November’s ballot.

That confidence, revealed this week to be exaggerated, should be placed alongside the backers’ belief that more wind, tidal and solar power, the types of heavily subsidized “renewables” pushed by the coalition, would result in lower energy costs. It hasn’t worked out that way elsewhere in the world, which we’ll examine shortly.

The coalition’s members include the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Environment Maine and the Sierra Club. They certainly are entitled to promote their goals, but their lack of success so far in garnering enough signatures may be indication that what they’re selling isn’t a slam-dunk for the average Mainer.

It shouldn’t be. Not only are the energy sources they are supporting currently contributing only a tiny percentage of the state and national energy mix (wind was 2.3 percent of the national output in 2010, with solar and tidal power together contributing less than 1 percent more.)

By contrast, the United States gets 46 percent of its electricity from coal, 24 percent from natural gas and 20 percent from nuclear sources.

While none of those sources are “renewable” in the sense the environmentalists use the term, the nation has an estimated 400-year supply of coal, more than 100 years of natural gas (and new discoveries and extraction methods are increasing that total every single day) and an essentially unlimited supply of nuclear fuel if current reactors are reconfigured to produce it (and the law is changed to allow it).

So, what’s the rush to adopt power sources that are intermittent (wind and solar plants routinely produce half or less than their rated capacities for power, routinely requiring conventional power plants as backups) and far more expensive than current generating methods (with the possible exception of the heavily subsidized — but nonpolluting — nuclear sector)?

One rationale is the reduction in emissions of so-called “greenhouse gases” said to be contributing to “global warm—,” er, sorry, “climate change.” But more and more accounts are emerging almost daily indicating concerns are overblown about carbon dioxide, the so-called “principal greenhouse gas” (which it isn’t, as far more plentiful water vapor is much more effective at keeping the planet from turning into an ice cube).

But there’s also ordinary pollution, which is worth minimizing. Incentives to encourage the nation’s more than 1,400 coal-burning power plants to use cleaner coal and scrub emissions better are surely worthwhile, but there are environmental costs to producing wind and solar plants, too. For example, the conflict between environmental groups over the visual and direct environmental impacts of wind and solar “farms” has been much in the news.

Even more telling, other nations are discovering that the high subsidies given wind and solar production firms are beyond their reach.

As the Science and Environmental Policy Project website, The Week That Was (www.sepp.org/twtw), pointed out in its last issue, “Slowly, information is leaking from nations that have spent heavily on wind and solar, such as Germany. This information should give pause to those touting solar and wind, including politicians. England is pulling back from wind, Germany has announced drastic cut-backs on its subsidies to solar, and Spain has announced the elimination of subsidies for renewable power. These actions are not the result of success. The erratic nature of these sources is well established.”

Bowing to domestic Green Party pressure, however, Germany has committed itself to shutting down its nuclear power plants as well, something predicted to cost German consumers billions of euros in avoidable expenses.

European producers, the report said, had to maintain backup systems capable of meeting 80 percent of the total demand, yielding little, if any savings from renewable sources.

It continued, “A further complication is that fast back-up from conventional sources, such as coal or natural gas, is very demanding on the equipment, inefficient, and polluting – the pollution control devices do not work properly when heat output varies. According to reports, no coal plants have been de-commissioned in northern Europe, rendering the claim of lower carbon dioxide emissions questionable.”

So, when Gov. Paul LePage says that Mainers should avoid signing the renewable mandate petition, it seems he knows what he’s talking about. Many Mainers wonder why the state hasn’t tried harder to import hydroelectric power from Quebec, which has greatly expanded its generating capacity of a truly renewable resource in recent years.

And the Obama administration is getting behind a new generation of nuclear reactors, the “Small Modular Reactor,” which uses new and far safer technologies to be free of the risk of meltdowns and capable of taking up a far smaller footprint than current models.

In its Jan. 28 issue, Popular Mechanics magazine described these plants as “small enough to be pre-assembled in a factory and shipped to location. These easy-to-install reactors could potentially shave years and millions of dollars off the construction of nuclear power plants, and could make it economical to bring nuclear power to rural areas or developing countries that lack infrastructure.”

The plants, the magazine said, “would generate one-10th to one-third the energy of a conventional reactor,” and could “fit inside the footprint of the old coal-fired reactors they are expected to replace.”

It’s obvious that no one source of energy is sufficient to meet Maine’s or the nation’s energy needs, but for the foreseeable future, wind, tidal and solar sources aren’t even going to be able to deal with the necessary growth our economy will require to make a full recovery.

Many Americans seem to think that reducing oil imports and usage will have an impact on power generation costs, but oil produces less than 1 percent of our power.

Coal, natural gas and nuclear sources, at 90 percent (with most of the rest being hydropower dams), will be lighting American homes and powering American factories for the rest of this century.

We need to accept that reality, and only turn to other sources when they have proved to be cost-effective and reliable by the standards of the free market, not taxpayer-subsidized bureaucratic favoritism.

M.D. Harmon is a retired journalist and a free-lance writer. He can be contacted at: