Streetwise Professor

March 10, 2019

Died of a Theory: Green Edition

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Energy,Politics — cpirrong @ 6:19 pm

Natural gas has a lot going for it, especially as a fuel for electricity generation and home heating. It is low-carbon, as compared to coal and petroleum. It is also clean burning, producing less particulates than competitor fuels. It does not require extensive (and polluting) refining, like oil. It is increasingly abundant, and hence becoming cheaper, due to technological innovations like fracking. Liquefaction makes intercontinental trade feasible, breaking the previous barrier between production and consumption regions, and allowing more people to realize the benefits of gas. What’s not to like?

Short answer, according to environmentalists: it is a fossil fuel, and therefore it must die.

It is bad enough that there are concerted efforts underway to replace it with renewables for the generation of electricity. There is also a push to eliminate it as a home heating fuel, and replacing it with . . . electricity, generated by yet more renewables. That is, simultaneously to replace NG in electricity generation with renewables, and to increase the demand for electricity . . . to be produced with even more renewables. (Not to mention the desire to eliminate the internal combustion engine, and rely on electric automobiles and trucks.) All without any apparent thought to whether renewables actually scale (putting aside that they are already more costly than conventional fuels at their current scale).

The defects of wind and solar as power sources, especially for reliable baseload power, are manifest. They are diffuse and intermittent. Not a good combination where demand is geographically concentrated, and highly regular. Someday battery storage might mitigate this problem, but that day is a long, long way away Throw in the complexity of the electricity grid, i.e., the need for supply to match demand exactly at all times, and intermittency becomes eve more of a nightmare.

Further, the factors that drive electricity demand (temperature extremes) are often negatively correlated with renewables production. Supply negatively correlated with demand–Not a good thing! Using electricity for home heating will only exacerbate this problem: the wind often does not blow when it is extremely cold, which is when you might want to have the heat in your home working.

Renewables do not scale well–diminishing returns are inherent to renewables production. The footprint of wind and solar operations is huge, and increasing output by X percent requires more than X percent more land because developers locate facilities in the most favorable places first, and can only expand into progressively less windy/sunny locations. Moreover, pesky physical laws, like the First Law of Thermodynamics, lead to decreasing returns to scale. Downwind expansion is less efficient because existing upwind operations reduce the available energy in the wind. Renewables sprawl is not yet a thing, but if some people’s wishes come true, it will be.

Where the wind blows and sun shines does not match where power demand is. So substituting renewables for conventional or nuclear generation requires more transmission–which, perversely, environmentalists can be counted on to oppose.

It is not an accident, then, that the greater the reliance on renewables, the higher the cost of electricity. The diminishing returns inherent in renewables production mean that green dreams to reduce conventionally-fueled electricity supply while increasing electricity demand (not just in home heating, but in transportation) will make it even more expensive still (as these push us further up a likely very steep average cost curve).

Renewables have only penetrated to the extent that they have due to extensive subsidization. Which just means that the costs get shoved elsewhere.

It is perversely ironic that many of those who push the green agenda also claim to be deeply concerned about the poor–and yeah, I’m looking at you AOC, and the rest of the Green New Deal advocates. With friends like you, the poor don’t need enemies. They consume a far higher fraction of their income in the form of energy (both directly, and indirectly through goods like food) than the better-thans who claim to be their champions, and hence will suffer disproportionately from higher energy costs. And the poorer the person, the more they will suffer. This is not complicated.

When you get down to it, not only is the watermelon crowd completely unhinged from basic physical and economic reality, it is profoundly anti-human. Achieving their utopia requires that there be fewer humans, and that those humans whom they deign to let live be much poorer.

I wouldn’t mind so much if they did they put their beliefs that there are too many humans consuming too much stuff into action by offing themselves. Be a good example! Take one for the team! But no. They’d much rather volunteer you–or more accurately, the poorest among us–for death and poverty.

I’ve used the Jefferson Davis quote about his suggested epitaph for the Confederacy–“Died of a Theory”–on many occasions. It is sickly fitting in this context too, but worse in a way. Because it won’t be those pushing the theory who perish literally or politically (as was the case with States Rights fanatics 1860-1865). It will be those whom they claim to be helping.

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  1. Liquid hydrocarbons are excellent transport fuels. Gaseous hydrocarbons are excellent fuels for gas turbines in power stations.

    Hydrocarbons are therefore the devil’s work and will cause you all to roast in hell. So saith the preachers.

    Still, I suppose we heretics are safe from being burned at the stake – there is that consolation.

    Comment by dearieme — March 11, 2019 @ 5:36 pm

  2. You are obviously talking about Australia. For those interested in finding out what a mess Australia is getting it’s self
    into, read the articles at to find out where USA is heading.

    Comment by Peter — March 11, 2019 @ 6:07 pm

  3. @Peter–Australia (esp. SA and Victoria) was definitely one of the places I had in mind. Also Germany, Denmark, and California. Thanks for the link.

    Comment by cpirrong — March 11, 2019 @ 7:20 pm

  4. @dearieme. You raise an interesting point: just how will they kill us?

    Comment by cpirrong — March 11, 2019 @ 7:21 pm

  5. I wouldn’t put TOO much stock in the Australian example: Their electrical grids were already suffering from years of underinvestment (particularly in terms of their chosen technologies – my brother in law worked there for a little while and quipped that WA was erecting the kind of infrastructure and equipment that was simultaneously being retired in Ireland). And ever since the Tesla battery station was installed, that grid’s stability has improved markedly (as well as making a boat-load of money for Tesla in arbitration earnings. I dare say traditional grid operators have taken note).

    Not to say the Australians are thick: They correctly identified that they had a good environment for renewables (which is definitely not the case in a lot of other pro-renewable places!), they just under-estimated the grid-stability issues.

    Most countries could mitigate their renewables’ daily intermittency at reasonable cost with pumped storage (which environmentalists, of course, oppose), and those countries with access to wind power (which honestly is very cheap… when its running) and a low population density could probably make a good business case for such an arrangement (Though keeping something like natural gas on standby seems prudent). Either that or go nuclear…

    However, I accept that in a lot of countries, both options are likely to be expensive while (in the US at least), natural gas is cheap, and so the Prof is quite right the increased energy cost will fall disproportionately on the poor… what? What’s that? Did somebody say “gilets jaunes”?!

    Comment by HibernoFrog — March 15, 2019 @ 4:27 am

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