Cheap Power = Prosperity

Energy is the pillar upon which economic growth is built. “The difference between the developed world and everybody else,” says author Robert Bryce, “is [affordable] electricity.” But simple math and basic physics show that chasing energy sources with low power densities will not get us to where we need to be.

Yet, Sierra Club attracts corporate, as well as individual, donations. How do you account for that?

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave the Sierra Club $50 million to fund their “Beyond Coal” campaign. Again, this is deeply silly. Yes, Sierra Club is fighting coal-fired power plants here in the U.S., but they’re also fighting them, with other environmental groups, around the world. Since 1973, coal consumption has grown faster than any other form of energy on an absolute basis. Over the last 10 years, coal use has grown as much as the growth in oil, natural gas, nuclear and hydro combined. You can say “Beyond Coal” if you have other forms of energy to tap. But how do you say you want to go to “Beyond Coal” to someone who doesn’t have electricity? That is not just economically objectionable, it’s morally objectionable.

“Power density,” which is a measure of the energy flow harnessed in a given volume or mass of an energy source, is a key concept in your book. Given the basic physics involved, why is so much money spent developing fuel sources that have low power densities?

Never underestimate the power of the image of so-called green energy. Why are so many people intrigued by these projects? Because they have this imprimatur of being green, and most simply don’t understand the basic physics behind it. I want the public to understand the basic physics and math of energy. Many of these “green” investors are chasing the subsidies, and therein lies one of the big issues. Look at what, in fact, some of the utility executives and independent power generators have said: “Why are they putting money in solar?” With regard to the big solar projects being built in California, I remember one CEO saying that these projects have some of the lowest risk he’s seen as a utility executive. Why are they de-risked? Because the government is providing them with massive subsidies.

Couldn’t technological innovation help boost the power density of some low-density renewables?

No. Wind energy is constrained. We’ve seen bigger and bigger wind turbines. Yes, they’re more powerful, but because they’re bigger, you have to space them farther apart. According to numerous studies, including analyses that I’ve done myself on the power density of wind energy, it’s one watt per square meter, period. End of story. Elvis has left the building. That’s it. Biofuels are a fraction of that, maybe a third of a watt per square meter.

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