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Clean vs. Dirty: By the Numbers

green-energy-bulbby Gordon S. Jones

More people are employed in green energy than in fossil fuel energy. So says Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) in a recent speech, relying on numbers generated by researchers at the Brookings Institute and other places. Before the speech disappears down the memory hole, lets look a little bit at what these numbers mean.

It isn’t at all what the good Senator implies.

First off, while the numbers have been challenged by the usual suspects in the fossil fuel industry, let’s stipulate to them: Green energy employs 2.7 million people; only 2.4 million are employed in fossil fuels.

What the Senator doesn’t realize is that employing a lot of people is not the goal of energy production. We could employ a lot more people to supply energy if we went back to burning wood. Think of all the people we could employ to plant the trees, cut them down, chop them up, and deliver them to houses by horse-drawn carts. And instead of running air conditioners, we would employ a lot more people if we hired menials to wave palm fronds over us.

Jobs are nice, but unless they produce something they don’t do much more than keep us warm as a result of the exercise. During the Depression, FDR tried to stimulate the economy by having one group of workers dig holes and another group fill them up. It didn’t work in terms of producing anything worth having.

Obama tried (and keeps trying) something similar, with not much more result.

What is actually important, what makes for economic growth and development, is efficiency. And in that respect, the green energy industry fails miserably. At least it does based on the box of envelopes on whose backs I did some rudimentary calculations. Numbers are not my life; words are. But I did check these with the math teacher whose class precedes mine in the South City Campus, so they should serve for purposes of illustration.

The facts (from the U.S. Energy Information Administration) are easiest to demonstrate for electricity.

In 2012, the United States consumed 4.054 billion kilowatt hours of electricity. Of that, 37% (1.50 billion kwh) was generated by burning coal and another 30% (1.22 billion kwh) by burning natural gas. Oil and other gases contribute less than 2% (0.08 billion kwh).

Meanwhile, biomass is producing 1.42% (0.06 kwh) of our electricity, geothermal another .41% (0.02 billion kwh), solar .11% (0.0045 kwh), and wind 3.46% (0.14 billion kwh). Together we are getting 5.4% (0.22 billion kwh) of our electricity from these renewable sources.

It’s hard to know what to do with nuclear power, at 19% (0.77 billion kwh) and hydropower at 7% (0.28 billion kwh). At one time nuclear was the darling of the greenies, but they don’t want it any more. I’ll take it, but it isn’t a fossil fuel, so I’m going to exclude it from these calculations.

Similarly with hydro. It isn’t polluting, but it does get in the way of the fish, so the greenies don’t like it. Being a fisherman myself, I sympathize with the plight of the salmon and steelhead, but I don’t think they are going to be rescued by wind power any time soon, so I’ll leave hydro out as well.

(But recognizing, with respect to nuclear, and then natural gas, the arc of initial warm welcome, gradual cooling – if I can appropriate the metaphor – and eventual execration by the bien-pensants of the world, let me issue a warning to the wind power industry: as the leading producer of renewable energy today (excluding hydro, as explained), your day will soon come. After all, you kill birds, some of which are endangered and threatened species, and before long, if wind turbines continue to proliferate, the sensitive souls among the greenies will start to notice – you read it here first – that you are changing the climate by slowing down the global circulation of air.) Ted Kennedy may no longer be here to interpose his corpus between the winds off Nantucket and the builders of turbines, but who would ever have thought it would be Bill Koch to take his place!

But back to the task at hand, which is to demonstrate beyond a peradventure that generating electricity by renewable energy is grossly inefficient.

According to the Whitehouse (and the White House) numbers, each person working to produce electricity by coal and natural gas produces 1,132 kilowatt hours of electricity each year.

By contrast, each person working to produce electricity by biomass, geothermal, solar, and wind generates 81 kilowatt hours of electricity per year.

In other words, fossil fuel workers are 14 times as productive as renewable energy workers. Putting the non-polluting nuclear and hydro workers on the renewable side will greatly improve their efficiency, but it will do little for the boosterism of the tree huggers.

Scientists point out that making electricity from coal is inefficient (38-44% of the energy produced results in electricity, the rest in heat, and unburned hydrocarbons that contribute to climate change); so is natural gas (39-58% ditto). (NB: all of the numbers in this and the following paragraph were picked off the Internet, where there are as many different numbers as you’d like. I don’t vouch for them, but will contend that the ones I have chosen do not grossly misstate the actual situation.)

Given the rhetoric from scientists like Senator Whitehouse, I expected to find that wind generators are much more efficient (actually less than 35% with a theoretical limit of 39%) and solar even more so (15% right now, but with a theoretical limit of 90% or so).

If that theoretical limit is reached for solar, we can conclude that it will eventually displace fossil fuels. But when it does, my guess is that it will be because the conversion of solar energy to electricity will have become much less labor intensive. Maybe we’ll be able to get by with only two million workers.

Which will be good for the economy, but bad for Senator Whitehouse’s rhetoric. By then he will perhaps have recognized that the reason renewables do not displace fossils now is because they cost so much more, and that they cost so much more because workers in their industries are so much less efficient.

P.S.: (Other efficiencies for the sake of general interest: biomass: 30-40%; nuclear: 30-40%; geothermal: less than 15%; hydro: 90-95%, including tidal power. The numbers in this postscript are all about 10 years old.)

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Gordon S. Jones is a senior fellow at Frontiers of Freedom.  Jones is also an adjunct professor at Utah Valley University and Salt Lake Community College. Jones has extensive experience in Congress, in public policy, and elective politics.