Al Gore said the other day that "the future of human civilization" depends on giving up fossil fuels within a decade -- and was acclaimed as a prophet by the political class. Obviously boring reality doesn't count for much these days. Even so, when Barack Obama wheels out an energy agenda nearly as grandiose as Mr. Gore's, shouldn't it receive at least some media scrutiny?
On Monday, Mr. Obama said that the U.S. must "end the age of oil in our time," with "real results by the end of my first term in office." This, he said, will "take nothing less than a complete transformation of our economy." Mark that one down as the understatement of the year. Maybe Mr. Obama really is the Green Hornet, or some other superhero of his current political myth.
The Senator calls for $150 billion over 10 years to achieve "energy independence," with elevated subsidies for renewable alternatives and efficiency programs. He also says he'll "leverage billions more in private capital to build a new energy economy," euphemistically referring to his climate plan to tax and regulate greenhouse gases. Every President since Nixon has declared "energy independence," as Mr. Obama noted. But this time, he says, things will change.
They won't. And not because of "the old politics," or whatever. Currently, alternative sources -- wind, solar, biomass, hydroelectric and geothermal -- provide less than 7% of yearly domestic consumption. Throw out hydro and geothermal, and it's only 4%. For the foreseeable future, renewables simply cannot provide the scale and volume of energy needed to meet growing U.S. demand, which is expected to increase by 20% over the next two decades. Even with colossal taxpayer subsidies, renewables probably can't even slow the rate of growth of carbon-based fuel consumption, much less replace it.
Take wind power, which has grown rapidly though still only provides about two-thirds of 1% of all U.S. electricity. The Energy Department optimistically calculates that ramping up merely to 20% by 2030 would require more than $2 trillion and turbines across the Midwest "wind corridor," plus multiple offshore installations. And we'll need a new "transmission superhighway system" of more than 12,000 miles of electric lines to connect the wind system to population centers. A mere $150 billion won't cut it. Mr. Obama also didn't mention that this wind power will be more expensive than traditional sources like coal.
Wind, too, is intermittent: It isn't always blowing and can't be accessed on demand when people need electricity. Since there's no cost-effective way to store large amounts of electricity, wind requires "spinning reserve," or nonalternative baseload power to avoid blackouts. That baseload power is now provided largely by coal, nuclear and natural gas, and wind can't displace much. The same problem afflicts solar energy -- now one-hundredth of 1% of net U.S. electric generation. One of the top uses of solar panels is to heat residential swimming pools.
Mr. Obama also says he wants to mandate that all new cars and trucks are "flexible fuel" vehicles, meaning that they can run on higher concentrations of corn ethanol mixed with gasoline, or second-generation biofuels if those ever come onto the market. Like wind and solar, this would present major land use problems: According to credible estimates, land areas larger than the size of Texas would need to be planted with fuel feedstocks to displace just half the oil America imports every day. Meanwhile, the economic distortions caused by corn ethanol -- such as higher food prices -- have been bad enough.
And yet there's more miracle work to do. Mr. Obama promises to put at least one million plug-in electric vehicles on the road by 2015. That's fine if consumers want to buy them. But even if technical battery problems are overcome, this would only lead to "fuel switching" -- if cars don't use gasoline, the energy still has to come from somewhere. And the cap-and-trade program also favored by Mr. Obama would effectively bar new coal plants, while new nuclear plants are only now being planned after a 30-year hiatus thanks to punishing regulations and lawsuits.
Problems like these are the reality of "alternative" energy, and they explain why every "energy independence" plan has faltered since the 1970s. But just because Mr. Obama's plan is wildly unrealistic doesn't mean that a program of vast new taxes, subsidies and mandates wouldn't be destructive. The U.S. has a great deal invested in fossil fuels not because of a political conspiracy or because anyone worships carbon but because other sources of energy are, right now, inferior.
Consumption isn't rising because of wastefulness. The U.S. produces more than twice as much GDP today per unit of energy as it did in the 1950s, yet energy use has risen threefold. That's because energy use is tethered to growth, and the economy continues to innovate and expand. Mr. Obama seems to have other ideas.
Posted by John Ray. For a daily critique of Leftist activities, see DISSECTING LEFTISM. For a daily survey of Australian politics, see AUSTRALIAN POLITICS Also, don't forget your roundup of Obama news and commentary at OBAMA WATCH