31 March 2008

Ethanol Solution is a Lie

NYT review:
In “Gusher of Lies,” Mr. Bryce, a freelance journalist specializing in energy issues, mounts a savage attack on the concept of energy independence and the most popular technologies currently being promoted to achieve it. Ethanol? A scam. Wind power? Sheer fantasy. Solar power? Think again. For the foreseeable future, which is to say the next 30 to 50 years, fossil fuels will reign supreme, as they have for the last century. Deal with it.
Hey! What about solar power? Mr. Schwarzenegger has gotten very excited about solar power recently, although he's wrong to say that solar panels have zero carbon footprint. They need to be manufactured, transported and installed. After that, they have no footprint.

Bottom Line: We cannot have the government choosing winners and losers in the technological race to generate greener energy. The government -- even if it is not corrupt -- cannot predict the future any better than my cat. The best thing to do is set incentives for conservation and let markets and competition move things ahead.


J.R. said...

This seems obvious. I guess that is why so many people don't get it. Plus, the almost total ignorance of basic economic concepts by about 98% of the populace.

David Zetland said...

A few years ago, about 99% of ex-Soviet citizens understood that governments are bad at picking winners. Seems that Mr. Putin has managed to drown their memory in oil money and Russian nationalism.
(To see where they are headed, check out Venezuela.)

Nathaniel said...

It seems that prizes like the DARPA challenges are a decent way to encourage early innovation in some technology fields. But it is under threat from attempts to scale it up. If the purse gets too big it could lead to corruption. My question would be, "What point are prize purses too big to protect from corruption?"

jameson said...

Ethanol no, but wind and solar viable
Everyone seems to correctly believe that ethanol is neither economical nor clean.
Only politicians and farmers carry on the ethanol pretense to everyone else's dis-benefit.

But don't get carried away with negatives -- not every change in energy is hopeless.
Inexpensive thin solar panels seem viable in Germany (60% of the world's solar generation), while inexpensive huge concentrator mirrors onto small solar converters, both seem viable.
About 900,000 statue-of-liberty sized windmills would match all current energy carried by U.S. electric lines,
and would cost between $500 billion and $1 trillion (U.S.).

Don't forget that these other sources of energy can have fewer moral hazards and externalities, whose costs have been running of the order of $1 trillion.

There are energy storage technologies with potential, and this is probably where non-chemical energy needs the most research.

We'd probably all agree that we need not more research into USING chemical fuels, but Manhattan sized research projects into energy STORAGE and CREATION.
This requires opportunistic scientists and mathematicians, not limited-thinking opportunists.

David Zetland said...

@ Jamison -- good point, bu I have a few quibbles.

Germany is a "world leader" in solar because it gives the biggest subsidies -- just as "sustainable" as ethanol.

Second, I prefer small, DARPA-sized, efforts to address energy issues. The Manhattan Project had an explicit goal and roadmap, but energy conservation can happen from many directions. Better to "let a thousand flowers bloom." (I think you do too, but I wanted to point out that the MP was big and centralized.)