Al Gore's recent well intentioned challenge that we produce 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years represents a widely held delusion we can't afford to harbor.
One of the most frequently ignored energy issues is the time required to bring forth a major new fuel to the world's energy supply. Until the mid-19th century, wood-burning powered the world. Then coal gradually surpassed wood on into the first part of the 20th Century. Oil was discovered in the 1860s, but it was a century before it surpassed coal as our largest energy fuel. Trillions of dollars are now invested in the world's infrastructure to mine, process, and deliver coal, oil and natural gas.
As Distinguished Professor Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba recently put it, It is delusional to think that the United States can install in a decade wind and solar generating capacity equivalent to that of thermal power plants that took nearly 60 years to construct.
Texas has three times the name plate wind capacity of any other state - 8,000-plus megawatts (MW). The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) manages the Texas electric grids. ERCOT reports that its unpredictable wind farms actually supply just a little over 700MW during summer power demand, and provide just 1 percent of Texas power needs of about 72,000MW. ERCOT's 2015 forecast still has wind at just over 1 percent despite plans for many more turbines.
For the U.S. as a whole, the Energy Information Administration is forecasting wind and solar together will supply less than 3 percent of our electric energy in 2020.
The U.S. Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 is calling for 15 billion gallons of ethanol from corn by 2022. This will require 40 million prime crop acres dedicated to corn for ethanol to supply just 7 percent of our gasoline consumption.
There is a role in our energy needs for alternatives like wind and biofuels; but the assumption that they will make a major near term supply contribution is distracting us from hard choices involving aggressive conservation, life style changes, and major investments in energy efficient public transport.
We do have serious issues with fossil fuel burning. Coal is an increasing environmental problem, and oil supplies may well peak in the near future. We need to improve energy efficiency with upgraded buildings, high mileage vehicles, and electric public transport. The way we produce and transport food may have to be recast to avoid transporting so much of it for great distances. Funding and encouraging these efforts will likely require unpopular but affordable energy taxes, especially on gasoline and coal production.
Above all we need more realism and less political dreaming as we approach a difficult energy future. As we look toward our energy horizon today, energy analysts don't see those multi-colored renewable rainbows our political leaders are depicting. The primary color out there for them is coal dust black.
ROLF WESTGARD is a resident of Deerwood, a professional member, Geological Society of America and a member of the Brainerd Dispatch advisory board.
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