Why do the media, academia, and many of our leaders believe the future belongs to “alternative” energy sources such as wind and solar power? Though these energy sources are for all intents and purposes inexhaustible, there is little evidence that they can compete with oil, natural gas, and nuclear power. As conservative talk radio host Jason Lewis points out, it’s crazy to prefer energy sources that have to be subsidized over energy sources that remain profitable despite being heavily taxed.
The inescapable conclusion is that the drive to develop alternative energy sources is largely an anti-technology, anti-growth movement. If the proponents of alternative energy sources were pro-technology and pro-growth, then they would support research aimed at exploiting oil shale and making nuclear power safer.
The USA’s aversion to nuclear energy is at its heart a profoundly anti-science phenomenon. From the time it was discovered that vast amounts of energy can be generated from nuclear fission and fusion, some people have claimed the special knowledge that such power was never intended for humans. Others have fought nuclear power simply because they yearn for the days when everyone grew their own food, built their own shelters, and made their own clothes.
It’s unfortunate that our country has largely turned its back on a technology that offers so many benefits. Nuclear power plants avoid the strip mining and rail transportation associated with coal-burning power plants. Disposing of nuclear waste raises environmental concerns, but why not make disposal and/or reuse of nuclear waste a major focus of research?
One of the challenges in designing medical devices such as implantable pacemakers, defibrillators, and ventricular assist pumps is providing a long-lasting, reliable, and small power source. Some readers may be shocked to learn that pacemaker companies (such as Cordis and Medtronic) began manufacturing nuclear-powered models about 40 years ago. These models exploited the heat produced by Plutonium-238 as it decays to generate electricity. No less of an authority than Wilson Greatbatch, who pioneered the development of lithium-iodide batteries for pacemakers, believes that the nuclear powered models were safe.
Sure, nuclear power poses safety concerns. But so do other energy sources. Gasoline is highly inflammable, but millions of people pump it and use it safely everyday. There’s no reason why we can’t make nuclear power just as safe. Unlike wind and solar power, nuclear power is potent, efficient, reliable, and scalable.
Whether the U.S. should permit more oil drilling is one of the most vigorously debated topics in the race for the White House. But it masks a larger question: Should government be involved at all in managing energy production?
The energy policy debate is so misguided it’s hard to know where to start. Many of the greatest technological advances throughout history were unexpected; some were fiercely opposed by the establishment. A government plan to develop alternative energy sources is as likely to obstruct a crucial advance as to enable it, because government funding distorts the research agenda by favoring certain technologies over others. (Kudos to philosopher Paul Feyerabend; he called for separation of science and state.)
Efforts to develop alternative energy sources have been ongoing for decades. There is no reason to believe that an additional government research push will bear fruit.
Even if we are able to dramatically increase the performance and decrease the cost of alternative energy sources that does not guarantee their success. There are other factors to be considered such as convenience, maintenance, and reliability. Proponents of alternative energy sources tend to underestimate the importance of matching the solutions to the applications. To wit, wind power is great for sailboats, but it is a poor choice for large-scale electricity generation.
About 20 years ago one of the co-founders of U.S. Robotics, Paul Collard, started a company called Midway Labs to develop a unique solar power solution. I had the privilege of working with Paul. Midway Labs developed a solar power system using light-gathering optics and solar cells designed to work with concentrated sunlight. Midway Labs’ system made optimal use of the available sunlight by physically tracking the sun. The tracking mechanism required periodic adjustment and maintenance.
A Midway Labs’ system including storage batteries offered a viable source of power for remote villages in developing countries. But it’s hard to see how such systems could even begin to replace fossil fuel burning power plants.
The drive to develop alternative energy sources also ignores the fact that there are still development opportunities for oil. For example, there are vast deposits of oil mixed with sand or clay. This oil needs to be mined rather than drilled, and it also requires special processing. During the 1990s, I spent a week at Syncrude in Fort McMurray in the northern part of Alberta, Canada. According to the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board, Alberta possesses 175 billion barrels of oil recoverable using current technology, and ten times that in all. That’s 1.7 trillion barrels of oil that have barely been tapped.
If you think about it, industry has done a magnificent job of meeting the world’s huge and fast-growing energy demands. And it has responded faithfully and effectively to environmental concerns. Meanwhile, the energy sector is expected to perform with one hand tied behind its back, and oil companies are routinely vilified.
The issue before the American people is not just whether to permit more drilling. We need to decide who is best qualified to develop safe and abundant energy: the policy wonks or the entrepreneurs? If history is any guide, it’s clearly the latter.