Saturday, September 12, 2009


The 1920’s and thirties saw demagogues and authoritarians attempting to force their brand of centralized, coercive, collectivist, nationalistic Utopia on everyone else.

Today, the same anti-freedom, anti-human, anti-enterprise, anti-private property philosophies are again oozing out of old Europe and infecting the western world. Visions of another collectivist Utopia are again exciting the intellectuals, and this time it is International rather than Nationalistic. The International Green Shirts have arrived. The Big Lie they have concocted is: “Man is causing dangerous Global Warming”.

The global warming story has excited the anti-liberty groups as never before. Here is an issue that can be milked endlessly to achieve income re-distribution, population control, social justice, world government, re-forestation, sustainable development and alternate energy. It will fund vote buying and foreign aid on a massive scale and finance whole new bureaus for government “research”. It can be used to yield detailed data on every business in the land, and life-and-death control over every corporation and industry – a central planner’s dream opportunity.


When renewable is not sustainable

The rare display of realism from a Leftist site below points out that ethanol and solar power deplete land and water resources

Renewable energy is sold to the public as an environmentally benign alternative to energy produced by fossil fuels. With respect to ethanol and solar power, however, the debate has ignored how land and water use is affected by refining ethanol, growing corn and siting solar plants.

Energy production requires water. Producing petroleum, natural gas, coal or methane consumes a lot of water, but much less than it takes to make ethanol. In 2008, researchers at Virginia Tech quantified the amount of water it takes to produce one million British Thermal Units (BTUs): natural gas requires three gallons, ethanol as much as 29,100 gallons.

Even in a state-of-the-art refinery that recycles its water, four gallons of water are consumed for every gallon of ethanol produced. In 2007, Congress enacted the Energy Independence and Security Act, which mandates the production of 36 billion gallons of ethanol per year by 2022—a 500-percent increase from current levels. The refining process alone will annually consume more than a two-month supply of water for the city of Chicago. That water is a drop in the bucket when we factor in the amount of water that is needed to grow the corn. To grow enough corn to refine a single gallon of ethanol can take as much as 2,500 gallons of water, and 2,500 multiplied by 36 billion is enough water to slake Chicago’s thirst for more than 100 years.

In Illinois, water used to grow corn comes mostly from rainfall, but further west, farmers mostly irrigate their fields. In Nebraska, for example, 75 percent of corn fields are irrigated. In the arid west, corn can’t be farmed without irrigation. And using water to irrigate crops always means that less will be available for other uses.

Consider the implications for California, which aspires to produce 1 billion gallons of ethanol annually. To grow the necessary corn would require using every drop of water currently diverted from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. That water irrigates 7 million acres in the Central Valley and provides critical supplies to Southern California’s cities—uses that can hardly be superseded by those of growing and refining corn for ethanol.

As the ethanol boom drove up the price of corn from $2 a bushel in 2006 to more than $4 in 2009, ethanol producers were delirious with joy. But food producers, such as hog and beef farmers, and beverage companies, such as Coca-Cola, complained that ethanol’s demand for corn was driving up food prices. Then the global economic meltdown caused the price of gas to plummet, making ethanol very expensive. Some proposed ethanol plants were shelved; some companies went bankrupt.

Yet, political support for ethanol remains strong. In May 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed rules to measure ethanol’s carbon footprint that would include the impact of farmers who cut down trees anywhere on earth to plant more corn. Members of Congress from farm states quickly introduced legislation to amend the Waxman-Markey Climate Bill to deny the EPA this authority. The House narrowly passed the bill in June 2009; at press time, it was still unclear whether the Senate would accept this provision.

Some biofuel visionaries believe that “cellulosic ethanol,” produced from the stalks and husks of corn—the waste product rather than the kernels—will be the future of the industry. But cellulosic ethanol remains a long way from being economically competitive.

The solar energy industry is similarly benefiting from federal legislation that paid no attention to water and land availability. In 2005, Congress enacted the Energy Policy Act, giving the Departments of Energy and Interior the mandate to establish renewable energy projects on federal land, which will generate more than 10,000 megawatts of electricity.

The obvious place to locate solar projects is in the desert Southwest, where the sun shines year-round. As of June 2009, solar power companies had filed applications for more than 150 permits for solar power plants on federal land in Arizona, California and Nevada, mostly land owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an agency of the Department of the Interior. Assembling a sufficient number of solar panels or mirrors for a power plant requires a large tract of land. The permits being evaluated by BLM involve more than one million acres of land, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.

BLM has begun preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). To date, the bureau hasn’t announced what kind of leases or permits it will grant corporations for the use of federal land. Clearly, there must be long-term arrangements if the plants are to be commercially viable. The net effect will be to turn over exclusive use of federal land to for-profit corporations.

More troublesome is the potential water use of these companies. If solar power is generated by photovoltaic cells, it uses almost no water. The cells directly convert the sun’s rays into electricity. Such systems are becoming more common in home applications, but still remain rare for commercial-scale power plants. They are extremely costly and the power is not constant, as it is generated only during the day when the sun shines. Utilities greatly prefer cheap 24/7 power.

For commercial power plants, solar companies use a technology known as “concentrating solar thermal” (CST). The sun heats a fluid that boils water. The steam spins a turbine that generates electricity. All thermal power plants produce waste heat as a byproduct and use cooling towers to release the waste heat to the ambient atmosphere—usually by the evaporation of water. Apart from the first step that uses the sun’s heat, CST is an old-fashioned thermal power plant that consumes vast quantities of water.

That’s not a problem for a plant located in Michigan, but 150 solar plants located in the Mojave Desert create a major water problem. Desert wildlife, including endangered species, depend heavily on rare seeps and springs that would likely dry up because of large-scale groundwater pumping.

It is feasible to air-cool CST plants but, again, the desert climate poses a problem. It’s hot outside, which makes dispersing the waste heat using hot desert air very inefficient. The solar companies prefer to use wet-cooled plants, because they cost almost 10 percent less to build and generate five percent more power than do air-cooled plants.

The National Park Service and many environmental organizations are beginning to realize that the water demands of ethanol and solar power are problematic. The Park Service has urged the Departments of Energy and the Interior to deny permits for water-cooled plants. Air cooling would reduce water consumption by as much as 90 percent. As the EIS process moves forward, these departments should give preference to plants that use air-cooling. The last thing we need are hundreds of commercial-scale groundwater wells drilled on water-scarce federal land.

Congress must integrate its energy and water policies. This is critical as global warming begins to reduce flows in western rivers, which translates directly into a loss of energy produced by hydroelectric facilities at federal dams. Replacing this lost energy without using fossil-fuel plants will be a real challenge. 



A comment from Hong Kong

A beaming Tony Blair posed for television cameras holding a sleek, shiny solar panel as smiling officials and film star Jet Li looked on. They announced an ambitious plan to bring modern, clean power to the world's poor. In the next five years, the programme would bring solar-powered street lamps to 1,000 villages in China, India and Africa, where people are so poor they still do not generate any of the greenhouse gases blamed for global warming. The plan was announced at a factory in Guizhou in southwestern China - one of its poorest provinces.

But would Blair, the former British prime minister, and Li have been smiling if they had known a factory must burn more than 40kg of coal to produce the panel - one metre by 1.5 metres - they were holding? Forty kilograms might not sound much. But even the country's least efficient coal-fired power plant would generate 130 kilowatt-hours of electricity burning that amount - enough power to keep a 22 watt LED light bulb beaming 12 hours a day for 30 years. A solar panel is designed to last just 20 years.

Jian Shuisheng , a professor of optical technology at Beijing Jiaotong University, estimates it takes 10kg of polysilicon to produce a solar panel with a capacity of one kilowatt - just enough to generate the energy to keep a fridge cool for a day. To make that much polysilicon on the mainland would require the burning of more than two tonnes of coal. That amount of coal could generate enough electricity to keep the fridge running for two decades.

Like Blair and Li, many consumers, as well as corporations, in developed countries are buying mainland-made solar panels in the belief that using them will help slow the pace of global warming. Demand for solar panels has risen rapidly in the past few years, creating a US$100-billion-a-year market for panels and related industrial materials.

Five years ago, mainland production of polysilicon - the key component of solar panels - was negligible. Today, it is the world's leading producer of the material, and last year churned out 4,000 tonnes - 80 times as much as in 2004. This year the government expects output to soar to 30,000 tonnes and projects that by 2011 it will reach a jaw-dropping 150,000 tonnes. At least 16 provinces began building 33 polysilicon production plants last year, newspaper the 21st Century Economy Review has reported.

But far from saving the world, the production of solar panels is aggravating pollution and adding to energy consumption. Mainland government officials have known this for years, but not until the global economic crisis made a big dent in demand for solar panels did they openly admit that the "green business" could be dirty sometimes - and seek to regulate the market.

Such hasty expansion is not confined to the production of solar panels. From installing wind power to the production of vehicles running on alternative fuels, bubbles exist throughout the new-energy sector.

Senior officials at the National Development and Reform Commission, the key economic ministry, have spoken many times of the need for higher entry barriers - from curbs on bank lending to more frequent environmental checks - to prevent firms and local governments rushing into the sector and avoid overexpansion. But their warnings went unheeded: many provinces are already building some of the world's biggest solar power projects. And they will not stop, because they have invested more than 100 billion yuan (HK$114 billion) in the projects.

Polysilicon is greyish, crystallised pure silicon; more than 90 per cent of solar panels on the market contain it. Dr Dang Qingde , deputy head of the department of labour safety of the Centre for Disease Control in the city of Leshan in Sichuan , measured the amount of toxic chemicals in the air at a polysilicon plant in September 2007. Leshan is one of a handful of cities to have imported polysilicon production lines from overseas. The plant in the city is capable of producing 1,500 tonnes of polysilicon a year. The factory is clean and quiet. Grass and trees grow between its buildings.

Using a hand-held device, Dang found more than 10 poisonous substances - from ammonia, the effects of which are relatively mild, to the lung-eating trichlorosilane - but all at levels within the safe limits decreed by Beijing. Nevertheless, he wrote a report in which he rated the workplace "highly hazardous". "A shiny polysilicon plant is like a shiny bomb. It may look clean and innocent, but you don't want to have one in your neighbourhood," he said.

What made Dang nervous was the presence of chlorine. The chemical is used at almost every stage of the manufacturing process. Chlorine can not only turn your blood into hydrochloric acid, but also interact with other chemicals - such as silicon - to form more deadly poisons, he found. Dang published his findings in an academic journal, despite opposition from the plant's management, in the hope it would draw the attention of others to the environmental issues in polysilicon production. "I have prayed for heaven's blessing to save our workers and residents in the neighbourhood," he said.

Since the first polysilicon factory opened in Leshan, more have followed. Now it is one of the biggest polysilicon production centres on the mainland. Output rose by more than 300 per cent in two years. To Dang's relief, this has not led to calamity.

Still, that is not the case elsewhere. Emissions from the Huafu Silicon Company's plant in Liancheng county, in the southeastern province of Fujian , polluted the air and water in a village, causing violent clashes with farmers. The company says the pollution was accidental. There will be more such cases because mainland factories are using old-fashioned, energy intensive and highly polluting equipment, says Jian, the Beijing Jiaotong University professor, who is a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Extracting pure silicon is a tedious business, the professor said. In the 1950s, engineers at German engineering giant Siemens discovered that by putting hydrogen, chlorine and raw silicon in an oven and heating them up until they vaporised, they could get rid of some unwanted chemical elements. They repeated the process until they got 99.9999999 per cent pure polysilicon - just pure enough to make solar panels. Half a century later, most of the polysilicon makers in the world still use this method.

The professor described what happened to the polysilicon after that. A very fine length of wire is used to slice a block of polysilicon into very thin pieces. But they are not yet thin enough. The polysilicon sheets are sanded down until they are 200 micrometres thick - a process that turns 40 per cent of the polysilicon into waste that cannot be recycled.

Dr Wan Gang , minister of science and technology, said the mainland was burning a lot of coal to produce solar panels for Western countries. "Developed countries get clean air and the reputation of a carbon-free economy, while pollution and greenhouse gas emission are chalked up to our account," Wan said. "That's a bit unfair."

According to Jian's calculations, almost 30 million tonnes of coal, or more than 1 per cent of the mainland's output of coal last year, will be needed to keep the ovens of all the polysilicon plants hot.



Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, renewed his call for a European carbon tax on imports to the bloc on Thursday as he unveiled details of a new charge on fossil fuel products in France. “I will not accept a system ... that imports products from countries that don’t respect the rules [on carbon emission reductions],” he said in a speech to factory workers in the eastern Ain region of France. “We need to impose a carbon tax at [Europe’s] borders. I will lead that battle.”

The French president has in the past sparked accusations of protectionism after calling for European import tariffs on products from countries that do not abide by international targets on carbon emission reductions.

On Thursday economists warned that such an initiative – likely to be supported by some European countries such as Italy – could have catastrophic consequences for the ongoing attempts to strike a global trade deal. “This would put the developed world on a collision course with China, India and other developing countries. It could do serious damage to the international trade system,” said Simon Tilford, chief economist of the Centre for European reform. “It would be seen as naked protectionism.”

Mr Sarkozy sought to defend his position, which is clearly aimed at making France’s own carbon tax more palatable in the face of strong public opposition. “A carbon tax at the border is the natural complement to a domestic carbon tax. More importantly, a carbon tax at the borders is vital for our industries and our jobs. This has nothing to do with protectionism,” he said. “This is about fair play.”



South Africa, a major polluter due to its dependence on coal-fired electricity, will not agree to any emission-cutting targets if doing so hurts the country's economy, a cabinet spokesman said on Thursday.

International talks resume in December in Copenhagen where countries will try to thrash out a new international climate change regime beyond 2012 amid increased discord over the role developing countries can play in reducing harmful emissions.

South Africa, echoing a view widely held by developing countries, including China and India, said emission-cutting targets would hit its economy during a global economic downturn. "We are committed to taking responsible action to reduce our emissions but we are not ready to agree to any targets that would undermine our growth trajectory," Themba Maseko told reporters in a post-cabinet briefing. "We think that it is premature for South Africa to agree to targets," Maseko said.

Britain said on Tuesday that talks in Denmark to agree a successor to the Kyoto Protocol would fail unless politicians from developing countries focused more on the longer-term climate threat and not an economic downturn.



If you liked what Enron, AIG, and the Federal Reserve did to the economy, you’ll love cap and trade. That’s the thrust of a new paper from Louisiana State University economist Joseph Mason. Cap-and-trade programs, like the one passed by the House and simmering in the Senate, pose a couple of big problems, he says: They don’t work, and they can gum up the rest of the economy. Like many economists, Dr. Mason pines for the elegance of a carbon tax to tackle climate change.

A cap-and-trade plan would work by capping the amount of greenhouse gases a country could emit, then letting companies trade the right to emit them. It’s a market-based solution to a big environmental problem.

However, the cap-and-trade programs in place (i.e., in Europe) have suffered from extreme volatility. The price of the pollution permits has ricocheted all over the place in a short period of time.

That, says Dr. Mason, is chum in the water to financial speculators who quickly learn how to game the system in their interests, something environmental groups have also warned about. And it pretty much defeats the purpose of environmental legislation in the first place: “With carbon permit prices fluctuating wildly, long-term signals regarding the carbon-reducing benefits of investing in clean-air technology are clouded at best and nonexistent at worst.”

People in Washington realize that, which is why they’ve been trying to figure out how to regulate the market for carbon better than they regulated the market for everything else. Since the carbon market will likely be the biggest commodity market in the U.S. once it’s up and running, the stakes are high.

One common recourse is central banking. That is, the carbon markets would be overseen by a committee of wise men who could regulate the supply and price of carbon permits just as they’ve done with the money supply.

That makes Dr. Mason nervous, to say the least. Central bankers have seen their image tarnished of late. And carbon markets are even trickier to ride: “Managing a carbon permit market will be far more complex than managing the money supply, which—indeed—is already tremendously complex, leading to cyclical booms and busts…”

Though all eyes—and cries—are currently focused on the health-care skirmish, the Senate is still working on its own version of an energy and climate bill. Next week, Dr. Mason and a spate of other cap-and-trade experts will make their case directly to Sen. Barbara Boxer’s committee on environment and public works.



For more postings from me, see DISSECTING LEFTISM, TONGUE-TIED, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For readers in China or for times when is playing up, there is a mirror of this site here.



John A said...

Hmm, strangenesses... At least two direct links do not work - the "When renewable is not sustainable" link comes back with "not found" even though if you go to the main site, find the headline for the article, and click it the same link is generated and works!

"THE DIRTY REALITY BEHIND SOLAR POWER" link just goes to the main page, probably the site's standard "404 - not found" response.

JR said...

Dirty reality link now fixed (I hope)