Seduced by cheap natural gas, U.S. may lose ground in the path away from fossil fuels
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Closing in on the peak of the presidential election season, it’s probably too much to expect honesty from politicians desperate to get elected or re-elected.
But it’s especially disturbing to hear lies about things that can easily be proved with fact-based reality checks. Energy is one of those issues that’s been twisted beyond recognition by the Republican Party, mainly because so many of the GOP’s candidates are heavily financed by fossil fuel companies — and by the way, so are plenty of Democrats.
The latest political twist is the claim that high gas prices are due to President Obama’s policies of pursuing renewable energy at the expense of fossil fuels, and that we can merrily drill and frack our way to cheaper fuel prices, all the while upping emissions of greenhouse gases.
The truth is that domestic energy production is nearing record levels, both in the fossil fuel sector, as well as from renewable sources. President Obama hasn’t been shy about leasing new plays for oil and gas, while at the same time pursuing ambitious and far-reaching plans for long-term production of renewable energy.
The secondary lie associated with the fundamental untruth is that renewable energy just won’t be able to fulfill all our energy needs. There are a whole bunch of little lies that go along with all this, most designed to smear the Obama administration by portraying his energy policy as unsound. The most unsettling suggestion is that, if we, as a country, veer away from fossil fuels, it will somehow turn us into a second-rate economic power.
That’s a subtle way of saying that support for renewables and opposition to fossil fuels is anti-American, and nothing could be farther from the truth.
Of course, nobody actually claims that renewable energy can replace all our fossil fuel consumption, at least in the short term. But the fact remains that we are far from where we should be in terms of generating renewable energy, partially because we got behind the curve about 10 to 15 years ago, and also because of political resistance from those oil- and coal-funded lawmakers and lobbyists.
For proof, look no farther than Germany — not a particularly sunny country — which this weekend set a new record for solar energy production. In total, the country’s solar facilities kicked out about 22 gigawatts of power during the mid-day hours Friday and Saturday, equal to the capacity of 20 nuclear power plants, meeting about a third of the country’s total electricity demand Friday, and half on Saturday, when many factories and offices were closed.
In touting the high solar power output, a German energy think tank also made a few other points that are worth thinking about.
First of all, solar power capacity peaks exactly when it’s needed most, in the middle of the day. Energy demand in general follows a bell curve, with much lower demand at night, increasing gradually early in the day and then rising sharply toward noon.
“It is often underestimated, that the sun brings significant power if and when it is needed most,” said Norbert Allnoch, director of the International Economic Platform for Renewable Energies in Münster.
Germany’s model of distributed solar power, with photovoltaic panels widespread in residential areas and in open space zones, relieves stress on the energy transportation grid because the power is generated close to where it’s consumed.
Allnoch also explained that solar power drops the cost of peak power by reducing demand for peak power production by expensive gas-fired plants, with a much higher cost per kilowatt-hour. Unfortunately, German consumers haven’t benefited from that yet due to the way power markets are structured. Allnoch said it will take political leadership to restructure the markets.
Germany, with one of the most robust economies in the world, has decided to move away from nuclear power altogether, shutting eight reactors right after the Fukushima disaster last year, with the remaining nine slated to stop operating by 2022.
With the current debate over modest incentives for renewables in this country, it’s worth mentioning that Germany got where it is with public investment until renewable energy reached a critical mass. Overall, Germany now gets about 20 percent of its power from renewable sources. Germany generates almost as much power from the sun as the rest of the world combined and has ambitious goals of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2020.