Sunday, December 6, 2009

Global Warming is about Economics, not Scientists

In a recent editorial, George Will dismissed global warming as academic nonsense.

There is some truth to what he says regarding tactics of those trying to scare everyone about global temperature increases. Particularly the forced "consensus" and the constantly shifting story. But there is little debate, even among Republicans, that SOx and NOx (sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide) emissions are harmful to your health. Sort of like how few people will argue that smoking won't harm your lungs. Clean coal technology and the natural gas building spree of the 90s have helped reduce the levels of these harmful pollutants in the atmosphere over the last 20 years. Moreover, the consensus that these gases are bad for the air has not changed over time, they were known to be harmful in the 80s, just as they are today. But the same is not true about global warming.

In the 70s, there was a panic about global cooling, with the conventional academic wisdom claiming that pollutants were blocking the sun's rays. In 20 short years, the academics did a 180 and started warning about global warming. After mixed data and steady temperatures for 10 years, the story was changed yet again to the fuzzy catch all "climate change".

So I don't have any argument with Will regarding the tactics used by global warming/climate change zealots. Nonetheless concerns about climate are still resonating with many people, even when the story been inconsistent and relied heavily on forceful opinions and outrageous claims. I think the global warming/climate change/call it something else in 2015 issue will stick around for awhile, but not because of European bureaucrats or in-your-face liberals. Rather, the economics of alternative energy are improving, which is giving more companies an incentive to invest in new electricity production technologies, regardless of whether the scientific data that justifies them is pure or complete junk.

Like many Republicans, Will has mocked the limited contribution wind energy makes toward U.S. electrical generation. This year, it will produce about 1.3% the roughly 4 trillion kilowatt hours fed into the grid. Not much, that's true. Except four years ago it was just .3%. Wind is growing rapidly, not because of liberal do gooders, but because the costs to deploy it have dropped, and its capital construction cost per kilowatt is lower than clean coal's.

Clean coal, whether you think it's really clean or not, is an expensive technology comprised of advanced materials and chemicals. It is helping to push the construction cost of new coal plant up to about $2,700 per kilowatt. Wind, due to larger turbines and longer manufacturing runs, is down to about $2,000 per kilowatt, about a third of what it cost 20 years ago. And while its drawbacks (intermittent power, dead birds, obstructing the view of Martha's Vineyard from the Kennedy compound) are well-known, it's cheap enough (although still subsidized by a production tax credit) to account for nearly a third of all new electrical power generation in the U.S.

Wind accounts for about 20 times the U.S. electrical output as solar. Solar is about 2.5 times more expensive, and as a DC power source, is not an ideal technology for a centralized power plant. Some Silicon Valley startups have claimed they could get solar down to $1 per watt through the use of thin film materials, but in practice their products have hovered at $4-$5 per watt due to very high manufacturing overhead and labor costs. Wind, an AC source like hydro, coal, and nat gas, is better-suited for larger power stations, although the lack of wind in some parts of the country, most notably the Southeast, limit the locations where it can be reasonably deployed.

As I wrote a few months ago, access to a scarce renewable energy source (a midwestern waterfall) led to Minneapolis overtaking St. Paul as Minnesota's economic center in the late 19th century. But wind turbines are no longer a scarce technology, and require very little labor post-installation, so there is not another Minneapolis about to sprout up because of them. However, their importance will grow over time as they are deployed further, which in turn will give more corporations and consumers a greater interest in the technology, which will help keep climate change in the news, regardless of what it's called in 10 years.

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