For the past decade or more, as Al Gore and the majority of climate-change scientists have insisted that the world is speeding headlong toward an environmental catastrophe of epic proportions, European countries have adhered to stringent emission controls in order to lessen their dependence on fossil fuels and replace them with renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. And the strictures have been in place long enough to have a significant effect; Germany, for example, now routinely gets a quarter of its electricity from renewable sources. But as economist Stephen Moore points out in a recent article in National Review, treading so lightly on one's carbon footprint has a price: higher energy costs.
A kilowatt-hour in Europe currently costs up to twice as much as it does in the U. S., and European manufacturers who use lots of electricity are starting to take notice. Companies such as the chemical giant BASF are planning new operations in the U. S. rather than Europe. As a result, the European Union recently announced that it was dropping its mandatory emissions standards for its member nations, letting them burn more coal and oil, if they can find it. And one of the places they are most likely to start looking is—you guessed it—the U. S. New exploration technologies, primarily fracking (hydraulic fracturing), have put the U. S. on track to be a net exporter of energy in the near future, and it looks like Europe will now be a prime customer, their disdain for old-fashioned carbon-based fuels notwithstanding.
Engineers made it possible for Germany to achieve the impressive feat of running a quarter of a modern economy on renewable energy alone. Engineers also have made it possible for the U. S. to increase its oil and gas production in recent years beyond the wildest dreams of everyone but a few farsighted oil-exploration entrepreneurs. In the absence of government controls or restrictions, customers for energy will buy the cheapest convenient fuel available.
Everyone agrees that except for a few isolated localities, there are no strictly economic reasons to build lots of renewable-energy sources into a large-scale power grid. A fossil-fuel power plant is much cheaper to build, its output is more reliable, and the continuing cost of the fuel is often more than offset by the construction, maintenance, and other costs associated with the relative unreliability of wind and solar energy.
But such a strictly economic analysis ignores a cultural and political factor: the perceived virtue of using renewable energy as opposed to the use of fossil fuels. In the moral universe in which many government and science leaders live, burning fossil fuels is as close as you can get to a mortal sin against future generations, and against those living now who may be harmed by the consequences of anthropogenic global warming.
The desire to avoid this sin is so great that, at least in Europe, it led to the European Union's mandatory emissions standards which effectively imposed renewable-energy quotas on its member nations. But even the bureaucrats of the EU can recognize impending economic disaster when they see it, and as the costs of living with a renewable-energy grid began to pile up, they and their constituents saw the consequences of idealism in their power bills. And it got to be too much.
This is not the place to debate the truth, falsity, or somewhere-in-betweenness of the connection between carbon dioxide emissions and global warming. What is of more immediate concern is the public's perception of the issue, and how that perception (or rather, spectrum of perceptions) influences governmental policies and laws.
For whatever reason, the EU, with its relatively opaque governing structure and increasingly centralized power over its member nations, responded promptly and vigorously to the perceived threat of global warming with practical measures that had significant negative economic effects. The fact that the same leaders are now backing off on these measures in the face of rising energy costs says volumes about their real priorities, which turn out to be similar to those of politicians in other parts of the globe.
The slogan "The economy, stupid" was part of Bill Clinton's successful 1992 presidential campaign that brought down George H. W. Bush's presidency, and while Brussels bureaucrats do not face the same sorts of political pressures that U. S. presidential contenders do, they appear to have more sense than they sometimes get credit for.
In a free society, individual members can try to live off the grid entirely, or buy three Hummers and take cross-continental trips in them, or anything in between. But things like national power grids are, by necessity, creatures of politics, policies, and law. And any society which wants to pay the price for eschewing fossil fuels may do so.
The problems come when an elite leadership that is persuaded of the evils of fossil fuels tries to implement its expensive energy tastes, however virtuous, on the backs of a populace that has to pay for it. That experiment has been tried in Europe, and we are witnessing its failure, to a great extent, although Europe will probably continue to rely on renewables to a greater degree than the U. S. does for some time to come.
It may come as a surprise to some of my readers that in good old "ahl-bidness" Texas, where much of the technology of hydraulic fracturing was developed, and where petroleum is regarded roughly in the same light as mother's milk, we lead the nation in wind-power generation. In fact, on a particularly windy day in 2013, for a short time Texas surpassed Germany in renewables use, because for a short time more than a fourth of the total electricity being consumed was supplied by wind power.
As in other parts of the world, the growth of renewables didn't happen without a substantial government incentive, namely a guaranteed purchase price for wind-generated electricity that encouraged the construction of huge wind farms in West Texas. But this shift to wind was achieved without the penalty-laden restrictions on the construction of conventional fossil-fuel plants that the EU emissions standards imposed.
Decades, if not centuries, will elapse before the whole story of fossil fuels, global warming, and all that can be written. In the meantime, billions of people on this planet want and need, the advantages that cheap, reliable electric power can provide. Other things being equal, most of them would probably want to save the planet rather than cook it for breakfast, but things are not equal—not economically, not politically, and not culturally. And in this inequality lies the complexity of the ethics of energy policy today.
Sources: Stephen Moore's article "Europe's Green Collapse" appeared in the Feb. 24, 2014 issue of National Review. The record 28% of electric power generated by wind in Texas occurred at 7:08 PM, Feb. 9, 2013, and was reported in the Abilene Reporter News at http://www.reporternews.com/news/2013/mar/01/texas-wind-energy-sets-record-grid-expansion-in/. The report that Texas leads the nation in installed wind-power generation capacity is taken from the website of the American Council on Renewable Energy at http://www.acore.org/files/pdfs/states/Texas.pdf.
This column originally appeared on the Engineering Ethics blog, you can find it by visiting http://engineeringethicsblog.blogspot.com/.