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The Intellectual Activist - An Objectivist Review
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Jack Wakeland is an engineer working in the nuclear power industry.
From the October 2001 issue of TIA.

When President Bush presented his National Energy Policy in May, he concluded that "energy production and environmental protection are not competing priorities. They're dual aspects of a single purpose: to live well and wisely upon this earth." To back up this claim, the President emphasized his proposals to promote renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, biomass (the combustion of agricultural and landfill gas and logging wastes), and geothermal power.

In doing so, the Bush Administration is promoting environmentalism's Big Lie: that the production of man-made power could, under any circumstances, be compatible with its injunction against man-made alterations to the environment.

Many environmentalists claim that putting the earth first only requires man to switch his power source from one technology to another; that the only thing their ideology requires is that the production of man-made power not deplete the earth's "limited" resources.

According to John Berger, a leading advocate of "alternative" technologies, renewable energy is in "harmony" with nature because it "draws on the perpetual flow of energy income to the Earth and doesn't deplete the Earth's energy capital. It doesn't destroy the earth in the process of providing us with the ability to do work." The only reason why "non-sustainable" fossil fuels have been favored over renewable energy, according to Berger, is that free markets cause us to "make our long-term energy decisions on the basis of short-term price signals."

In reality, these claims that renewable energy can replace fossil fuels and nuclear power are a fraud. In California, moreover, environmentalists have revealed that their real attitude toward renewable energy is no less hostile than their attitude toward all other forms of man-made power. After the installation of hundreds of "alternative" energy plants in the state-in the nation's most ambitious program to build environmentally correct power plants-the greens have begun to reject one renewable power technology after another.

Amory Lovins, a MacArthur fellow who has written 27 books, is the originator of environmentalism's renewable energy campaign. Lovins has promoted the view that all large-scale electricity production facilities must be phased out before they destroy the earth with pollution, radioactive waste, and supposedly climate-changing carbon dioxide.

To save the earth, Lovins claims, the entire American power grid with its 745,000 MW of central station generating capacity must be replaced with decentralized and distributed electrical generation. He envisions photovoltaic cells on every rooftop, windmills in every backyard, hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered automobiles in every garage, bio-mass generators in every barn, and ethanol crops in every field. As a "bridge" to this environmentally correct energy regime, Lovins advocates the use of natural-gas-fired power plants and co-generators, plants that use much of the low temperature heat normally rejected from conventional power plants to produce steam for heating and for certain industrial processes.

The productivity claims Lovins makes for renewable energy range from the improbable, to the extravagant, to the impossible.

In his 1978 best-seller, Soft Energy Paths, Lovins claimed that the entire American transportation system could be converted to alcohol fuel with only 10 to 14 times the current production capacity of the nation's breweries and wineries. Lovins' proposal would actually require that ten times the area of all the cropland in the United States be devoted to ethanol production.

Lovins's current and highly influential proposal is to make hydrogen and carbon dioxide from the partial combustion of natural gas at the wellhead and to re-inject the carbon dioxide effluent back into the earth. The energy stored in clean-burning hydrogen fuel would then be used for everything from heating buildings to powering hydrogen fuel cell cars that, when parked, could be plugged into the electrical grid to generate all of the electricity we currently use.

Is there enough natural gas to support Lovins's vision for a hydrogen-based economy? For the purpose of foisting his hydrogen scheme on the world, Lovins adopts the wildly speculative theory, proposed by Cornell astronomy professor Thomas Gold, that the earth's natural gas did not originate from fossilized vegetation. Because some of the other planets in our solar system are gas giants made up almost entirely of methane, Gold asserts that the earth harbors astronomical quantities of the gas. In Gold's theory, these imagined deposits of "abiogenic" methane support a vast and even more imaginative subterranean ecosystem, which he calls the "deep hot biosphere."

This wild fantasy, masquerading as a scientific hypothesis, contradicts the extensive body of geological evidence on fossil fuel deposits. Nevertheless, Lovins enjoins the great minds of science, engineering, and business to ignore the contradiction and divert their efforts and intelligence to the task of converting mankind's industrial economy to hydrogen power.

Whether such a conversion is actually possible is not important-because the continued existence of industrial civilization is not the goal of Lovins's proposals.

The purpose of his renewable energy campaign is to undermine all large-scale power production. All of the most productive means of making power-coal, oil, large hydro, and nuclear-all of them got to be so productive precisely because they are large. Large-scale projects are able to take full advantage of the division of labor, creating economies of scale that allow more efficient operation than would be possible with a much greater number of small-scale projects. So in proposing that every farm, every office building, and every household produce its own energy, Lovins is attacking the division of labor economy that makes power production so economical-and which allows the production of large quantities of man-made power.

Lovins implicitly acknowledges that small-scale technologies can never produce the geometrically growing quantities of power required by man's geometrically expanding industrial economy. He is the author of the invalid concept "negawatts." "Negawatts" are supposed to be a measure of the megawatts of capacity that do not have to be built due to reductions in energy consumption, either through increased efficiency or through the pure sacrifice of "conservation." In this nihilistic view, the elimination of man-made power is economically equivalent and ecologically superior to its production.

Lovins's vision for "renewable energy"-a vision that serves only to mask environmentalism's goal of extinguishing the lights of industrial civilization-was first put into practice in California.

In 1976, under the direction of Governor Jerry Brown, Lovins developed an "alternative" energy strategy for California. Initially, state income tax credits were offered for solar panels, but by the end of the decade, a more powerful vehicle for promoting "green power" became available. In 1978, President Carter signed the Public Utilities Regulatory Policy Act (PURPA). The act promotes unconventional power sources by compelling investor-owned utilities to purchase this power at their avoided cost-that is, the amount that the utilities would have had to spend to build, fuel, and maintain conventional power plants to produce the same amount of electricity.

Taking advantage of this federal mandate, the California Public Utilities Commission pressed utilities into signing ten-year contracts at inflated rates with PURPA-qualifying facilities. Under the terms of these contracts, utilities have paid an average of $70 per MWhr, when the price for ten-year contracts in the free market averaged about $30 per MWhr.

Under this subsidy, the capacity of PURPA-qualifying facilities mushroomed to more than 11,000 MW, one fifth of the generating capacity in the state. However, 60% of California's PURPA-qualifying electricity is generated by a "non-renewable" technology: natural gas fired co-generators. So to target "truly alternative" sources-geothermal, small hydro (dams that can produce less than 30 MW), wind, biomass, and solar power-the State of California directed distribution utilities to pay these renewable power producers an additional $15 per MWhr subsidy. The money for this subsidy came from an electricity surcharge imposed by the state's Public Utility Commission.

The state also subsidizes the construction of these "green" power plants. California's electricity "deregulation" law, AB 1890, appropriates $540 million for "alternative" energy construction subsidies. Of this sum, $162 million has already been committed to the construction of 600 MW of wind, waste gas, and geothermal capacity planned over the past four years-an average of $270 per KW for the recipients, or about one quarter of what it would cost to build natural-gas-fired capacity.

The PURPA plant contracts and renewable energy subsidies effectively burden California electricity users with a state tax of more than $2 billion per year-roughly one-third of the state's wholesale electricity spending in 1999. The result: 8.5% of the state's electricity is supplied by "alternative" energy.

But environmentalists are not celebrating.

California's mandate for "green" power technology has demonstrated for all to see that the most highly acclaimed renewable energy technologies are a sham. Worse, for environmentalists, the large quantities of electricity generated by the more productive of the renewable technologies-quantities that have made them indispensable to Californians during their current electricity crisis-have converted these types of renewable energy into a threat to the earth.

The extent to which a renewable energy technology has proved its usefulness is the exact extent to which environmentalists now oppose it. The extent to which a technology has proved unproductive is the exact extent to which environmentalists continue to embrace it.

All of America's central station solar electricity is generated in California. At maximum capacity, California's nine solar stations-with a combined total of 11 square miles of mirrors focused on steam drums that drive steam turbines-can generate 413 MW of electricity, 0.8% of the state's capacity. Because the sun sets at night and is sometimes attenuated by clouds, these plants produce only 0.3% of California's electricity. They owe their economic existence to federal solar power tax credits awarded on top of California's inflated PURPA contracts and renewable power subsidies. When these tax credits were interrupted for eleven months in 1991, the plants' operator, LUZ, immediately went bankrupt. Today SEGS, an Israeli government corporation, operates them at a loss.

The only reason why environmentalists love solar power is that there are no prospects for growth of central station solar power. After two decades of subsidized development, it remains hopelessly ineffective.

Environmentalists also love dung. California's four anaerobic digesters, which capture methane generated from decaying manure and harvest wastes, have a combined capacity of 75 MW, or 0.14% of the state's generating capacity. These digesters, commonly used to produce gas for cooking and lighting in the Third World, are acceptable to environmentalists because allowing the methane they generate to escape into the atmosphere would, supposedly, be just as bad as burning it.

Even under California's massive subsidies, manure digesters are operated at losses that exceed those of solar power. And any possibility that manure could become a productive fuel source is being foreclosed by the greens' efforts to restrict large-scale animal waste cesspools. According to the editorial board of the New York Times, "hogs raised in enormous confinement systems no longer belong to the biological cycle. Their manure is now a pollutant." Based on this view, a coalition of environmental groups is suing Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork producer, seeking $148 billion in "damages."

Anaerobic digesters are also used to capture methane from rotting garbage. Ten digesters operated by California municipalities generate 0.06% of the state's electricity. But the desire to capture "alternative" energy subsidies is not why towns and cities have installed them. They are the product of State Assembly Bill 939, which threatens municipalities with $10,000-per-day fines if they don't divert half of their solid waste from landfills through recycling programs or other "earth friendly" means.

Some of California's landfills contain ducts to collect methane gas. They fuel 38 generating plants with a combined capacity of 257 MW. These plants are relatively productive and make 0.5% of the electricity on the state's grid. Decades ago, central city incinerators used to make steam for heating and electricity, while greatly reducing the volume of solid wastes. Environmentalists shut most of them down with exaggerated fears of heavy metal emissions. Instead, these centrally located power plants have been exchanged for giant, rural methane compost heaps that occupy tens of thousands of acres. The greens are attempting to eliminate even this source of power-through controls like California's AB 939, that force recycling on America's "throw-away society."

A similar campaign is already choking the fuel supply to California's wood burning power plants. The logging industry argued that chips, bark, sawdust and other wood wastes shouldn't be left to rot in the forest and generate methane, when they could be burned instead. They have been burned, sometimes in combination with harvest wastes, at 32 PURPA-qualifying power plants in the state. These plants have a combined capacity of 604 MW and used to produce 1.1% of the power consumed in the state. They are producing less now, however. Environmentalists banned logging on much of the federal land near these California plants. Three wood burning power stations, including the 35 MW Wendel plant, ran out of fuel this winter and have been shut down.

For greens, this is not an accidental consequence of their opposition to logging. According to Chad Hanson, executive director of the anti-logging John Muir Project, "Biomass timber sales," he declares, "are a serious threat to the forest."

Two thirds of America's wind power capacity is located in California. The state's 1817 MW of wind farms, nominally 3.4% of in-state generating capacity, are available only when the wind blows at optimum speeds. Thus they produce only 1.2% of the electricity consumed in the state.

However, more wind generators are being built in California every year. As more generators are ordered and more owners gain experience operating wind farms, the cost of making electricity from them has been dramatically reduced. Wind power is now competitive with many older or less efficient fossil fuel plants that utilities rely on for "load following" (generating the power needed during the daily fluctuations in demand).

When it was an absurdly expensive and rare means of making electricity, environmentalists had universally championed wind power. The rapid expansion of wind power capacity is-just as rapidly-changing their attitude. More and more greens are coming out against it.

They worry, for example, about "visual blight." Environmental "philosopher" Roderick Nash observes, "If offshore rigs offend, can a much greater number of windmills be any better?" Environmentalists are beginning to complain about the erosion and dust from service roads and the fencing around the windmills. They even complain about generator oil leaks.

Above all, environmentalists are concerned about the number of rare birds killed by wind farms: red-tailed hawks, American kestrels, turkey vultures, and owls. The 625 MW Altamont Pass project killed 39 golden eagles in one year; the birds are protected by the Endangered Species Act because ecologists believe there are only 500 breeding pairs left. "It's not just the bird-blade interaction," according to Dennis White of the Columbia Gorge Audubon Society. "There are several other ways wind power impacts wildlife and birds, such as habitat fragmentation and destruction." The National Audubon Society and the Audubon Societies of Maine, Oregon, and Washington have called for a ban on new wind farm construction. Jan Beya, vice president for science policy at the National Audubon Society, warns that "wind power could face the same fate as low-head hydro."

And what is that fate?

Large-scale hydro is currently the focus of environmentalism's war on man-made power. This campaign has been codified in federal law. The Northwest Power Act requires that reservoirs be maintained at levels that assure-with an 85% probability-that they can supply optimum springtime flows for salmon spawning. The Endangered Species Act further limits water use. These two restrictions are believed to have effectively eliminated 1,400 MW, or one seventh, of the capacity of the nation's largest hydropower producer, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA). The slogan, "Save the salmon. Breach the dams!" is becoming national policy. If the BPA fails to increase the salmon population in the lower Snake River, four dams with a combined hydroelectric capacity of 1,200 MW may be breached.

The alternative to large hydroelectric dams is "small hydro." California 's 379 small hydro stations have a nominal capacity of a little more than 2,000 MW, 4% of the state's generating capacity. However, many of these plants cannot be run simultaneously, and the plants that do run are so unproductive that they supply only 0.4% of California's electricity. Nevertheless, small hydro has been damaged by environmentalism's war on hydroelectric power. In 1985, Russell Shay of the Sierra Club told a House subcommittee that "fisheries in California and the Pacific Northwest face disastrous effects from the unprecedented numbers of small hydro projects which have been proposed for our Western waterways." In 1987, Congress disqualified hydropower from the PURPA program. Without the moral shield against environmentalism provided by PURPA qualification, small hydropower projects have little chance. In California, only 13 MW of small hydro capacity has been planned since 1996.

Three quarters of the United States' geothermal electricity is generated in California. The 47 plants are capable of producing 2,560 MW, 4.9% of the state's current generating capacity. The plants run around the clock, producing 4.8% of the electricity consumed in the state.

By itself, this quantity of man-made power would be sufficient to support the standard of living enjoyed by the billion citizens of the nation of India. This, however, is too much for environmentalists to accept.

The scale of operation of California's geothermal plants has attracted the use of force against producers, not from fanatical members of Earth First!, but from conventional government officials enforcing conventional environmental regulations. In 1995, the Northern Sonoma County Pollution Control District and the Sonoma County District Attorney sued Central California Power Agency over hydrogen sulfide emissions at the world's largest geothermal plants at The Geysers. They imposed a settlement payment of $150,000.

Two years later, an EPA repair crew rushed out to The Geysers. The emergency: caps on 41 spent geothermal wells were judged to be faulty. In terms reminiscent of the kind of hysterical fears conjured against nuclear power, Terry Brubaker, head of EPA's emergency response office in San Francisco, explained: "The hydrogen sulfide that's in these wells is about as toxic a compound as you can get. An uncontrolled release could result in a large concentration of gas that would kill everything in its path." In reality, the amount of gas released from these wells-two-foot diameter holes drilled 1.5 miles into the earth-would be negligible. It would certainly be no greater than what is already released from the natural source after which the geothermal facility is named. Yet this "safety" effort was covered under the Superfund toxic waste cleanup program.

Capping geothermal plants has become much easier than building them. Plans to build a pair of 48 MW geothermal plants near Medicine Lake are facing the kind of obstacles environmentalists used to reserve for oil drilling. Local environmental groups claim that the project threatens the system of lava tubes and volcanic aquifers surrounding the lake and that the Shasta crayfish, an endangered species, might be affected.

In May, a group of geothermal producers went to Washington, DC, to complain to the Bush Administration that the projects they've pursued on federal lands have been held up by the Department of the Interior for up to 20 years. Nearly all of the nation's geothermal resources are on federal lands.

With these kinds of obstacles, California's geothermal electricity production has declined 20% from its peak in 1992.

Felice Pace of the Klamath Forest Alliance explains the environmentalist opposition to geothermal power: "Essentially, in our minds, what it boils down to is any human act, any energy development, is going to have some impacts."

According to environmentalism, there is no moral way to produce the motive power that industrial civilization requires. Large-scale power production is incompatible with environmentalism's injunction against man-made alterations to the environment. Any form of man-made power that supports industrial civilization, regardless of how little it pollutes or how few resources it uses, is immoral because it supports industrial civilization.

The greens pretend that renewable power sources, which currently supply 2% of the nation's electricity, are a gigantic untapped resource that would be able to support American prosperity. They pretend that it is only the capitalist system that prevents us from enjoying these bountiful sources of energy-energy that would enable us to live in harmony with nature, in perpetuity.

But when California's subsidies-which guaranteed renewable energy generators three times the income of conventional power producers-increased the scale of "alternative" energy in the state, the greens dropped the pretense. They have turned against geothermal, small hydroelectric, and wood-burning generators-and they are turning against wind power producers. Their sin: these generators provide 7.5% of the state's electricity needs and promised to expand with the growing demand for power.

Environmentalists ultimately object to the amount of power produced, regardless of how it is produced. The instant that any technology promises to supply power on an industrial scale, it becomes an unpardonable evil that must be stamped out by force-either by government policy or by direct action.

If a political movement were to condemn the "factory farm" as a method that will eventually cause mass starvation; if it were to propose the elimination of all tractors and combines because they "ravage" the soil and to extol the virtues of the quarter-acre garden as the only way to sustain food production in perpetuity; if such a movement were to subsidize "sustainable" food production techniques but angrily reject replacing machines with draft animals, while praising the shovel and sickle-one would conclude that the goal of this movement is the starvation of mankind.

What are we to think about a movement that makes war on industrial-scale power generation?

In seeking to cut off the motive power of industry, environmentalism is attempting to destroy the Industrial Revolution by starving it to death. Such a reversal would begin a new Dark Age for mankind-a Dark Age in which Americans would be compelled to accept a standard of living well below that of the Third World-a Dark Age that would begin with the deaths of billions of human beings who would have become the "surplus" population that could no longer be supported in a world without industrial production.


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