My grandpa had an old saying: “Nothing’s free, and nothing’s priceless.” That sounds a little cynical, but it’s true. Everything has a cost, even if that cost can’t always be measured in dollars and cents.
That old saw came to mind as I read a recent article about birds being incinerated at a solar power plant in California. The article said that as many as 28,000 of our fine feathered friends, from hummingbirds to pelicans, may go down in flames each year as they navigate sunbeams concentrated by a field of mirrors. Turns out the sun’s power isn’t free if you’re a bird caught in man’s efforts to harness the sun.
“Free” wind power isn’t free to birds, either. A quick search finds estimates of 888,000 to at least a million birds being hacked to the ground each year by windmills generating less than 5 percent of our nation’s energy, and creating huge eyesores on some otherwise beautiful vistas in the process.
Here’s a simple mathematical fact: Wind and solar energy are not going to replace coal, gas and nuclear power in the foreseeable future. Together, wind and solar make up less than 5 percent of U.S. electricity output today, and even rosy scenarios have them making up barely 13 percent of the grid over the next 20 years. There are technological reasons for this which may be overcome through, well, technology. But the real reason is real estate. Fossil and nuclear power require less than 5 square kilometers per gigawatt while wind and solar require 20 to 150 square kilometers to produce the same amount of power, and that only happens when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining.
In fact, it would take a wind farm the size of Nebraska to match the output of one nuclear power plant, or enough windmills to cover half of Yellowstone Park just to power New York City. That simply isn’t going to happen.
Wind and solar power are also much more expensive than traditional fuels, creating in effect a highly regressive tax on those who are least able to afford it. States with renewable power mandates (which, interestingly, don’t include hydroelectric power as renewable) are seeing residential power rates soar. California, with some of the most progressive renewable mandates in the country, could see a jump of 47 percent over the next 16 years, forcing low-income families to choose between heating their homes and buying groceries. The rich will feel good about themselves and not be harmed by a fifty-dollar jump in their power bill, but the less well-off will pay for those good feelings with painful decisions in their everyday lives.
Those decisions will be forced on these families at least in part because special interests and people whose common sense is blinded by their good intentions are forcing us into decisions and policies that simply don’t have to be made yet. Regardless of how one feels about global warming and air quality arguments, the solutions being jammed down this country’s throat on power production are resulting in a few people getting very rich at everyone else’s expense, and at a real cost to our wildlife and environment. We’re killing birds at home while exporting record amounts of coal to China, whose environmental standards don’t come close to matching ours.
Meanwhile, real innovation and sustainable solutions are being stifled by a government that insists upon picking winners and losers in the energy industry. The long-term answer to clean, reliable energy may be sitting in someone’s garage right now, but it’s stuck there because its inventor can’t compete with subsidies and payoffs to favored industries and cronies.
In truth, just as the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones, the fossil fuel age won’t end because we’ll run out of fossil fuels. Human ingenuity will provide alternatives as traditional fuel costs increase and cheaper means of generating electricity are discovered. Forcing this natural solution by artificially picking winning and losing technologies (and the cronies who profit by them) comes at a high price to many species, birds and humans included.
For Sutherland Institute, I’m Carl Graham, director of Sutherland’s Coalition for Self-Government in the West. To find out what I’m up to, check out EndFedAddiction.org.
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