The High Cost of Energy Illiteracy

“Energy romanticism” is perhaps the single greatest intellectual failing of environmentalists—the dreamy view that we can generate 95 quads of energy with puppy dog treadmills, unicorn flopsweat, and of course their beloved wind and solar. (Of course, most enviros say “What’s a ‘quad’?” when I ask for even a cursory inventory of energy sources that would supply America’s annual energy use.)

At the base of this is near total illiteracy about energy. The latest example is the giddy celebration that Burlington, Vermont, has become carbon neutral! And if a New England hippie town of 50,000 can do it, then surely Cleveland can do it too, no?

Take the PBS headline: “Burlington Is First U.S. City to Hit 100 Percent Renewable Energy.” 100 percent renewable energy? So everyone in Burlington has quit driving cars? Did every Ben & Jerry’s-eating yuppie in town sell their gas-fired Viking and Wolf kitchen ranges and gas-fired home furnaces? Are they getting all their groceries and other goods delivered to town by horse-drawn carts instead of trucks? (I guess it is hard to be bothered with the distinction between electricity and energy.  And factoring indirect energy use is apparently challenging, too.)

But then the complete PBS report lets out this little detail: “the biggest portion of the city’s renewable production comes from hydropower…

Ah yes—hydropower: the one form of carbon-free electricity production that environmentalists strenuously oppose as much as nuclear power. Most state “renewable portfolio standards” (RPS) specifically exclude hydropower from the menu of energy options that states can use to meet the mandate. By my rough estimate, it would require something like 1,000 to 2,000 new dams to replace just our current coal-fired electricity production.  And there is only one significant dam proposed in the U.S. right now that I am aware of—on the Yukon River in Alaska.  All of the usual suspects oppose that dam, naturally. In other words, policy in most states makes it impossible for other locations to imitate Burlington.

In fact, in Colorado right now there is a bill in the legislature to remove the barriers to counting hydropower toward the state’s RPS targets. Naturally, “clean energy” advocates are opposed:

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) categorizes hydroelectricity as clean, renewable energy, and the Colorado Energy Office (CEO) determined that it produces air emissions on par with wind and solar. There is no justifiable environmental reason to keep these restrictions in place.

It may then come as a surprise that there are clean energy supporters who are actively fighting against this bill. Conservation Colorado, the Colorado Cleantech Industries Association, and the Distributed Wind Energy Association are all opposing the inclusion of hydroelectricity as a renewable energy resource despite the EPA’s evaluation.

In other words, no Burlingtons for you, Colorado.

* Incidentally, the PBS report on Burlington appended this hilarious correction to the story:

Editor’s note: This video and transcript was updated on Feb. 11, 2015 to remove a reference to the wood being burned at the Burlington biomass facility as being “scrap” wood, and a reference to its smokestack emissions being “just water vapor.” Here’s why: after our initial broadcast, many viewers correctly pointed out that it’s not only “scrap” wood that’s burned (some trees are also specifically logged), and it’s not just the very visible water vapor that’s being emitted (several additional pollutants are also released from this and other biomass facilities over the course of a year). These viewers argued we were giving an overstated impression of the environmental attributes of the plant, and we agree, so we took out those two specific references.

And as a special bonus, there’s this:

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