Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Of Energy Dreamers, Past and Present

Rich Karlgaard, the publisher of Forbes magazine, writes a column in every issue called “Digital Rules.” He is a very smart guy and, usually at least, very innovative and forward thinking.

I say “usually” because he just missed the boat in his latest blog entry on the future of renewables.

Mr. Karlgaard argues that we are stuck with coal, oil and nuclear as our major sources of electricity in the United States for the foreseeable future. He asserts that “[t]here is no way the U.S. economy can enjoy future prosperity without the big three electrical energy sources of clean coal, natural gas and nuclear.”

Why? Because only 10% of current electricity generation comes from renewable sources, and most of that comes from hydro. Solar and wind provide less than 3% of current electricity generation.

According to Mr. Karlgaard, solar, wind and other renewables cannot possibly meet a significant part of our electricity needs 10 years from now when they are starting from such a small base. His Forbes colleague Ken Fisher agrees, urging investors to “buy into fossil fuels” because they account for “89% of electricity” and “that fraction won’t change dramatically in the next decade.”

As for Thomas Friedman, John Doerr, and others who point to Moore’s Law and argue that renewables will experience the same rapid technological advances as semiconductors if given the right incentives, Karlgaard calls them “dreamers.”

Funny. That’s exactly what they said about Thomas Edison, Nicolas Telsa, and others who set out to build centralized electric power plants in the late 1800’s.

At that time, centralized electric power plants had an even smaller share of the market than renewables have today. In fact, there were only a couple of electric demonstration projects involving only a few hundred streetlights. Gas companies had a virtual monopoly on powering lights in homes and businesses, and the new electric power plants being built had to charge far higher prices than gas. The gas companies also had an existing and very efficient distribution system for their gas, while the electricity dreamers needed to build very expensive copper mains to carry the electricity to customers.

Edison, Telsa, Westinghouse, and the other dreamers who built our current centralized electric generation system also faced a number of very significant barriers beyond price. There was, for example, the fact that the electric motor had not yet been invented. So they were trying to sell electricity before it could be used in factories.

How did the dreamers prevail? Transportation and municipal contracts. The electricity dreamers got their break by building dedicated power plants for new electric streetcars and streetlights.

Once they built a base of electric generating capacity for streetcars and streetlights, the pace of innovation and growth quickened. Innovators began inventing other things to use electricity, including electric motors which revolutionized the economics of running a factory. By 1892 – less than 15 years after Edison’s first streetlight project – General Electric’s capitalization was $50 million. The incredible speed at which centralized electric power plants developed is described in The Power Makers, by Maury Klein:

“By 1900 electricity had become an integral part of American life, especially in cities. Between 1890 and 1905 the output of electric power in the United States increased a hundredfold. By revolutionizing production and manufacturing, electricity made possible the rise of the consumer economy that was to dominate the twentieth century and transform every corner of American life. Already factories consumed more than half of the electricity generated…. Arc lights illuminated the streets of even small towns and flooded with light the avenues of large cities. In 1902, some 51,000 electric streetcars whisked urban passengers along 22,000 miles of track."

Now Messrs. Karlgaard and Fisher may be correct that coal, oil and nuclear will still be significant contributors to our energy mix ten years from now. After all, centralized electric power plants did not force the gas industry into bankruptcy.

But the history of centralized electric power plants suggests that renewables can and will grow at a much faster pace than traditional fossil fuels as sources of electricity. Once started, that pace will accelerate as the competitive advantage of renewables starts having a significant impact on the bottom line.

Think about it. Five years from now, those who invested in solar and wind today will have ZERO fuel costs for that portion of their electricity needs, while those who did not invest in renewables today will still have to pay the cost of fuel for every kWh – and at higher prices than it is paying today. Add in the fact that renewable technologies five years from now will be even more efficient than today, and everyone will be clamoring for renewables. It is easy to see how the tipping point will be reached.

Or has it already been reached? China has just announced that it is constructing a 2 gigawatt solar power plant in Inner Mongolia, the largest solar plant in the world. That is on top of nearly 80 gigawatts of renewable energy that China has already built in recent years. When China has hundreds of gigawatts of fuel-free energy, what country will be able to compete when it must continually pay for fossil fuels to generate 90% of its electricity? More to the point, what country can afford to wait?

John Howley
Woodbridge, New Jersey

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Pollution Economics 101

The oil industry is attacking the proposed climate change legislation that has passed the House and is on its way to the Senate. Here is a summary of the arguments from the American Petroleum Institute:
“The House climate change bill will increase costs of gasoline, diesel and aviation fuel, and drive jobs and production overseas, increasing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in foreign countries that will have a new competitive advantage. Under the so-called ‘American Clean Energy and Security Act’, U.S. refiners will have to buy allowances, increasing their costs and giving a competitive advantage to non-US refiners. U.S. jobs will be lost and contrary to the bill’s intention, America will be less energy secure and more reliant on imports of gasoline and other refined products."
Wow. That’s a lot to swallow. Let’s take it step-by-step.

First, the proposed climate bill “will increase costs of gasoline, diesel and aviation fuel.”

Yes! Absolutely! Totally true! That is the entire point of the legislation! And it is a good thing!

Now before you think I am some kind of tree-hugging, left-leaning radical, let me tell you what the most famous conservative and libertarian economists say about the subject.

Alan Greenspan – the former Federal Reserve Chairman, acolyte of Ayn Rand, and self-described Libertarian – favors a hefty gasoline tax of at least $3 or more per gallon because, he says, we “need significantly higher gasoline prices to wean us off gasoline-powered motor vehicles.”

Milton Friedman
agrees. Remember him? He was the Nobel-prize-winning economist from the University of Chicago who provided much of the intellectual firepower behind Reaganomics.

Why do these intellectual giants of conservative and libertarian economics favor taxes on gasoline? Simple. It has to do with something economists call “externalities.”

To understand externalities, consider a chemical company that offered to create more jobs and lower prices. There is just one catch. They will save the money to make this possible by dumping their toxic wastes into the pond in your backyard instead of disposing of the waste properly. In other words, they will make the cost of avoiding or cleaning up pollution “external” to the price of their product.

Obviously, that is not acceptable. Proper disposal of toxic waste is a cost of doing business and it should be factored into the price of the product – even if that means higher prices and/or fewer jobs.

The costs of avoiding or cleaning up pollution, however, are not always incurred by the producer or passed on to its customers. For example, coal-fired power plants have delivered relatively low-priced electricity for more than 100 years, but have also been dumping carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The same with petroleum products like gasoline and diesel fuel.

That is why Greenspan, Friedman, and many other conservative and libertarian economists have favored taxes on gasoline and other substances that cause pollution. Because the failure to account for the cost of pollution tends to distort many basic economic decisions such as pricing and competition. People think they are getting a good deal because their gasoline and electricity are relatively cheap. But they are really only imposing the cost of pollution on the environment.

By imposing a tax equal to the cost of avoiding or cleaning up the pollution, the market will make rational choices based on the real cost of the polluting product. And – this is very important – inventors and investors will have an incentive to develop cleaner alternatives that can be sold at a competitive price without the pollution tax.

So, the oil industry does not get any points for arguing that the climate change legislation will increase the price of gasoline, diesel fuel, and aviation fuel. That is what it is supposed to do.

BUT! The oil industry has a very legitimate point when it argues that the proposed legislation will “drive jobs and production overseas, increasing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in foreign countries that will have a new competitive advantage.”

Anyone who has seen horrific pollution in developing countries knows what will happen to our environment if we simply drive up costs in the more developed economies. Without a comprehensive, global approach to pollution and climate change, we will just shift the externalities (costs of pollution) from our own backyards to backyards of very poor and politically less influential people in developing countries. And we will not be able to fence in the adverse effects.

Which leads to questions that have more to do with politics than economics. How do we get to a global solution on climate change? To what extent must we, in the more economically developed world, take the first step and make the first sacrifices? And to what extent should we refuse to budge until the rest of the world agrees to follow?

And you thought economics was the dismal science. More on the politics and diplomacy of a global climate change agreement in later posts.

John Howley
Tokyo, Japan