“Some of the above” energy policy defies reality

Kelly Sloan
Kelly Sloan

As a matter of tradition as much as anything, I fully intended to write about President Barack Obama’s latest State of the Union Address. I quickly realized, though, that to do so would be as much a rewrite of my previous four late-January columns as the speech itself was little more than self-plagiarism of its earlier versions. That seemed like cheating, but I did think it useful to comment on one phrase the president used that has become ubiquitous to the point of nausea.

In one rhetorically acrobatic segment of his speech, Obama referred to his “all the above” energy strategy, then spoke about the increase in production of energy sources his administration had absolutely nothing to do with — beyond curtail it on federal land and forestall its safe transport to market through continued inaction on the Keystone pipeline — before going on to wax about the only sources of energy to which he really thinks the American people have a right.

Of the many terminological sleights of hand by the left, this one really ought to receive the award for sheer audacity. Nearly every politician of every stripe in this country has, at one time or another, used the term “all the above” to describe their policy approach, or at least preference, towards domestic energy development.

Now, the checklist implied by the phrase is assumed, of course, to be a rhetorical catalogue of all possible and potential sources of energy available to the nation. However, when used by liberal Democrats, the list is much shorter than the one most of us envision, excluding, as it does, any source that reliably provides energy.

To be clear, when President Obama, most Democratic Congressmen, EPA officials or their unofficial spokespersons at the Sierra Club talk about “all the above” they mean with the exception of fossil fuels of any kind. The exclusivity of the term goes beyond merely banishing oil, gas and coal. It really means only two things — solar and wind power.

This is perhaps most clearly evident in discussions concerning “renewable” energy standards for electrical generation adopted by many states and regularly suggested for the national level.

Any serious examination of electricity production reveals deep flaws in the statutory insistence of including a set percentage of juice that must flow from wind and solar. The base problem is simple and obvious — the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine.

 The intermittent nature of these two sources has long taken a toll on their feasibility. Electrical grids require stability, the ability to react instantly to fluctuations in demand and usage — a constant flow of electricity must be maintained to prevent rolling brownouts and damage to electrical circuits.

This requires a generation source that is “dispatchable” — meaning one whose output can be adjusted readily to such demands, such as natural gas, coal and nuclear power. This is in contrast to

non-dispatchable sources, like wind and solar, which due to their intermittency, can’t be adjusted to meet fluctuations. Since we as yet have no reliable and efficient means to store energy generated by windmills and solar panels that would be necessary to provide a substantial amount to the grid, renewables need to rely on back-up generation — often provided by the least efficient and most costly of natural gas turbines to meet the requisite quick ramp-up time — to have any value at all.

This, coupled with enormous transmission costs due to the fact that wind and solar power much be generated at the source — where the best solar and wind resources happen to be, not necessarily in the most economical place for a generator — makes these sources inescapably more expensive.

Like health care costs and terrorism, these facts can’t be legislated away. Even Europe is backing off its renewable portfolio requirements in grudging acquiescence to economic reality.

But for those for whom “all the above” refers to a table that lists wind and solar exclusively (and perhaps hydro for the truly broad-minded environmental liberal) mere impossibility isn’t a great concern.

The abbreviated “all the above” list does a disservice to honest discussion of both energy policy and environmental conservation. As a society, real research and development into every form of energy is to our advantage and that of our forthcoming generations. Ignoring reality won’t accomplish this any more than tightening the governmental fist around fossil fuel production.

Perhaps if governments at all levels would release some economic controls and establish a means to structurally control spending, there might even be some money available for researching energy projects that are beyond the scope of the private sector to handle.