July 12, 2013

M.D. Harmon: Alternative power sources must pass free-market test

Skepticism about the viability of green energy is the province of rational thinkers, not Luddites.

A recent letter to the editor described me as a "Luddite," and of all the things I get called by liberals (fondly, I'm certain), that one left me bemused.

The original Luddites were 19th-century textile workers who smashed newly invented looms that could be operated with little training, making their expertise obsolete. The name is said to come from one of their leaders, Ned Ludd, and today means anyone opposed to new technology.

Since I'm a big fan of most new technology, figuring it frees people up to devote more time and resources to things they like to do, I had a bit of trouble understanding the criticism.

But then, I figured, maybe it has to do with some observations I've made that wind and solar power-generating schemes, based as they are on developer-enriching government subsidies and whose promised net payoffs are always somewhere in the future, but never today, some readers might think I don't like new technology in general.

That's nonsense. There's nothing wrong with alternative power-generating methods -- as long as they meet the tests imposed on any other new technology by the free market.

Which is to say, as long as windmills and solar panels produce a product -- electricity -- whose sale generates sufficient income to pay the costs of installation and maintenance and produce an adequate profit, hey, the more, the merrier.

But that's not the case now, as we continue to depend on fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas to light our homes and businesses and power our factories, and oil to move our cars and trucks.

In fact, fossil fuels, nuclear power and hydroelectric dams (whose power source is essentially free, but which are disparaged by green groups because they "block the free flow of rivers and the passage of fish") produce more than 95 percent of our electricity.

Even the vaunted (and heavily subsidized) electric cars simply displace their power source from the corner gas station to fossil-fueled generators at the other end of a high-voltage power line. And the total energy put into their construction and operation continues to exceed the energy they "save."

Are electric cars worthwhile? They can be -- when and if they ever move from being taxpayer-subsidized toys for the affluent to products that provide value on their own. But that glorious day has not yet arrived.

If you asked me who might actually be today's Luddites, people who object to technology for self-centered reasons, my best potential candidates are the people marching down the street and trying to block rail lines to protest the drilling of what they fancifully call "dirty oil."

Do they take baths in "clean oil," you might facetiously wonder? But what they mean is that certain kinds of crude come from deposits mixed with other substances -- in Canada's case, sand, but there are many similar sites around the world currently being exploited -- that require the oil be cleaned and heated to flow freely enough to be transported and refined.

Despite claims of higher likelihood of pipeline breaks, however, the U.S. Department of Transportation officially denies that such low-viscosity oil is any more corrosive to pipelines than any other type.

Indeed, if you were concerned about what fits the definition of "dirty oil," you might be tempted to say that the oil produced by Mideast oligopolies that subsidize militant Islamic groups with their profits would be "dirtier," at least as measured by its overall inimical effects.

But doesn't the recent train crash in Quebec, in which perhaps 50 people died and a whole town was devastated, show how dangerous oil transport is?

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