It feels like 1977 all over again: economy in the doldrums, crisis in the Middle East, and a charismatic new Democrat in the White House preaching the gospel of clean energy. Can Obama succeed where Carter did not? Yes—but only if we’ve learned the lessons of three decades of failure.
July's Atlantic article paints Carter as a visionary of "clean energy". It highlights his subsidizes for wind and solar power. It narrows in on the symbolic White House solar panels as a metaphor for the entire era.
It completely whitewashes any mention of the bulk of Carter's energy policy which was the promotion of coal.
The modern Carter eulogy is a fable. His energy policies had nothing to do with environmentalism or climate change: on the contrary they were primarily motivated by energy shortage, a concept incomprehensible to the armchair eco-warriors.
Why not excerpt directly from Carter's 'malaise' speech:
In little more than two decades we've gone from a position of energy independence to one in which almost half the oil we use comes from foreign countries, at prices that are going through the roof. Our excessive dependence on OPEC has already taken a tremendous toll on our economy and our people. This is the direct cause of the long lines which have made millions of you spend aggravating hours waiting for gasoline. It's a cause of the increased inflation and unemployment that we now face. This intolerable dependence on foreign oil threatens our economic independence and the very security of our nation. The energy crisis is real. It is worldwide. It is a clear and present danger to our nation. These are facts and we simply must face them.
Point three: To give us energy security, I am asking for the most massive peacetime commitment of funds and resources in our nation's history to develop America's own alternative sources of fuel -- from coal, from oil shale, from plant products for gasohol, from unconventional gas, from the sun.
I propose the creation of an energy security corporation to lead this effort to replace 2-1/2 million barrels of imported oil per day by 1990. The corporation I will issue up to $5 billion in energy bonds, and I especially want them to be in small denominations so that average Americans can invest directly in America's energy security.
Point four: I'm asking Congress to mandate, to require as a matter of law, that our nation's utility companies cut their massive use of oil by 50 percent within the next decade and switch to other fuels, especially coal, our most abundant energy source.
You know we can do it. We have the natural resources. We have more oil in our shale alone than several Saudi Arabias. We have more coal than any nation on Earth. We have the world's highest level of technology. We have the most skilled work force, with innovative genius, and I firmly believe that we have the national will to win this war.
I'm not sure how much more needs to be said.
Obviously there is zero mention of CO2 or climate change, which is what you'd except in a eulogy of coal and shale oil. (Open question: what was the state of anthropogenic climate change science as of 1979, and did Carter make any political mention of it during his term?)
I want to highlight the third paragraph - "I propose the creation of...", because Carter followed up on it. The "energy security corporation" he refers to became the Synthetic Fuel Corporation, which was designed to create synthetic oil out of coal.
Carter's grand design would have produced the equivalent of 2 million bbl. of oil per day, an amount equal to almost 40% of current petroleum imports, from abundant American supplies of shale and coal.
This is the crux of Carter's energy policy: to end importation of Middle Eastern oil (which incidentally would do nothing to relieve price volatility - but then Carter is a textbook case of "no clue about economics"...), create a subsidized domestic fuel program. And because conventional oil is short in the US, use unconventional (expensive) sources like shale oil and coal. And these are vastly more CO2-emitting than conventional petroleum - Carter's policy is absolutely the opposite of "clean energy", "save the climate".
Incidentally, what is the CO2 intensity of coal-to-liquids? I've tracked down the numbers. The conversion process (excluding refining to gasoline) emits 1.8-3.0 tons CO2 per ton oil (this excludes the carbon content of the fuel itself). Petroleum crude has a carbon fraction of ~0.85; I assume synthetic crude is the same. Then the CO2 content of crude oil is 3.1 tons CO2/ton, and synfuels add 1.8-3.0 tons CO2 to this, for a relative increase of 60-100%.
This agrees with reported media figures - e.g. this NYT article says coal-to-liquids "doubles" the CO2 intensity:
I should point out a few other pathologies in the Atlantic article. Once again, journalists demonstrate complete ignorance of the capacity factor (you may have guessed this is a pet peeve of mine).
Peter Le Lièvre, the co-founder of Ausra, a solar-thermal company in Mountain View planning a 177-megawatt facility in central California, told me. BrightSource, an Oakland competitor, is licensed to build 2,600 megawatts of capacity across 14 plants. Upon their completion, these solar-thermal plants will produce more energy in California than either of the state’s nuclear facilities.
On the contrary. 2,600 MW of solar thermal capacity is far less - at 21% capacity factor (e.g. the capacity factor SEGS plants - solar thermal in California's Mojave desert) is 4,800 GWh(e)/year. Each of Diablo Canyons' reactors individually generate 7,000-10,000 GWh(e)/year:
The author is clueless to the difference between 20% capacity factor solar and 90% capacity factor nuclear, resulting in yet another factually false factoid.
The author probably did not study physics, as he is scandalized by the second law of thermodynamics:
This gave rise to a modern power industry that not only emits enormous amounts of greenhouse gases but does so with remarkable inefficiency. (A typical coal-fired plant burns three lumps of coal to produce one lump’s worth of electricity; the rest goes up the chimney as waste heat.)
(And solar thermal plants do what, he thinks?)
And on Amory Lovins' essay, he disgracefully misrepresents the infamous "hard/soft" dichotomy:
At a time before Al Gore was even in Congress, Lovins noted: “The commitment to a long-term coal economy many times the scale of today’s makes the doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration early in the next century virtually unavoidable, with the prospect then or soon thereafter of substantial and perhaps irreversible changes in global climate.” He dubbed this “the hard path.”
The alternative, which Lovins called “the soft path,” favored “benign” sources of renewable power like wind and the sun, along with a heightened commitment to meeting energy demands through conservation and efficiency.
This is quite false. The "hard/soft" distinction is not "polluting/clean" but "centralized/decentralized". Nuclear reactors, hydroelectric dams are "hard". "Community-sized" coal plants are "soft". The Lovins essay is not an attack on pollution, but on attack on corporate industry. I'll quote directly from the NYT's article on his 1977 paper: (the actual paper is attached in the PDF)
His thesis, in brief, is that the "hard" energy technologies - giant centralized electric power stations, for example - now turning the wheels of the economy must give way to "soft" technologies based on renewable sources of energy, such as solar power.
To Mr. Lovins any centralized power plant is "hard." Nuclear power plants top the list. Right behind are big coal power plants, oil and gas pipelines from the Arctic, coal gasification complexes, shale oil recovery systems. And he sees them all as massive, menacing, brittle and by nature transient. Home solar heating systems are soft, as are backyard windmills, local facilities for squeezing energy from garbage and plants that convert agricultural wastes into automotive fuel. These he views as small, localized, benign, resilient and inherently renewable.
The following paragraph is particularly revealing with regards to the Atlantic's thesis:
The nation is on a hard path, he says, warning of a society enslaved by its own demand for hard energy: huge coal conversion plants producing synthetic oil and gas instead of clean-burning "fluidized-bed" combustors consuming coal right in the factories where the heat is needed. Remote and mammoth power stations making electricity to heat houses that could have used roof-top solar collectors.
Those "huge coal conversion plants producing synthetic oil" are precisely Carter's legacy. That is the "hard" path (of course the Atlantic left the whole episode out of their convenient little "history"). And then there's Lovins advocacy of "clean" fluidized bed coal! This is so interesting, I'll quote again from Lovins' paper itself:
Perhaps the most exciting current development is the so-called fluidized-bed system for burning coal (or virtually any other combustible material). [...] Fluidized-bed boilers and turbines can power giant industrial complexes, especially for cogeneration, and are relatively easy to backfit into old municipal power stations. Scaled down, a fluidized bed can be a tiny household device—clean, strikingly simple and flexible—that can replace an ordinary furnace or grate and can recover combustion heat with an efficiency over 80 percent. At medium scale, such technologies offer versatile boiler backfits and improve heat recovery in flues. With only minor modifications they can burn practically any fuel. It is essential to commercialize all these systems now—not to waste a decade on highly instrumented but noncommercial pilot plants constrained to a narrow, even obsolete design philosophy.
It cannot be clearer: "hard/soft" is NOT about clean energy, and the Atlantic is exceedingly mendacious to claim it is. "Soft" energy is precisely the opposite of clean: it advocates coal - "municipal", "household" coal - while vilifying nuclear power. On top of all the usual pollutants contained in coal - mercury, SOx, etc., this is the the most intensely CO2-emitting fuel there is, and it makes the Atlantic's painting of Lovins' "soft" path as "climate friendly" extremely ridiculous.
(To be fair, Lovins avoids directly labeling micro-coal as "soft" power, rather merely associating it as a necessary "transitional" technology in his "soft path". At the exclusion of clean energy, of course.)