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It ain’t easy being green

For years alternative energy sources such as wind and solar power have been promoted as substitutes for oil and coal. While wind and solar power may be suitable complements to traditional energy sources and may replace oil and coal at some point in the future, it does not appear to be imminent. In his acclaimed book “Smaller, Faster, Lighter, Denser, Cheaper”, author Robert Bryce quantifies the shortcomings of these alternative energy sources.

Consider that the average power density for wind energy is approximately one watt per square meter. To put this in perspective, a wind farm large enough to power just one data center for Facebook would require nearly 11 square miles of land, Mr. Bryce writes. In a larger context, replacing the 300 billion watts of coal-fired generation capacity in the United States would require nearly 185,000 square miles of land – or a land mass greater than the state of California. Biofuels have a power density even smaller, only a third of wind’s, and thus they hog even more land, he writes.

“Few substances this side of uranium comes close to touching oil when it comes to the essential measure of energy density: the amount of energy (measured in joules or BTUs) that can be contained in a given volume of mass,” Mr. Bryce writes. To demonstrate, consider the case of the Boeing 737, the best-selling jet airliner in history. A fully fueled 737-700 holds about 4,500 pounds of jet fuel, and this fuel accounts for about 25% of the plane’s weight as it leaves the runway. Less energy-dense alternatives such as lithium-ion batteries are approximately 80x less dense than jet fuel, meaning that the Boeing 737 would require a battery pack that weighs about 21x as much as the airplane itself.

America enjoys the cheapest power in the industrial world, at 12 cents a kilowatt hour versus 26 cents in Europe and 24 cents in Japan. It leads the world in natural gas production, nuclear production and refined oil output. As a result of the oil shale boom, the United States could soon eclipse Saudi Arabia and Russia in crude oil.

This energy advantage is good news not only to American manufacturers, but also to environmentalists. Mr. Bryce believes that the best way to protect the environment is to get richer. “Wealthy countries can afford to protect the environment. Poor ones generally can’t.”

Mr. Bryce, along with former NATO Supreme Commander and one-time Democratic Presidential Candidate General Wesley Clark, will be discussing energy policy and other issues that face our nation at MPMG’s upcoming Speaker Series Event.