A Look into the Future of Alternative Energy

Alternative energy advocates unveiled elaborate visions of what green energy could mean for South Carolina’s future during a climate change conference last week at South Carolina State University.

State and educational officials advocated for hydrogen, wind, biofuels, switchgrass and nuclear as potential options for South Carolina to reduce its dependence on foreign oil.

But with the exception of nuclear, the alternative energy proponents failed to mention what role, if any, private enterprise would play in helping the state’s consumers embrace a future less dependent on fossil fuels.

This is unfortunate, because as we’ve already seen in South Carolina, government’s efforts at picking winners and losers when it comes to developing energy sources leaves something to be desired.

At least $40 million in state and local tax dollars, if not considerably more, have been spent over the past five years in the Midlands to establish a USC research base in hydrogen fuel cells and create a cottage fuel-cell industry for the Columbia area. That figure doesn’t include additional millions in tax dollars spent in Aiken, Clemson and Orangeburg.

In return, a little more than 200 jobs have been created. In addition, we’re talking about a technology with a significant downside.

“A hydrogen car is one of the least efficient, most expensive ways to reduce greenhouse gases,” according to Joseph Romm, a physicist who headed renewable energy research in the Carter administration. Asked when hydrogen cars will be broadly available, Romm replied: “Not in our lifetime, and very possibly never.”

Earlier this year, The Los Angeles Times was even blunter in its assessment of the future of hydrogen-powered vehicles: “Hydrogen fuel-cell technology won’t work in cars. … Any way you look at it, hydrogen is a lousy way to move cars.”

And it’s not necessary, added The Times: “Fuel-cell technology has been eclipsed by vastly cheaper, here-now advances in batteries and plug-in electric vehicles. To knit together even the barest network of H2 refueling stations would cost billions. And, in any case, the fuel itself, whether produced by cracking natural gas or hydrolyzing water … represents a horrible energy return on investment.”

The idea of converting switchgrass and other agriculture byproducts into ethanol is another concept that sounds great in theory but has proven financially impractical.

The challenge facing researchers is breaking down tough cell walls to get at the sugar in plants to turn it into fuel.

“The problem with cellulosic ethanol made from plants is that it’s made of sugar, but it’s not accessible,” said attorney Todd Taylor, who leads a biofuels group at his law firm and contributes to publications such as Ethanol Producer magazine. “Finding the technologies to do it has been expensive,” he told The Contra Costa (Calif.) Times earlier this year.

Wind as an energy source is actually being used in other parts of the world, but it’s not the panacea some are making it out to be.

Because of South Carolina’s climate, offshore wind turbines are the only option for consistent power generation. But offshore turbines come with obstacles:

They are expensive because their foundations, which require undersea cabling, integration, etc., are much more costly than those built on land and must be designed to handle both wind forces and wave forces. In Europe, countries pay significantly more for power from offshore wind than onshore;

Wind farms provide negligible useful electricity and make negligible reduction to emissions from power generation, according to UK energy expert Richard Courtney;

Wind farms are extremely inefficient, costly and noisy. To produce the same amount of electricity as a 1,000 MW coal plant, a comparable wind farm would need 150,000 acres. A viable off-shore site would likely require 100 square miles of water surface, likely one to two miles off the coast.

Despite the multibillion dollar expenditure of taxpayer funds by government and the “renewable energy” industry during the past 35-plus years into wind, the results have proven disastrous in economic terms, according to The Virginia Land Rights Coalition.

“The Department of Energy and other federal and state agencies have spent over $40 billion on ‘energy research and development’ and subsidies, not including private R&D costs, yet virtually nothing has been ‘developed’ that is technologically, economically or environmentally sound,” according to a report by the organization.

With private companies scared off from investing in wind power in South Carolina, the federal government is actually spending money to make the idea of offshore wind turbines more palatable. The S.C. Energy Office was recently awarded $109,000 by the federal government to help generate “market acceptance” for offshore wind energy development in South Carolina and Georgia.

“State and federal officials believe that a concerted, multi-faceted effort from various statewide stakeholders will be necessary to obtain public support for offshore wind energy development along the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia,” according to a release by the agency.

Biofuels are another potential energy source touted at the conference. But reality has yet to catch up to projections.

Biofuels are produced by combining vegetable oils or animal fats with an alcohol such as methanol or ethanol and a catalyst. That mixture can then be used to power vehicles. But using soybean oil or chicken fat to produce biodiesel is expensive, much more so than traditional fossil fuels.

One of the alternatives mentioned at the conference entails converting algae into ethanol or biodiesel. However, converting algae into oil is still prohibitively expensive. Fuel from algae costs anywhere from $10 to $100 a gallon now, according to Al Darzins, a manager at the National Bioenergy Center at the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colo.

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