Friday, February 27, 2009

An Immoral Document

In the book, "God's Politics" and elsewhere, the Rev. Dr. Jim Wallis has made the case that government budgets are "moral documents," in that they lay bare the underlying moral codes of a nation's citizenry and leadership. While my opinion on the matter of budgets representing morals is somewhat different from Dr. Wallis', let us accept for a moment that he is correct.

We might then ask about the essential morality of a budget that projects an eye-popping $1.75 trillion federal deficit for fiscal year 2009. And while braying incessantly about what he "inherited" in the way of deficits, Barack Obama will create more debt in the next few months than his predecessor created in eight years, with the red ink extending to at least 2015. To put the nation in this level of long-term indebtedness is arguably the most immoral thing that government could do in the midst of economic turmoil.

Of all of the rat holes that the Recovery Act and Obama's 2010 budget will cram with borrowed money, the biggest boondoggle may well be the expenditures for so-called "clean energy." The hymnal from which the Obama Tabernacle Choir sings reads something like this on the matter of clean energy:

The clean energy sector presents us with immense promise - to develop and dominate a new industry sector and to create high-paying jobs here at home. From new, highly fuel-efficient cars to renewable sources of power, there are a host of emerging technologies that can spur the growth of new businesses while creating millions of new jobs.
In his budget overview, Obama also laments that "[w]e have yet to make important policy changes and critical investments in the clean energy infrastructure that we'll need to transform the economy." Obama proposes implementing a cap and trade auction to pay for "vital investments in a clean energy future totaling $150 billion over ten years," providing loan guarantees to leverage billions of dollars in order to increase our renewable energy generating capacity, developing low emission technologies and supporting "electric system transmission projects and carbon capture and sequestration projects."

There is only one catch in all of this. At present, clean energy provides a single-digit percentage of the world's energy, with 81 percent coming from fossil fuels. The problems with renewable energy sources such as wind and solar are legion, as described in an op-ed by Keith Lockitch of the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights.
There is a reason why less than 2 percent of the world's energy currently comes from "renewable" sources such as wind and solar - the very sources that are supposedly going to power the new green economy: despite billions of dollars in government subsidies... they have not proven themselves to be practical sources of energy. Indeed, without government mandates forcing their adoption in most Western countries, their high cost would make them even less prevalent.

Consider that it takes about 1,000 wind turbines... to produce as much electricity as just one medium-sized, coal-fired power plant. And that's if the wind is blowing: the intermittency of wind wreaks havoc on electricity grids, which need a stable flow of power, thus requiring expensive, redundant backup capacity or an unbuilt, unproven "smart grid."

Or consider the "promise" of solar. Two projects in development will cover 12.5 square miles of central California with solar cells in the hope of generating about 800 megawatts of power (as much as one large coal-fired plant). But that power output will only be achieved when the sun is shining brightly - around noon on sunny days; the actual output will be less than a third that amount. And the electricity will cost more than market price, even with the life-support of federal subsidies that keeps the solar industry going. The major factor driving the project is not the promise of abundant power but California's state quota requiring 20 percent "renewable" electricity by 2010.
Supporters of clean energy suggest that the same drive that enabled America to put a man on the moon should be applied to breaking America's "addiction" to coal and crude. The problem with the comparison is that while the research and technological wherewithal required to put man into space was already in application - some of it for centuries - the technical leaps required to support clean energy are decades from being actualized on a large scale.

No lesser light than Energy Secretary Steven Chu says as much. In an article published in the Chicago Tribune, the Nobel Prize winning scientist acknowledges that major scientific advances will be required if clean energy is to become more than a line item in a budget. The Tribune piece goes on to cite a government report that specifies the progress that will be required.
A recent Energy Department task force report details the sort of breakthroughs crucial to fulfilling Obama's vision of a "clean energy economy" that could slash dependence on foreign oil, combat climate change and ignite the next great domestic job boom.
The wish list includes cells that convert sunlight to electricity with double or triple the efficiency of today's solar panels; batteries that store 10 times more energy than current models; a process for capturing and storing the carbon dioxide emissions from coal; and advanced materials that allow coal and nuclear power plants to operate at hotter temperatures and higher efficiency.

Researchers are working on all of them. But what's required is more than incremental advances in technology. It is advances in understanding basic physics and chemistry that are "beyond our present reach," the report said. (Emphasis added.)
Despite the lack of available science to support massive expenditures, the Stimulus Bill will spend $8 billion on research, to include "$1.5 billion for carbon-capture research for coal, $2.5 billion for energy efficiency and $2 billion for the Energy Department's Office of Science - featuring... $400 million tagged for breakthrough research." For its part, the 2010 budget will allocate an additional $26.3 billion for the Energy Department, with much of that earmarked for research into renewable energy.

The salient immorality of all of this is simply that Obama is willing to spend money that is not available to pursue scientific goals that are as of yet unachievable. That none of this too-delicious irony breaks Obama from his ideological trance is troubling indeed. What is more troubling is that much of the spending in both the Stimulus Bill and this budget is similarly problematic. Perhaps Wallis is more correct than I previously acknowledged.

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