If Ozzie Ain’t Happy, Ain’t Nobody Happy

Zehner GreenIllusionsReview of Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism

By: Ozzie Zehner, University of Nebraska Press, 2012, 464 pages

Review by: Jason Hayes, Communications Director, American Coal Council

As I read through my copy of Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism I realized that the easiest way to describe the attitude I felt within the work was to say – with apologies to mama – that “if Ozzie ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”

As a bit of background, the author of Green Illusions, Ozzie Zehner, is convinced that humankind (in both the developed and – as an outgrowth of their rapid modernization – the undeveloped world) is overusing and over consuming the world’s energy and natural resources. He predicts that impending resource shortages will force a disruptive readjustment to our way of life in the near future if we do not change our patterns of consumption. His work criticizes, as “productivist”, the notion that we should strive to continually improve on our present state. He also critiques our traditional notions of energy use and the idea that energy use and our well-being are necessarily linked. He argues that humanity would be far better served – and more fulfilled – by limiting our consumption and learning to do with less.

Given Zehner’s calls for reducing and limiting consumption as a means of ensuring human survival, it is easy to see why no energy source escapes criticism in Green Illusions. It also helps reinforce my contention that few readers will come away happy or settled after hearing Zehner’s thoughts. His work in Green Illusions is a piercing look at our over-packaged, over-marketed, big-box way of life and it will have even the most ardent consumerist questioning if there aren’t some ways we could cut back – even if only just a little bit.

Of course our readers will be primarily focused on how Green Illusions relates to energy production and use. On that theme, while I disagreed with Zehner’s neo-Malthusian take on resource shortages, I was impressed with his even-handedness. Finding a researcher and author that is willing to look at a broad swath of energy production in a relatively fair manner was refreshing, as most environmentally focused academics go out of their way to trash fossil fuels and nuclear and then treat their preferred source of renewable energy with kid gloves. They blithely gloss over the very real reliability, social, economic, policy and environmental concerns associated with green energy. Thankfully, there was no such taint to Zehner’s work. In fact, he doggedly challenges every energy source he can find: wind, solar, nuclear, coal, gas, hydrogen, hydro, electric cars and others.

Zehner’s criticisms of fossil fuels are nothing new. They have been widely disseminated by the green industry, the media and government; greenhouse gas emissions, NOx and SOx, mercury, VOCs and particulate matter are all covered. Without diminishing the importance of those critiques – obviously it’s important to deal with pollutants and keep our primary energy resources as clean and efficient as possible – you don’t need me to restate them here. Unfortunately, since Zehner is primarily focused on reducing energy use, he expends no effort relating the real gains made by the fossil fuel industry and government to improve efficiencies and reduce emissions.

Moving forward, the primary value of Green Illusions lies in its open and honest critique of renewable energy. If given the press this type of critique deserved, the difficult facts about green energy would be a devastating blow to that industry’s glass menagerie-style of marketing.

Because of their “green” claims, renewables have long been shielded from any serious scrutiny. The industry and their protectors in media and government make bold, unsupported claims about their affordability, their scalability and their cleanliness. Few dare question their claims because doing so is portrayed as attacking the environment or, worse, actually advocating for pollution. That protection from scrutiny has encouraged government, the public and special interests to swallow the notion that renewable energy can without any real environmental impacts, easily and affordably take the place of fossil fuels, nuclear and large hydro. Unfortunately for our energy supply, our pocket books and the environment, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Zehner’s research, therefore, does a valuable service in that he begins to provide much needed information on renewables, including their actual costs, their (often) serious environmental impacts and their complete inability to replace our reliable, affordable and clean baseload energy resources.

In his opening section, Zehner admits the difficulties renewables face with capacity factors, recognizing that one would need to build more than three megawatts (MW) of nameplate capacity of wind to be able to “replace” one MW of coal and that each of the three MW would all need to generate energy at perfectly timed, separate eight-hour intervals throughout the day. If the tripling of this perfectly synchronized “green” capacity did not work, utilities would still require the presence of the original one MW of fossil capacity to provide power when the wind didn’t blow.

Zehner also discusses the massive costs of renewables and their insatiable appetite for government protection and handouts. In one example, he directly contradicts the claims that renewables have reached “price parity” with coal by recognizing, “Today’s solar technologies would compete with coal only if carbon credits rose to three hundred dollars per ton.”

Not finished there, Zehner then sheds some light on the actual environmental impacts of renewables; just one of his many examples will do.

Not only are solar cells an overpriced tool for reducing CO2 emissions, but the manufacturing process is also one of the largest emitters of hexafluoroethane (C2F6), nitrogen trifluoride (NF3) and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6). Used for cleaning plasma production equipment, these three gruesome greenhouse gases make CO2 seem harmless. As a greenhouse gas, C2F6 is twelve thousand times more potent than CO2, is 100 percent manufactured by humans and survives ten thousand years once released into the atmosphere. NF3 is seventeen thousand times more virulent than CO2, and SF6, the most treacherous greenhouse gas, according to the International Panel on Climate Change, is twenty-five thousand times more threatening.

Statistics like this force reasonable readers to question the true motivations behind the push for green energy because it is increasingly clear that it isn’t just “cleaning up” our energy production. After reading Zehner’s numerous other examples, an honest reader will be forced to recognize that renewables cannot provide the clean, affordable, reliable energy solution we were promised they would.

Zehner closes out Green Illusions with an equally blunt repudiation of renewable energy.

Alternative-energy technologies don’t clean the air. They don’t clean the water. They don’t protect wildlife. They don’t support human rights. They don’t improve neighborhoods. They don’t strengthen democracy. They don’t regulate themselves. They don’t lower atmospheric carbon dioxide. They don’t reduce consumption.

They produce power.

Unfortunately, Zehner has a steep hill to climb as he struggles to get this information out to the public. This is true, not only because there are large, vested interests involved with subsidizing, funding and profiting from green energy but also because the public has been largely misled on the issue of renewables for decades. Government research routinely ignores the costs and environmental impacts of green energy, thus ensuring multiple billions in grants, loans, subsidies, tax breaks and direct payments continue to flow to the their construction, just as they did to Solyndra. Media reports habitually misstate the ability of renewable energy to meet energy demands – failing to point out their ephemeral nature, high costs, as well as growing not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) and anti-development pressures and their environmental impacts. Therefore, Zehner has to first drag his readers up and out of a sizable educational deficit before he can get people to recognize the facts about green energy.

The remainder of Green Illusions focuses on Zehner’s plans for dealing with energy production amidst his claims and concerns over environmental impacts of human resource use. As I discussed earlier, his beef isn’t with a specific form of energy, it’s with a specific lifestyle – our lifestyle.

Readers will need to take account of their own views and research on how accurately Zehner’s predictions of impending resource shortages match reality. For the purposes of our readership and the energy industry, however, the value of Green Illusions is that the false narrative on green energy is beginning to break down.

As researchers begin to admit the truth about the real costs – environmental, economic and social – of renewable energy options, policy makers and the public will be able to make more informed and realistic decisions on the energy options that we will build and use in the future.

28. February 2014 by Jason Hayes
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