Either/or fossil fuels or renewables — become a realistic cockeyed optimist!

withusoragainstusOn Sunday, The New York Times ran a provocative story by distinguished journalist Elisabeth Rosenthal. Its gist was that if we look hard at recent reports by the National Research Council, the IEA, Stanford, and the experiences of different areas in the U.S. as well as in other nations, increased use of fossil fuels would be quickly “edselized”…that is, outmoded. How many of you remember the Ford Edsel automobile? Named after Henry Ford’s son, it died a quick death in the market place — it was a clunky car and a bad idea.

Rosenthal cites NRC’s report that by 2030 the U.S. could halve the oil used in cars and trucks compared with 2005 levels by “improving the efficiency of gasoline-powered vehicles and by relying more on cars that use alternative power sources.” Similarly, she noted that the Stanford report indicated that “New York State — not windy like the Great Plains, nor sunny like Arizona — could easily produce the power it needs from wind, solar and water power by 2030.” Rosenthal continued, “In fact there was so much potential power…that renewable power could also fuel our cars.” According to Mark Z. Jacobson, the lead author of the Stanford study, “it is absolutely not true that we need natural gas, coal or oil…You could power America with renewable from a technical and economic standpoint. The biggest obstacles are social and political — what you need is the will to do it.” I guess willpower now has more substantive meaning than its earlier primarily psychological content. I am not sure how willpower compares with other sources of power concerning miles per gallon.

While sympathetic to the “forget fossil fuel and turn to renewables” argument, Rosenthal is honest enough to point out some reputable naysayers. She points out that “many experts say that aggressively ‘rebalancing’ the United States’ mix of fossil fuel and renewable energy to reduce its carbon footprint may well be impractical and unwise for now.” Other experts argue that there is space (literally and in the marketplace) for wind and solar power to expand, but we cannot play God and guarantee that the wind will blow in sufficient, continuous amounts and that the sun will be bare of heavy clouds. Fatih Birol, chief economist for the International Energy Agency, cautioned that rapid expansion of renewable power would be complicated and costly. The U.S. would need to modify the national power grid and overcome resistance to the higher costs of renewables. I would add that we are a long way off from efficient and effective wind- and solar-powered cars. (Increased conversion of utilities to wind or sun power is a possibility. Expanded use of their generated electricity to power cars is possible in the near future.)

Use of renewables to the extent visualized by Rosenthal in the relatively near future reminds me of the Rodgers and Hammerstein song about a cockeyed optimist from “South Pacific.”

I support sustained research for and the development of renewables that are cost efficient and meet the nation’s power and fuel needs, particularly those of its low, moderate and middle-income residents. But to get from the here and now, where renewables constitute not quite 13% of all electricity in the U.S., to significantly higher numbers will take time — maybe 2020 or 2030 are reasonable targets. But rhetoric shouldn’t substitute for safer, reasonable cost effective technology. Renewables are still in their infancy concerning securing a large market.

Electric cars and perhaps hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars will likely be in our future. However, they are not ready yet for prime time. Most vehicles still are priced too high and, by and large, most travel far too few miles on their respective fuels for most Americans. Further, while consumer fuel stations are increasing in number and will continue to increase with respect to both power sources — electricity and hydrogen — they will remain too few and far between for some time into the future. This fact will serve as a market impediment concerning the acquisition of electric and hydro fuel vehicles.

Rosenthal is convinced, or seems convinced, that fossil fuels may become unnecessary relatively soon. She ends her article by asking the good governor of New York, Andrew M. Cuomo, to seriously ponder dollars spent on fossil fuel when our near-term future, in her mind, could be in renewables.

I question, and indeed challenge, the illogic of either/or decisions seemingly touted by Rosenthal. Why are we seemingly limited to a choice between fossil fuels as a class and renewables also as a class? The decision is arbitrary and in terms of public policy, capricious. Limiting our options to the extremes of the fuel continuum presents a false set of choices. Hybrids that use both gasoline and electricity reflect one real-world, increasingly popular middle ground. There are alternative transitional replacement fuels on the continuum: natural gas, its derivative methanol, as well as ethanol lie between an all-or-nothing approach. Reasonable folks should be able to agree on them, if they share a desire to give the nation the best shot at lowering prices, increasing security and protecting the environment, at least until renewables justify widespread consumer support.

At this juncture, America should support powering its utilities with natural gas instead of coal, and adding sun and wind power, if both are feasible, for similar purposes. Both natural gas and coal are fossil fuels, but natural gas is cheaper and cleaner by over a third in terms of GHG emissions. In a similar vein, moving from coal to natural gas or (again, if feasible) sun and wind power would reduce the GHG emissions generated by coal-fired power plants that now fuel most electric cars.

Until renewables are ready for a mass market, America should encourage the substitution of several alternative transitional replacement fuels that are better for the environment and less costly than oil and its derivative, gasoline. We need a reformed and reasonable regulatory regime that provides an even playing field for alternative transitional replacement fuels and a competitive transportation fuel market. I do not believe that increased use of transitional replacement fuels will reduce interest or investment in renewables. While I understand the fears of my colleagues in some environmental groups, America’s history is filled with examples where innovation and invention has stimulated, not suppressed, investment and development — irrespective of previous products that seemingly satisfied consumer demand. Think penicillin, the Model T, the airplane, mail service or the iPhone!

Alternative fuels are not perfect, but they are better than gasoline in the interim. American history is about perfectibility, not perfection. Both alternative transitional replacement fuels and renewables are, or should be, two strategic sides of a market-based policy coin. If we had moved to use natural gas and its derivatives as well as other alternative fuels at the time of Kyoto Protocol, America would be further along on the road to responding to global warming than we are now, with or without a recession. Let’s not waste another decade or two before we facilitate increased use of transitional replacement fuels and support simultaneously extended research and development of renewable fuels to someday power more than a handful of vehicles. Like Rosenthal, I am a cockeyed optimist, but unlike her, I do believe that we have far more than either/or choices concerning alternative transitional replacement fuels vs. renewables.