We have both taught problem-solving approaches to science and engineering students emphasizing that identifying the real problem may be the more difficult task since getting the right answer to the wrong problem is at best misleading and can be counterproductive. Simplistic solutions to complex problems rarely lead to the desired result, but complex problems can often be broken into smaller entities that lead to appropriate solutions provided that each segment recognizes and takes into consideration the other parts of the problem.
So, what does this have to do with the price of oil or electricity? Well, the price and availability of energy in many forms, and the impact of our appetite for energy on the environment, is a classic example of many interactive situations and associated problems that must be integrated in order to obtain a proper solution. Obviously conservation of both energy sources and natural materials is the first piece of any solution to energy-environment issues, but the global population keeps increasing and nearly everything we do is energy dependent.
To illustrate, let's examine the recent declaration by President Obama related to using renewable energy sources to replace fossil fuels with the objective of decreasing carbon emissions.
Last December at the opening of the Paris Climate Summit, President Obama committed the U.S. to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent below the 2005 level by 2025. The president's primary greenhouse gas reduction targets are carbon dioxide and methane. The president's pledge means that over the next nine years the U.S. will reduce annual carbon emissions per American by 25 percent. The last time annual CO2 emissions were this low was probably early in the last century. The pathway to decarbonization of this magnitude implies displacing significant amounts of fossil fuels with renewables — primarily wind and solar.
Currently hydroelectric and nuclear provide 26 percent of the nation's electricity consumption, which equates to 82 percent of the country's zero-emissions electric power. However, federal economic and environmental policies are forcing a significant reduction in both nuclear and hydroelectric generating capacity.
According to the Department of Energy, domestic net nuclear power capacity is estimated to decline by 9,900 megawatts by 2020. In 2015 total net capacity of all U.S. wind generation was about 22,300 megawatts. Thus, the projected decline in nuclear power over the next four years would offset about 44 percent of the existing net wind-generated electricity. It is important to recognize that wind and solar are intermittent sources of power and must be backed up with base-load power sources — typically gas-fired turbine or nuclear power plants, thus the need to compare net energy production.
Therefore, the question arises: Are environmental agendas and federal subsidies for wind and solar working at cross purposes with respect to the president's pledge to significantly reduce carbon emissions? Clearly taxpayer subsidies are distorting electric power markets and not in an efficient and cost-effective way.
Federal subsidies for solar power in 2013 amounted to 23 cents per kilowatt-hour and 3.5 cents for wind power. The U.S. average wholesale price of electricity in 2015 was 5 cents per kilowatt-hour. Thus, solar power producers are receiving taxpayer subsidies amounting to over four times their cost of production and wind energy subsidies equal 70 percent of production costs. Such a deal — unless of course you happen to be a taxpayer!
These subsidies are invisible to the ratepayer because they are funded out of the federal budget, but they are impacting the national debt. Cumulative federal, state and local subsidies for wind generation alone are estimated at $176 billion.
The U.S. cannot possibly meet the president's carbon reduction goals if we continue to reduce hydroelectric and nuclear power generation. One influential U.S. senator has personally blocked the opening of a nuclear waste deposit facility in which the taxpayers have invested more than $15 billion and have nothing but a fancy hole in the ground. Nuclear energy supplies more than 19 percent of our electric power and has zero carbon emissions. But you do need a scientifically sound way to store the radioactive wastes.
In 2015, fossil fuel provided 81 percent of total U.S. energy consumption, including transportation, industrial, commercial, residential, and electrical power generation. What is so frustrating to most of the public is that enormous amounts of our tax funds are going into projects that are primarily intended to satisfy a political agenda without focusing on the real problem. For example, one of our presidential candidates has pledged, "I do not think there will be many places in America where fracking will continue to take place." Yet this technology has allowed the U.S. to completely reverse its dependency on petroleum from the most politically unstable areas of the globe. Do we really want to revert to being dependent on Mid-Eastern oil?
The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that 67 percent of our natural gas and 50 percent of our liquid petroleum come as a result of fracking. Substituting natural gas for coal-fired power plants has reduced carbon emissions by far more than all the new wind and solar installations combined. However, the plethora of mutually exclusive environmental agendas, in combination with the threat to end hydraulic fracturing, would result in the elimination of most of our domestic energy sources. Clearly this is not a realistic or responsible goal for our country to pursue.
Recently, columnist Jonah Goldberg made a similar analysis of the use of ethanol as a substitute for gasoline illustrating that the production of ethanol takes more energy than it produces and that its production contributes to increased greenhouse gas emissions. And yet, the government dictates the addition of ethanol to our gasoline supply.
We are not against measures to reduce the rate of global warming and carbon emissions. Nonetheless, the knee-jerk politically expedient approaches often hinder the way society needs to deal with the complexities of our modern world.