As a solid majority of survey respondents correctly answered, the renewable technologies wind and solar power provide the smallest amount of America’s energy of the options given.

As Table 1 shows, renewable energy technologies account for 6 percent of U.S. primary energy consumption.

What is surprising about the relatively small role that renewable energies play in our energy economy is the large measure of taxpayer dollars that they have received. Since 1970, renewable technologies have received over $20 billion in federal government subsidies to spur their development and market application.[33] Despite this largesse, they have been unable to compete economically with far cheaper and more reliable options such as coal and nuclear power. Of all renewable technologies, wind and solar receive the most attention from the public, despite their fairly dismal performance. Taken together, wind and solar today account for just one-fifth of 1 percent of America’s annual energy consumption.

Advocates of these technologies generally make two arguments in their favor. First, by harnessing the power and cycles of nature, they rely on fuels whose supplies are seemingly inexhaustible (hence renewable), unlike finite resources such as petroleum or coal. Second, renewables arguably have a less adverse impact on the environment than traditional carbon-based energy sources. (Hydroelectric power, however, has fallen out of favor with many environmentalists because of the ecological side effects of damming rivers. Traditional proponents of renewable energies, such as Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council, tend to promote all renewable energy technologies except hydropower.) Non-hydro renewables account for 3.35 percent of total U.S. energy consumption, or about half of renewable energies’ total. The largest share of that small figure is derived from energy from biomass, such as wood, waste, and alcohol fuels like ethanol.

Given the expected jump in energy demand, it seems unlikely that renewables—particularly such poor performers as wind and solar—will play more than a niche role. The solar, wind, and geothermal industries would have to experience massive growth over the next twenty-five years just to maintain their current small share in our energy mix.

The disadvantages of renewables may best be understood by examining the punch that they pack versus the space that they require. Wind turbines require huge tracts of land to be set aside in order to generate meaningful amounts of power. To generate the electricity that a typical 1,000-megawatt coal-fired or nuclear power plant produces would require a utility-scale wind plant using 60,000 acres[34] of land.[35] Similarly, it would take about 11,000 acres of photovoltaic cells to generate the same amount from solar energy.[36]

Comparing fuel density provides an even better contrast. Biomass has far less energy density than other fuels. Pound for pound, coal stores twice as much energy as wood. On the same comparison, oil is twice as energy-dense as coal; it packs the same amount of energy into half the weight and space. Nuclear power, though, wins this test by a landslide. A single gram of uranium-235 packs the same punch as four tons of coal or eight tons of wood.

Wind and solar energy, moreover, are not constant. The wind does not always blow, and the sun does not always shine. Nuclear reactors, coal furnaces, and gas-fired plants, on the other hand, can produce electricity virtually around the clock, using far less space.

In certain instances, wind, solar, and other renewable energies can contribute to the energy mix of a particular region or business. High-plains states like Nebraska, Kansas, and Montana, with wide, flat spaces but sparse populations, are good candidates for wind farms, whose turbines can exceed 100 meters in height. The sun-drenched southwestern United States is a better candidate for solar power than the rest of the continental U.S., where sunlight is more intermittent. Still, it is unlikely that renewables can produce more than a tiny fraction of the additional 1.774 trillion kilowatt-hours of energy that our economy will require each year by 2030.[37]




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Press Release


Clarice Smith
Deputy Director,
Manhattan Institute
(212) 599-7000



Copyright The Manhattan Institute 2007