Monday, September 15, 2008

Ethanol redux: Wind!

It seems that we have not learned the lessons of ethanol, and that wind power might be another example of a technology subsidized based on its ecological value that turns out to be more environmentally degrading than the alternative. The Atlantic has an article questioning the policy and comparing it to the ethanol debacle. The article cites two issues which make wind both highly uneconomical and not nearly as efficient as "less sexy" measures:

Powering plants up and down is inefficient, and when backup power is included, wind energy costs 10 to 30 percent more than fossil-fuel energy, even without factoring in the cost of new power lines. (Wind-energy costs have risen, not fallen, in recent years.) And once you include backup power, the cost of averting carbon-dioxide emissions by building a wind plant rises to $67 a ton, according to Cambridge Energy Research Associates. Less sexy emissions-reduction strategies, such as increasing efficiency at current electrical plants, cost between $10 and $30 a ton.

The author, Matthew Quirk, correctly sees the folly in the government choosing technologies and elevating them in the market. His suggestion is ultimately that this means that as a solution to the climate change problem, we ought to instead levy a neutral carbon tax. It's a logic idea, but only if you consider current legislation inviolable. The truth is that so many of our carbon emissions are exacerbated by other government policies – land use and transportation laws, from the municipal government to the feds, mostly.

There's a far more direct way to get at pollution rather than another tax (albeit a fairly "fair" sounding one, whatever that means), and it's repealing the suburban-auto lobby's influence in our legal code. Restoring property rights (i.e., doing away with zoning rules and minimum parking requirements) would go a long way to moving to a more free market allocation of property and people – that is, more dense and dynamic clusters surrounded by inevitably less people in suburban and rural areas. Privatizing roads would be the ultimate step to restoring land use to the market, but that seems like just a little too much to wish for within the 21st century.

Edit: The NYT Magazine this weekend also had a piece on the politics and economics of wind. Ultimately, everyone concedes that wind is economically viable thanks to subsidies, but at the end the author focuses on the broader picture: the entire energy industry is subsidized, and the idea that it runs based on a free market is a myth. However, the subject of the article – Peter Mandalstam, a wind entrepreneuer, a sort of not-rich version of T. Boone Pickens – draws different conclusions from this fact than I do. He touches on an important point at the end of the article – "Let’s line up all the subsidies of coal and nuclear power and oil and natural gas and wind — and let’s have a debate," but rather than concluding that we ought to dismantle the original subsidies, his argument is that we ought to tack on additional subsidies, in this case for wind power.

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