woody_zimmerman_118_2007Although former President Jimmy (I'm a Sweater Man) Carter - who famously wore a cardigan during a TV address to the nation - was decisively dumped by voters in 1980, he keeps returning to the American political scene like Marley's Ghost. His latest foray into political rehab-land was an appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to testify on energy policy then and now. Sprinkled among a crabby defense of his administration's policies, which voters rejected 30 years ago, were Mr. Carter's observations that we lag far behind other nations in the use of windmills, solar energy, and nuclear power.

Mr. Carter leveled his severest criticisms at his Republican successors who led the country into increased dependence on foreign oil. So far as I know, he did not criticize President Obama for blocking development of offshore and shale resources of oil that might help us to get free of foreign oil suppliers. (This was undoubtedly just an oversight.)

Mr. Carter's is only the latest voice insisting that we use "renewable" energy resources to break free of oil's shackles. Barack Obama often spoke during the campaign of our need to use wind, solar and nuclear power - although he rarely mentions nuclear power now, in deference to his lefty base's vociferous opposition to it. France gets 80% of its electricity from nuclear power, but we haven't built a new nuclear-powered generating plant in 30 years.

The push for more wind-powered generators and solar electrical panels is growing, however - particularly in the context of diminishing the country's "carbon footprint" in order to combat global warming. (Although warming hasn't actually occurred since 1998.) At a certain level, wind and solar power do seem attractive and entirely reasonable. The man on the street will probably say they sound like a good idea. "Sure, why not?" said one customer at Al's Coffee Shop. "The less oil we have to use, the better. What's not to like?"

Well said. Really, why can't we push toward getting more electricity from natural, renewable sources like the sun and the wind? All that's needed is access to the national power-grid and a "Manhattan Project" to develop the technology. Right? We can do this.

Well... maybe. As I have pointed out previously in this space, this is not the only "golden opportunity" staring us right in the face. Experts say a cubic mile of seawater has three tons of gold dissolved in it. The problem is to find which cubic mile it is. (Just kidding.) Since the ocean consists of 329 million cubic miles, the amount of gold would be close to a billion tons. This would be approximately 8,000 times the current above-ground supply of gold - said to be 120,000 to 140,000 tons. Experts say the current gold supply amounts to a solid gold cube 19 meters on a side (i.e., 3 meters short of the length of a tennis court). The introduction of a billion new tons of gold would enrich the nation that recovered it beyond the dreams of avarice. (It would also take up a lot of tennis-courts.)

Before we start celebrating our new riches, however, it's worth checking the details, where the devils always lurk. Just one cubic mile of seawater works out to 1.1 trillion gallons. We've been tossing 1 trillion (1,000,000,000,000) around a lot, lately, but that doesn't mean we can comprehend it. A trillion is a million millions. If we could process the gold from a cubic mile of seawater at a million gallons a day, it would take 2800 years to finish up that one cubic mile. (Probably beyond Mr. Carter's lifetime.) With 1,000 processing plants, we could cut the time for a cubic mile down to about 3 years. Unfortunately, the amount of gold recovered would come nowhere close to paying the cost of all those processing plants. So vast wealth, which seems to be staring us right in the face, turns out to be illusory, due to "technical details."

Wind and solar power is somewhat the same, in that the devil is in the (technical) details. The key issue with generation of electricity is storage - or, more precisely, the lack thereof. So far, we have not developed technology that allows electricity to be stored in any significant quantities after it is generated. Except in submarines, which use huge storage batteries, electricity has to be used as soon as it is generated, or else it is simply wasted. Power grids have elaborate trigger mechanisms to call for more generating resources, as demand increases, but they have no mechanism for storing excess power.

In the case of wind and solar power, this lack of storage capability is a serious drawback. The sun doesn't shine all the time, and the wind doesn't blow all the time. They are not continuous power sources. This means you either do without electricity when wind or sun are not generating, or you have to have backup generating capability, much like the coal- and oil-powered facilities in our current power-grid. With the current technology, wind and solar power-generation can never stand on its own.

Experts estimate that we might generate as much as 5% of our national power needs with wind/solar, but probably never more than 10% because of the vast areas of land and infrastructure needed for windmills and solar panels. Even at this early stage, the space needed for installation of these technologies is becoming a nettlesome problem. It turns out that many wind/solar advocates lose their enthusiasm when they realize they'll be looking at a forest of windmills off the port bow of their ocean property, indefinitely. As with so many other things, the NIMBY (not in my back yard) problem might be decisive.

There is no doubt that imposition of a new regimen of wind and solar power onto our industrial base will produce many new jobs. Not least of these will be wonderful new opportunities for lawyers bringing class-action suits to oppose windmill sites. But the question is whether all those jobs will bring a lasting, cost-effective technology change.

In the 1950s, I saw a magazine article about a town somewhere in the western USA that featured houses with hangars for small planes. The main street was a runway. The builders anticipated an era when every family would have not just an automobile but a plane as well. The idea never caught on because it's a lot more complicated to own and fly a plane than to own and drive a car. I have often wondered what became of that town. Did it simply fall to pieces, unoccupied - the investment of its builders wasted because they neglected to check the details of their idea?

Will our future be one in which unused windmills litter the land like ruined forests? Hopefully not. Maybe we'll develop the needed storage capacity for electricity that will allow wind/solar to work. Or maybe we'll learn to generate power from the movement of the ocean. These things could happen, and I hope they do.

The key thing to understand is that "visionary" politicians can't make advanced technologies happen just by passing laws or issuing orders. The Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb was not a sure thing. President Roosevelt ordered it, but he wouldn't have done so except that scientists had told him there was a good chance it could be done.

The "cap and trade" process that Mr. Obama wants to impose on our industry also deserves mention. It is very little understood by Americans. Although it is characterized as a bold new step to combat climate change, even its advocates would privately admit that it will accomplish little or nothing along those lines.

Cap and trade is about taxes, not climate. A politicians dream, it will create a huge new stream of tax revenues that will pay for costly new federal initiatives on health insurance, education and other liberal programs. Eventually, the tax will be extended to everything that produces carbon dioxide, including cars, home furnaces, and the myriad other conveniences of modern life. Democrats will tax these things because they can. They think we will swallow it because of fears about polar bears, melting glaciers, rising seas and killer hurricanes.

The Bible says, "A fool and his money are soon parted." Americans might be poised to demonstrate the truth of that statement. The deliberate deconstruction of a vibrant industrial economy will be the biggest blunder in history, if we allow it to happen.