Absurdity abounds in the debate over many political issues, and energy is no exception. Many people blame "price gouging" oil companies for increasing gas prices, when government regulations are the real culprit.
But the nonsense doesn't end there. Another aspect of the energy issue badly in need of some critical thought is the concept of "alternative energy".
Politicians of all stripes have embraced alternative energy. They call for government spending and subsidies. But why should alternative energy be supported over more traditional sources?
Traditional sources of energy are carbon-based fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas, as well as nuclear power. Carbon-based fuels are often called fossil fuels, although this theory of their origins is disputed. Alternatives include solar, wind, and ethanol.
The ideal energy source would be cheap and plentiful. Its use would not cause any pollution or result in any harmful waste. It would not have to be purchased from any unpleasant people.
The ideal energy source does not exist. We have only imperfect choices.
How can we know which choice is best? To be more objective, suppose we have energy source A and energy source B. There will be different amounts of A and B available, they will be produced in different ways, refined in different ways, and have different energy output per unit. How can we decide which one to use?
Economic calculations such as this are only possible through the use of prices. Prices provide information that makes possible the coordination of supply and demand. The best energy source will be the one that has the lowest cost per unit of energy produced. In other words, we should use whatever is cheapest in the free market.
Of course, specific conditions may restrict our choices. You can't have a nuclear power plant in your car.
The predominance of carbon-based fuels and nuclear energy is not some accident of history or chance occurrence. These are the best sources because they are the cheapest. Alternative energy sources have serious drawbacks. This is why they are not widely in use.
Ethanol is one of the most touted alternatives. But some studies have shown that it takes more than a gallon of gasoline to produce a gallon of ethanol. It is expensive to transport because it can't be shipped by pipeline. The only reason that it is used is because of a 51 cent per gallon federal subsidy. This has increased corn prices at home and abroad and increased other food prices due to higher demand for farmland and higher feed prices for animals.
Biofuels have many of the same problems as ethanol. Windmills don't produce much energy, but they do kill lots of birds. Solar power also doesn't produce much energy. Both wind and sun don't always produce energy, take significant amounts of land, and exist only due to federal subsidies.
Perhaps the biggest red herring is hydrogen power. It is true, of course, that burning hydrogen produces energy (just look at the Hindenburg). But to burn hydrogen, you need to have hydrogen. But isn't there hydrogen in water? Yes, but to separate it from the oxygen in water, you need... energy. Perhaps we could get that energy from perpetual motion machines.
The only form of alternative energy that exists in any substantial quantities is hydroelectric power. But this is pretty much tapped out, since there are only so many rivers to dam.
Most alternative energy exists only due to government subsidies. Some defenders of alternative energy admit that it isn't efficient now, but defend subsidies by saying that we should "invest" in alternative energy so that it will become efficient in the future. But what justification is there for believing this? Why, despite all the evidence, do people continue to insist that government can allocate resources more efficiently than the free market? Besides, subsidies may make efficiency less likely by making innovation unnecessary to achieving profits. Also, innovation continues in the production of traditional sources of energy.
Why do so many people demand alternative energy? One argument is the need for "energy independence". The stated need for energy independence is in turn justified in several different ways. One is the problem of high or suddenly increasing gas prices. But energy independence, which presumably means producing enough energy in a country to supply its own needs, won't stop this. This is because markets are global, so a factor that increases prices somewhere will increase them everywhere.
Another justification is that a terrorist attack or rouge nation might disrupt energy supplies. This is a stronger justification, but it doesn't change the fact that proposed alternative sources are impractical.
A third argument for energy independence is that buying energy from foreign countries funds terrorism. While there is an element of truth to this, it isn't likely to change no matter what we do. Even if we completely stopped buying oil from the Middle East, China and Europe would simply pick up the slack. As long as Middle East oil is the cheapest, this isn't going to change. Also, terrorism just isn't that costly to fund. Besides, destroying the economies of Middle Eastern countries isn't likely to win us lots of friends. Punishing the people who fund terrorism is the best way to prevent it.
The only way to achieve greater energy independence is to produce more traditional energy. But environmentalists fight this tooth and nail.
Another argument for alternative energy is the supposed threat of global warming. This notion has been promoted heavily by environmentalists. There is good reason to believe that this threat is a chimera. But suppose for the sake of argument that it is real. Shouldn't environmentalists advocate increased use of nuclear energy?
Nuclear energy is a significant, proven source of energy that does not produce any "greenhouse gases". But with a handful of exceptions, environmentalists have fought bitterly against it. Numerous myths have spread that discourage its use.
Some environmentalists also fight hydroelectric energy, the only significant alternative source. They want to tear down dams to liberate salmon runs, or something like that.
The real goals of environmentalists are not difficult to discern. They are not opposed to particular forms of energy; they are against any significant energy use. Many leading environmentalists have admitted that they seek to eliminate most of humanity, destroy civilization, and massively increase poverty. They advocate alternative energy sources because they produce little energy.
Instead of wasting time and money on alternative sources, America should use the energy sources that work best. What these are can best be determined in the free market. Government restrictions on energy production and consumption should be eliminated.