The Realities of 'Green Energy'

To power the future, many commentators today exhort us to buy lots of "green energy"—chiefly solar panels and wind turbines. They claim this is a way to avoid running out of fossil fuel, to create "green jobs" and greater energy security, and to respond to global warming. However, these arguments mostly fail on closer inspection.

We have long been fearful of our energy supply running out. In 1865, popular opinion—led by some of the world's most esteemed scientists—held that Britain's coal reserves would soon become exhausted.

The doomsayers underestimated human ingenuity. They could not envisage that there would be a fruitful search for more effective ways to extract, use, and transport coal and to find other energy sources.

The ingenuity continues: recently, massive amounts of natural gas were discovered within shale rock across Western nations, and innovations were made in extraction techniques. The International Energy Agency now estimates there is enough gas for more than 250 years—roughly double previous estimates.

Many politicians, and the green-energy industry's lobbyists, claim we should forge ahead on green energy because it will create new employment.

However, when politicians promise green jobs by making everyone pay more for energy, it means that higher prices destroy a similar number of jobs elsewhere. Former U.S. vice president Al Gore and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared in 2009 that "in the U.S. there are now more jobs in the wind industry than in the entire coal industry." Hardly something to be proud about, since this would indicate that jobs in the wind industry, which produce 0.5 percent of America's electricity, are 50 times less productive than those in the coal industry, which produce half the nation's electricity.

Some commentators also focus our attention on the tenuous supply of oil, and claim that security is the reason for switching to green energy. Yet if energy security were really our prime concern, most nations should revert to coal, which remains the cheapest, most accessible energy source. The European Union's valiant attempts to go green have seen it shift from easily available coal to capriciously supplied Russian gas. Moreover, most green-energy sources supply electricity, which is rarely produced by oil and is likely to do little to ease our oil dependence.

It is true that global warming demands an answer. We need to move away from fossil fuels and toward green energy. But we are wrong to believe that the current approach is achieving anything in that regard.

The European Union is applauded by many for implementing stringent targets that will reduce its emissions 25 percent by 2020 and will increase its green energy by equal measure. But the policy will reduce temperatures by just one tenth of one degree Fahrenheit in 2100, at a cost of about $380 billion a year for the rest of the century. The massive price tag exists because there is no affordable alternative to fossil fuel. Current green technology is so inefficient that—to take just one example—if we were serious about wind power, we would have to blanket most countries with wind turbines to generate enough energy. We would still have the massive problem of storage: there would be no power when the wind doesn't blow.

A sensible energy policy should focus first on unleashing human ingenuity to solve the massive technological challenge before us. Both public and private investment is needed, including significant government spending on research and development aimed at developing new and cheaper low-carbon technologies.

It is extremely foolish to try to make fossil fuels so expensive that nobody wants to use them. Instead, we need to promote innovation so the price of green energy comes down and alternatives rapidly become cheap enough that everyone will buy them, including developing nations.

Such a policy would be smarter than our current approach—and actually bring about green energy everywhere in the future.

Lomborg, director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, is the author of The Skeptical Environmentalist and Cool It.