Carpe Diem

Hurricane Sandy illustrates the importance of fossil fuel energy to our economy, both now and for decades to come

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Manhattan Institute fellow Robert Bryce used Hurricane Sandy to illustrate the importance of fossil fuels (especially oil and gasoline) to the recovery and to the overall U.S. economy (and the relative unimportance of wind and other renewables), in his excellent article “After Sandy, No One Lined Up for Wind Turbines.”  Here’s a slice:

Oil—and, more specifically, diesel fuel and gasoline—are proving to be the most important commodities in the wake of the huge storm that recently pummeled the East Coast. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, all of the critical pieces of equipment were burning gasoline or diesel fuel: the pumps removing water from flooded basements and subway tunnels, the generators providing electricity to hospitals and businesses, and the cars, trucks and aircraft providing mobility.

The Sierra Club and its allies on the green left will doubtless continue their decades-long war on the oil and gas industry, but the Sandy disaster-response efforts are showing again that there is no substitute for oil. No other substance comes close when it comes to energy density, ease of handling or flexibility. A single kilogram of diesel fuel contains about 13,000 watt-hours of energy. That is about twice the energy density of coal, six times that of wood, and about 300 times that of lead-acid batteries.

Combine diesel fuel’s miraculous energy density with the power density and durability of a modern diesel engine—which can run for weeks at a time with little or no maintenance—and the size, speed, and cost advantages become apparent.

The Sierra Club, Greenpeace and other groups claim that we can run our economies solely on renewable-energy sources such as wind. But if you are trying to pump water out of your rapidly molding basement, would you prefer a wind turbine that operates at full power about one-third of the time, or a greasy, diesel-fueled V-8?

Sandy left millions of East Coast residents in the cold and dark. If any of them have been demanding “green” energy, I haven’t heard about it. In the storm’s aftermath, the most hopeful sound of recovery is the joyous racket that comes from an internal-combustion engine burning fossil fuels.

MP: The chart above using Department of Energy data and projections out to the year 2035 shows that we’ll be relying on fossil fuels as our most important energy source for decades to come, and renewables will continue to play a very minor role in supplying energy to our economy.  Consider that renewables actually supplied a greater share of our energy thirty years ago in 1982 (8.2%) than they do today (7.3%), and that’s after billions of dollars of government taxpayer subsidies. Even several decades from now, the Department of Energy projects that renewables will supply less than 11% of U.S. energy by the year 2035.

Meanwhile, fossil fuel’s contribution to U.S. energy consumption will decline only modestly from the current 82.6% share to 76.7% in 2035. When it come to providing affordable and reliable energy during both normal times and following natural disasters, fossil fuels will continue to power the U.S. economy for generations to come, and renewables will continue to play a relatively minor role as an energy source. It will be a very long time before anybody is lining up for energy from wind turbines following future hurricanes.

10 thoughts on “Hurricane Sandy illustrates the importance of fossil fuel energy to our economy, both now and for decades to come

    • Or doing things the Dutch or British way and building barriers to block storm surges. The Dutch did it to protect Rotterdam, the British did it to protect London, so can’t the US do it to protect NYC? The idea would be like the other barriers to raise the barriers when tides higher than some amount occured. Actually this would be more like the Dutch example as multiple barriers would be needed. So guesses of costs are in the 20 billion range which probably means 50 to 60 billion after the mandatory cost increases happen.

  1. Hurricane sandy illustres the reality of shit happens! the question is when shit happens do you look to your government to sort it out? or do you look to your “family” or do you look to yourself….and the real reality check is that now that we know shit happens, who will we look to, to sort it out, in the future, when the shit happens again, government?family? you?….. have a great day

    • Actually given where the current hot plays are (hint not on federal lands) it won’t make much difference. In Tx because of the way it was admitted to the union there is not a signifianct amount of federal land, either in the Eagle Ford or Permian Basin. In ND 90% of the land in the state is private exceptions include TR national memorial park and the like. In Pa the land is private or state since the feds never owned the land there, in Oh the land was all sold off long ago (and some went to rev war veterans as pay). At this point there are not a lot of hot plays in the west, so its not where the excitement is. Yes there could be plays but they have not been found, so they are not likley to have as much effect as the Eagle Ford, Permian Basin, Baaken, and Marcellus and Utica plays. For example there is no oil in the Sierra Nevada since its all Granite, and little in Nv, again due to geology.

  2. I’ve read two of Robert Bryce’s (Power Hungry and Gusher of Lies). Highly recommended.

    Roger Pielke, Jr. had a perceptive post on politics post-Sandy. You didn’t hear Mayor Bloomberg talk about wind turbines or storm surge barriers (or why it is that the fed. government gives perverse incentives to build along the coast). Instead, he put the responsibility on to higher powers:

  3. Dr Perry, I believe you should remember to leave your bias at the door when analyzing data. Logically, the conclusion from the circumstances you describe should be to increase emphasis renewables for baseline energy production and consumption so that fossil fuels are available for emergency power generation in times of crisis.

    • Two graphs are missing from this post. The first would be to show the cost of each type of energy. This would make it clear how much we are spending on these very costly “green” energy options. The second would be to show how the total amount of energy produced is going up and up and up. In other words, it may be that the proportion of fossil fuels is projected to fall, but the absolute amount of fuel used is undoubtedly higher every year in the future.

      Of course, the one graph is only a projection, and we know that is unlikely to stand the test of time. The fracking and and horizontal drilling are dramatically increasing the production of oil and natural gas. In fact, the forecast is that we will be producing more oil than Saudi Arabia by 2020. Does it make sense that we fund wind farms and solar in the face of such abundance? Hardly. Give those technologies (or other, even better discoveries) another 10 or 15 years to mature, and we might actually have an economic alternative.

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