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The Arizona Daily Star: Alternative energy will not save us

Best bets are coal-to-liquid fuel, shale, nuclear power

Tucson, Arizona | Published: 07.08.2007
Opinion by Gerald E. Marsh

CHICAGO — If Congress is going to subsidize energy to free us from dependence on foreign oil, it should — at the very least — spend our hard-earned taxpayer dollars on something that will work.

The unfortunate truth is that neither ethanol nor any other so-called renewable alternative energy now being discussed on Capitol Hill is likely to make any significant contribution to our energy needs.

The United States already produces 33 percent of the world’s ethanol, yet that equals only a little over 1 percent of the volume of our imported petroleum. Even at that low level, the increased demand for corn to make ethanol has pushed up prices from about $1.50 per bushel to nearly $4. That, in turn, has increased the cost of almost everything we eat.

Some optimists have suggested we simply plant more acres of corn. The burning question is: How many more?

To replace just 10 percent of our gasoline needs with ethanol would require plowing up an additional 3.7 million acres, nearly 8 million when you factor in the need to rotate crops. That will never, and should never, happen. Growing straw and other grasses to produce cellulosic ethanol — widely touted by President Bush in his energy plan — would require even more land.

Yet many in Washington say they want expanded production of E85, a gasoline blend that is 85 percent ethanol. Ironically, many of these same congressmen also want to require higher mileage standards for cars and trucks. Since alcohol contains less energy than gasoline, E85 gets 30 percent less mileage. Paying more for lower mileage is not likely to sit well with most drivers — nor for that matter, with professors of logic.

Yet, with all its shortcomings, ethanol appears to still be the best of the widely discussed alternatives.

Biodiesel would require farming soybeans on an additional 188 million acres — an area about the size of Texas and Minnesota combined — just to replace 10 percent of our diesel needs. We farm only 400 million U.S. acres for all crops today.

Solar and wind power, the darlings of environmentalists, would eat up even more land. A single conventional gas-fired 500-megawatt power plant typically stands on about 55 acres of land and produces enough electricity to run 500,000 homes. To produce the same power we would need 6,750 acres of solar panels or 29,250 acres of windmills. Of course we would still need the conventional power plants for when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow.

The space requirements and undependability undoubtedly account for why the Energy Information Administration projects that solar will account for only one-half of 1 percent of our energy needs by the year 2030 and wind just six-tenths of 1 percent.

None of this, however, means the United States doesn’t have a bright energy future that will give us a measure of control over world markets and reduce the dollars we are currently pouring into hostile regimes that fund terrorists.

This country has roughly as much oil as the rest of the world’s recoverable reserves locked up in oil shale in a few Western states. It is cleaner burning than any oil now available, and several companies are developing environmentally sound techniques for extracting it.

Coal-to-liquid fuel plants could turn our vast reserves of coal into clean-burning energy while returning pollutants to the mines from which they came.

A new generation of nuclear plants based on the Integral Fast Reactor developed at Argonne National Laboratory could produce almost limitless electricity while solving the waste-fuel storage problems by burning the waste for energy.

While these new sources are being put into place, we can safely tap conventional reserves in Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico, the interior mountains of the western United States and off both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

The best part: None of these energy sources requires subsidies. All they need is relief from the maze of regulatory uncertainties that have mushroomed over the years to the point where they drive away investment.

In other words, the federal government just has to — as Ronald Reagan liked to say — get out of the way.

Gerald Marsh is a retired physicist and a former consultant to the Department of Defense on strategic nuclear technology and policy in the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations. Write to him at [email protected]. and its sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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