In the coming weeks a number of energy issues will come before Congress that should tell us whether the Republican leadership will tow the conservative line and align itself with the tea party newcomers who campaigned for a smaller, less intrusive government, or whether it will be run by GOP establishment, Washington insiders who want to “get things done,” even when that means, more mandates and more spending.
One policy issue where that divide will come to the fore is the question of whether the Federal government should enact a nationwide Renewable Energy Standard, in which Washington tells every state that a portion of its electric power must come from politically favored so-called “green energy” sources like wind power, solar power, geothermal power or biofuels. More than 25 states and Washington, D.C. have such standards.
Legislators in the remaining states have decided that their citizens should not be forced to purchase energy that is more expensive and less reliable than energy they currently get just to satisfy the environmental lobby. They have also noted that renewable power, due to the combination of climatic and geographic features of their states, often can’t be generated locally and thus such a standard would require the building of expensive long-distance power lines to ship the power from where its generated (shipping money to out-of-state politically connected green energy developers) to their local utilities, where their citizens will bear the burden of higher energy prices and loss of property rights as land is seized (through the legal shenanigan of eminent domain) along the path of the new power lines.
In the past, as detailed by the New York Times, some in the Republicans have supported a nationwide renewable energy mandate. And it seems Republican Senator Richard Lugar may be open to such a mandate in a Senate energy bill.
Some national security hawks have supported green energy technologies — and thus a renewable energy standards – not because they love big government but rather in an effort to wean the country from its “addiction” to foreign oil. However, increasing the amount of electricity generated by wind, solar or would do little or nothing to break the addiction to oil, since presently and for decades to come, the nation’s transportation fleet – cars, trucks, planes and trains — will run on fossil fuels.
Even if electric cars did come to dominate, the country has abundant domestic reserves of coal, natural gas and uranium that could provide less expensive, more reliable energy. Indeed, from a national security perspective, the embrace of green energy technologies turns out to be counter-productive. As I point out in a recent paper, the more we embrace green energy the more our country becomes beholden to China’s good will.
Key components of every green energy technology, be they wind turbines, solar cells, energy efficient lighting or other green technologies, are made from of a small class of minerals known as rare earth elements and other rare minerals. Despite their name, these elements are rather abundant in the Earth’s crust, but they are rarely found in economically exploitable
concentrations. The exception to this is the unique rare earth deposits in the People’s Republic of China. Indeed, China has a de facto monopoly on trade in these rare elements, controlling around 96 percent of the global market.
By contrast, the world’s oil market is diverse, with dozens of countries producing oil for export. In 2009, the United States imported oil or oil products from 90 different countries. By comparison, there is no other rare earth elements supplier to turn to should China find it in its interest to withdraw their supplies from the market. That means China is free to manipulate the market—both price and supply—at will.
Should Republicans in Congress join Democrats in foisting (forcing) a renewable portfolio standard on the nation, those concerned about the United States’ energy security could find that the tradeoff involves swapping one form of dependence for a much more restrictive one. The old saying, out of the frying pan into the fire comes to mind.