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Michaels Mischief #2: Opposing Climate Solutions

Posted on 31 August 2011 by dana1981

In July 2011, climate scientist and "skeptic" Roy Spencer made a rather revealing statement about how he views his job and role of the government:

"I view my job a little like a legislator, supported by the taxpayer, to protect the interests of the taxpayer and to minimize the role of government."

In a recent post on his Forbes business magazine blog, fellow climate "skeptic" Patrick Michaels revealed rather similar feelings, which led him to make a number of incorrect statements about various government-supported climate solutions.

Opposing Renewable Energy

After starting his post by railing about the US government bailout of General Motors and requirements imposed upon the company as a stipulation of the bailout, Michaels proceeded to attack renewable energy solutions.

"The Government-Industrial Complex (GIC) is at it again, picking energy technologies. Its track record is atrocious.  Highly subsidized solar is in eclipse, as demonstrated by the recent bankruptcy of Evergreen Solar in Massachusetts.  Try as it might, it can’t make wind energy a big player, largely because people hate it."

It should go without saying that one example of a solar company going bankrupt  out of the thousdands worldwide is not quite sufficient to prove that the solar industry is "in eclipse."  In fact, just a few months ago, the solar industry reported the following news:

"The U.S. solar power market grew a record 67% last year [2010], making it the fastest-growing energy sector"

Much of this growth has been spurred by the rapid decline in solar panel costs (Figure 1).

IPCC solar wind costs

Figure 1: Decreasing average price of solar PV and wind as global installed capacity of these technologies has grown (Source: IPCC Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources)

Thus Michaels' assertion that the solar energy industry "is in eclipse" could not be further from the truth.  The story is similar for the wind industry, which is already rebounding from a brief stall in its growth in 2010:

"America's wind power industry installed 1,100 MW of new capacity in the first quarter of 2011 alone and entered the second quarter with another 5,600 MW under construction, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) reported today. The under-construction figure is nearly twice the megawatts that the industry reported at this time in both 2009 and 2010; moreover, two-thirds of those megawatts are already locked in under long-term power purchase agreements with electric utilities, indicating an enduring industry that has proven both nimble and strong through a range of economic and policy conditions."


Additionally, the US solar industry in 2011 had nearly $1.9 billion in net exports, including a $247 million trade surplus with China.  The renewable energy industry is one of the few doing well in our current economy, and yet Michaels attacks it because he doesn't like the idea that the US government supports it with subsidies, even though the government also heavily subsidizes fossil fuel energy (even moreso than renewable energy, which Michaels somehow neglects to mention).

Opposing Electric Cars and Plug-in Hybrids

After making false and misleading assertions about renewable energy, Michaels proceeds to do the same to electric cars and plug-in hybrids.

"Nevermind that no one has figured out how to produce a comfortable electric car at an affordable (non-subsidized) price that has enough range to be practical for the most of us....Carrying a $41,000 base MSRP and a $7,500 tax break,  the Volt is either going to be the biggest bust since the Edsel, or a niche car with very modest sales.  It is not, repeat, not the wave of the future."

Michaels seems to believe that for a technoogy to be "the wave of the future," it must immediately be available at a high "comfort level" and low cost.  Perhaps Michaels needs to be reminded that the first cell phone weighed 2 pounds (~1kg),  offered just a half-hour of talk time for every recharging, and sold for $3,995.  Not quite cheap or comfortable, and yet they were undeniably "the wave of the future."  And as shown in Figure 1, the price of solar photovoltaic panels has dropped by a factor of 50 over the past 35 years.

Technologies are always expensive when first introduced to the market.  The price drops as technology improves and demand increases, triggering the economies of scale.  It's rather surprising that nobody at Forbes business magazine corrected Michaels on these basic economics errors.

Misinformed about American Commuting

Unfortunately, Michaels' errors did not stop there.

"the Volt only makes financial sense as a commuter car if used for less than about 50 miles per day.  That assumes the real battery-only range of the car will average around 35 miles...Outside of that electric range,  the Volt gets significantly worse gas mileage than a host of cars costing a lot less."

Granted, the average American does a lot of driving.  But Michaels' argument  against the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid only applies to people who drive more than 50 miles per day.  How many Americans could that be?

According to the US Department of Transportation, 84% of Americans commute 50 miles or less (round trip) to work.  According to the U.S. Census, 75% of Americans drive less than 40 miles per day.  So according to Michaels, the Volt "only makes financial sense as a commuter car" for the vast majority of Americans.

We can crunch the numbers ourselves to verify this.  According to the EPA, the Volt uses 0.36 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per mile in electric mode, which lasts for 35 miles before the internal combustion engine (ICE) kicks in.  Using the ICE, it achieves 37 miles per gallon (mpg).  Michaels argues that Consumer Reports only achieved 29 mpg with the Volt ICE; even though they didn't use a standard mileage test like the EPA, we'll give Michaels the benefit of the doubt and call it 30 mpg.

So for the average American who drives approximately 40 miles per day, 35 of those miles will be in electric mode, using 0.36 kWh per mile (12.6 kWh per day).  Over a year, using average American electricity rates, the cost of the energy to drive these 12,775 miles is approximately $600.  For a standard ICE sedan achieving 30 mpg, if gasoline averages $4 per gallon, the equivalent fuel cost over this distance is $1,700. 

Over a ten year period, if electricity and gasoline prices continue at a similar ratio, the Volt saves the consumer $11,000 in fuel costs.  Combined with the $7,500 tax credit, the sticker price of the Volt becomes equivalent to a $22,500 ICE sedan: a slightly expensive, but not exhorbitant cost.  Thus we confirm Michaels' tacit admission that the Volt makes economic sense for the average American, even  without taking into account the environmental and other benefits.

Opposing Cities Purchasing Volts

Michaels proceeds to make one last absurd argument in this post.

"The purchase of  Volt fleets by cash-strapped cities is a particular outrage.  Besides the fact that Volts require 8-ish hours of downtime to charge from a conventional plug, the difference in price between one and a normal Crown Victoria cruiser is much greater than the difference between a Crown Vic and a Cadillac.  Any mayor would be pilloried if he bought Caddies, but Volts are apparently OK.  Uh, where’s the media on this one?"

Again it seems like this should go without saying, but a plug-in hybrid like the Chevy Volt provides benefits over standard gasoline cars which might justify its higher price tag for a city fleet.  Electric cars have significantly higher well-to-wheel energy efficiency than vehicles using ICEs.  This results in lower fuel costs, less wasted energy, and lower emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, which in turn means lower impacts on public health, and thus lower health care costs.

The extra cost of a Cadillac comes from comforts provided to the driver, which don't translate into benefits for the city or its inhabitants.  This seems like another very basic economic error which the editors at Forbes should have caught.  They do sometimes edit his posts, for example when Michaels made the callous comment "It is doubtful that Irene will even cough up eight bodies."  However, had they removed all the basic errors in Michaels' blog post in this case, there wouldn't have been a blog post left.

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Comments 1 to 31:

  1. My son worked at Evergreen at one time and we had a tour. They had an interesting technology for drawing wide ribbons of polycrystalline silicon from a melt, something that was an advance over wafers cut from silicon boules. But even then there was speculation was that a lower cost technology could come along and displace them. They thought they had one when they filed for bankruptcy. According to Bloombergs they were undercut by the Chinese- I'm sure that Mr. Michaels wouldn't lose sleep over the other reason, lack of a domestic green energy program- although he probably never blinks twice about massive government subsidies to the US nuclear industry.
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  2. Thanks Dana1981 for some surprising data on US investment in renewable energy, particularly PVC’s and wind. It gives some balance to a widely held view that the USA is the world’s second highest GHG emitter and doing nothing to reduce its emissions. Where road transport is concerned, Michaels is right and wrong. He is right that given the present state of technology, electric cars are, in terms of price and range, not the solution needed for mass reduction of fossil fuel consumption and its polluting effects. However, Michaels ignores two salient facts that: 1. Electric car constraints centre on battery capacity and cost and 2. Battery technology is fast evolving and will overcome both problems. Research by MIT (Cambridge Sludge), Sumitomo (Aluminum Cement) and others strongly suggests that within 5 years technology will produce batteries which are cheap, compact, lightweight and able to hold a charge enabling an electric car to travel over 600 km before re-charge. The prize to be won by the most efficient, cost-effective batteries is so immense that it will ensure high investment and competition among innovators and developers. Comparatively cheap, long range electric cars are only one of the innovations to flow from availability of such batteries. Existing battery driven appliances (eg cell phones, laptops and other devices) may require re-charge weekly or monthly. Households using PVC’s could generate and store sufficient electricity to meet all their needs – even during an eclipse. Michaels would have us believe this is a pipe-dream. I thinks it is the coming reality and that we do not have long to wait for it,
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  3. I commute to work most days on an electric moped, so I can say from personal experience that EVs are already a viable option, and the battery technology is advancing rapidly. Michaels just wants to keep us stuck in the stone age, addicted to fossil fuels indefinitely. His arguments don't hold water.
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  4. BTW in Brazil wind energy electricity prices have dropped BELOW the cost of electricity generated by gas fired power stations in. It's the first time this has happened.
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  5. Re #4, According to wind was bid at $93 per MWh. The quoted price includes profit for the generators. Subsidies appear to be one-time and limited (transmission lines provided by the govt)
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  6. Something is wrong when the same, small number of practicing climate scientists--who disbelieve AGW--also spend considerable time attempting to discredit emerging (infant) technology. It alerts me to the possibility they have an agenda.
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  7. I'm not a big fan of electric cars because the sweet spot for their use overlaps public transport. But I suppose Michaels doesn't like that either.
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  8. Why in the world does Pat Michaels have a blog at Forbes? Do they actually pay him? And even given that he has a blog, why would they let him write about renewable energy? Honestly, one could come up with about a thousand (or ten thousand) others who are far more knowledgeable. Nevermind. Forget I asked...
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  9. Re #7: Ah, but for some of us public transportation is not a valid option while an EV would be fantastic. For instance, my commute is only about 10 miles each way, but due to the lousy bus system out here it would take me nearly an hour and two different buses each way to commute via mass-transit. Add to that the need to run errands after work (imagine trying to make 2-3 stops with buses this bad) and the public transportation option is simply out of the question. On the other hand, were I able to afford to swap out my current 30mpg compact for a Volt I'd rarely even use the ICE and it wouldn't inconvenience me in the slightest.
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  10. dana @ 3, "I commute to work most days on an electric moped...." I'm interested in getting something like that. So what stops you other days? Rain? Cold? Both?
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  11. Pete - some days I just ride my bicycle. Where I live it never gets quite cold enough that I can't ride my moped. Sometimes I ride in the rain, and sometimes I carpool with my wife if it's raining too hard.
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  12. #9 Ahhh, but if there were NO cars, and public transport improved five-fold as a result, you would indeed be able to 'hop-on-hop-off' public transport to complete your errands. Personal vehicles are an unsustainable indulgence, purely because of the resources they consume, never mind the degredaton of the atmosphere, climate, vehicle accidents and hospital costs, etc etc etc. But yeah, in the ABSENCE of an effective public transport system, EV works 'better' than ICE.
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  13. It would need more than a five-fold improvement in my town, and I'm not 100% convinced that personal vehicles couldn't be made sustainable with some improvements in technology and changes in our attitudes about them, but I do like the notion making it actually feasible to do without a car in more of the US. I don't think there's much of a chance we'll get people to stop driving everywhere until it becomes significantly more of a hassle to drive a car then not. I'm just happy to see the price range for sustainable options approaching competitive in spite of the huge differences in subsidies. Electric vehicles (be they cars, buses, trains, etc.) are going to be an even cleaner more sustainable option when we're not generating so much of that electricity with oil and coal.
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  14. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the solar segment of the renewable energy industry in the US is not fairing well in competition with China as evidenced in: “U.S. losing clean-energy race? Solar maker Solyndra bankrupt,” McClatchy News, Aug 30,2011 To access this article, click here. This article includes a graphic of US Trade in Solar Panels from year 2000 thru 2010
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  15. #12, #13: I used to get the same argument in Australia (and again here in South Africa). Brisbane allegedly has terminal urban sprawl making public transport non-viable, but public pressure (including the threat of a growing green vote) steadily improved things over the 9 years I lived there. There are many parts of Brisbane where it's hard to get by without a car, but it's a lot better than it used to be. Where I used to live, through much of the day trains to or from the city were at a frequency of every 10 minutes or better through much of the day. You wouldn't want to take a car into the city in that scenario. Putting on a few extra trains a day is vastly cheaper than building a new road. If electric cars have enough range for weekend use, one option is to park them at home (or somewhere on the grid) most of the time. A few hundred thousand high capacity batteries are a great resource for dealing with spikes in demand and smoothing out the kind of short-term capacity shortages that go with renewables. Look up vehicle-to-grid (V2G) for more.
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  16. Veritas, many electric bicycles have a range of 20 miles and could easily be charged at work for next to nothing. You could leave the car at home and just use it for errands after work.
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  17. Badger@14 Solyndra produces a non-standard product. Their idea is/was to produce 'racks' of tubes with i think thin film solar sells stuck in the inside of the tubes. The tubes are open at the top and the idea was the sun could hit the cells inside at any angle. The racks didn't need to be fixed to the roof (primarily flat rooves) because the gaps between the tubes allowed air to pass through so that there was less resistance. The company web site is still up and running, so they aren't totally dead. But not all ideas and start ups succeed.
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  18. This is quite a good article about Solyndras troubles: It was an interesting idea and some other company may take the product on and develop it further. There will be a lot of companies created and disappearing in the solar PV business, because the technology is in its infancy (despite years of stagnation in innovation). There is so much research in this field now, that there will be a lot of changes over the years, making it difficult for companies to stay ahead for long.
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  19. #15: Trains you say? I've heard stories about those. Must be nice living in some sort of futuristic utopia. I'd be happy with bus routes that didn't have a 40 minute detour and two different freeways to go 10 miles across town. I really like the vehicle-to grid ideas I've seen. Ignoring entirely the efficiency gains in swapping over to electric vehicles, our current power distribution and (complete lack of) storage system is getting a bit dated. #16: Excellent idea. One of Brammo's bikes may well be my next vehicle purchase... Unfortunately, all my errands are right next to my office. What I actually end up doing is taking a motorcycle on days when I'm not picking anything up, and a car on days when I'm grabbing groceries or the like on the way home. Swapping my current bike out for an Enertia Plus, or better yet, one of the new Empulse models coming out next year though, sounds... appealing.
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  20. Does anyone remember, if you ever knew, that the Wright Brothers, Douglas, Ford, Marconi, Edison, et al, developed needed products without government subsidies. Yes, early models will cost more, but if the eventual payoff is apparent to the public, they will buy the products and free-enterprise moves on. We need to stop playing with a system that works. Ask the Spain how green-energy and employment is working out.
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  21. False analogy Ken, who were the Wright brothers competing with? Marconi? The system isn't working because it is destroying the natural environment, exterminating species and making human survival, in the future, less likely. It's also subsidizing the richest collection of individuals in the entire history of human civilization. What's up with that? At some point the irrational notion of infinite economic growth will dawn on most people. I would have thought the economic events of the past few years might open a few more eyes, but apparently not yet. As for the Spain green energy meme, see SkS post: Carter Confusion #2: Green Jobs
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  22. Ken: Kindly show how that rambling, evidence-free comment @20 relates to the errors of fact made by Michaels and the incorrect inference he makes resulting from those errors. Otherwise I suggest you are off-topic.
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  23. Ken#20: Edison made his first fortune by selling an improved telegraph to Western Union. Their money came from following the railroads, financed by the federal government. Marconi: A series of demonstrations for the British government followed—by March 1897, Marconi had transmitted Morse code signals over a distance of about 6 kilometres (3.7 mi) across the Salisbury Plain. On 13 May 1897, Marconi sent the first ever wireless communication over open sea. I'd like to see some examples of the so-called free market actually solving a vast-scale problem, something like the Dutch Delta Project (government-run). The track record of 'free enterprise' includes great advances, but also such enduring gifts as air and water pollution, clear cut lumbering, mountain-top removal mining, oil spills, chemical waste, etc.
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  24. muoncounter, The government is a perfectly valid customer for any product. The government did not pay Edison with tax payers money to develop the product. Do you see the difference? It is called free-enterprise, not government subsidy. The examples of free-enterprise are all around you, just take a (-snip-) look around. Why don't you do the calculations of what our environment would be like if every home was heated and had to cook on wood or coal fires. Then compare this with the central production of the power we need to produce the efficient power we have today. The pollutants and use of resources would be enormous to support our current population. Not to mention that our lifespan has increased 50% in the last 100 years.
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    [DB] Inflammatory snipped.

  25. Ken#24 "our lifespan has increased 50% in the last 100 years. " Yes. How much of that was due to food safety standards, the National Institutes of Health, OSHA and (gasp) the EPA? Or due to regulating the railroads, mine safety, the FAA and even the National Weather Service? Don't believe regulation has value? From Engineering Ethics: Considering the much larger number of people engaged in modern industry today compared to a hundred years ago, it is likely that the accident and fatality rates in modern industry are much lower than comparable rates in the 1880s. What I would like to see are examples of a private-sector project that solved a problem on a massive scale - like the ones that could tackle climate-related problems. This question came up on the Challenge to the right thread; no takers yet.
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  26. Rob Painting, The Wright Brothers were competing with Langley for one who launched his biplane off a house boat in the Potomac River. It crashed because he has insufficient power. Man has to change the environment to survive. We are the only animal who has to do that. If it bothers you that people are getting wealthy with government subsidies, we are on the same page, because the green-energy companies backed by the current government are going broke and walking away with our tax money. Free-enterprise is not a zero-sum game. If you have data that shows that there is a limit to the products and services that can be offered to others for a fair price, please let me know the reference. I am an out of work aeronautical engineer, software engineer, university instructor and professional grandfather. I am also an amateur astronomer, so I just designed and had manufactured a one-of-a-kind telescope mount prototype. A company is now producing the first production model, which I will test and approve the final production design. No government grants or subsidies and no guarantee of success. Just my idea, my time doing the design and drawings, a few hundred dollars for the prototype, and an independent spirit. If you do not get the picture, I do not know what to say. If just a few percent of the energy being spent on this site were being spent on productive endeavors, we would not need this site. As things are, these dialogs should continue. Honest dialog is good for the soul.
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    [DB] "If just a few percent of the energy being spent on this site were being spent on productive endeavors, we would not need this site."

    To whom are you referring?

    (I like to be sure I'm being insulted before reacting...'cause it sure seems like an insult)

  27. Ken#26: "the green-energy companies backed by the current government are going broke and walking away with our tax money." Please provide some substantiation. Where I live, the green energy is wind - and its keeping my lights on and AC running while thermal plants can't handle the heat. And it was the prior government that negotiated sweetheart deals featuring ridiculously low royalties for wind energy. While you are at it, include the ongoing subsidies to the US oil industry (and the ongoing tax breaks to the top income brackets). The current government has kept those alive. "People getting wealthy with government subsidies"? That must also include the beneficiaries of earmarks: Of the top ten Senators requesting the highest amount of $ in solo earmarks 6 are Republicans.
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  28. Ken @ 26 -"The Wright Brothers were competing with Langley" Unless either of those two parties were massively wealthy, and receiving massive subsidies from the government, your analogy is a false one. " If it bothers you that people are getting wealthy with government subsidies, we are on the same page..." No, different chapter, perhaps even a different book. What troubles me is that a 100 year old industry (older actually if you include coal and gas) is still receiving handouts at the taxpayers expense. How is that in any shape or form connected to free-market ideals? And, of course, what really concerns me is the incredible damage being done to the environment, not only through the extraction process itself, but the the long-term climate effects of fossil fuel combustion, which are largely irreversible on human timeframes. "so I just designed and had manufactured a one-of-a-kind telescope mount prototype.... Good for you Ken, but how is that going to prevent the oceans acidifying and all but eliminating coral reefs from the planet for instance?
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  29. I believe Ken's argument about "green energy companies going broke and walking away with our tax money" is based on the solitary example of Solyndra. Let's face it, once this news broke we all knew certain parties would exploit it to pretend it's the norm for all green tech companies. I'm sure it's all over Fox News.
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  30. Ken Said: "Does anyone remember, if you ever knew, that the Wright Brothers, Douglas, Ford, Marconi, Edison, et al, developed needed products without government subsidies. Yes, early models will cost more, but if the eventual payoff is apparent to the public, they will buy the products and free-enterprise moves on. We need to stop playing with a system that works." When is the 'market' going to take into account that CO2 emissions cause warming and hence long term damage? When that happens, then you would be correct. Economics has to change. But you are cherry picking in any case. There are a vast number of inventions that were government financed/initiated and are successful because of that initial backing. There is no ideology that is correct, sometimes public money does the trick, sometimes others sources are better.
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  31. "The examples of free-enterprise are all around you..." Most had initial funding from governments or states: 1. Flight - Da Vinci and Langley were state funded. 2. The Internet - largely an idea to develop secure communications for the state military. 3. Web Browser, HTML, HTTP - designed by Tim Berners Lee whilst employed by state funded science programmes at CERN. 4. Electronic Computers - developed by governments to de-crypt enemy communication in WWII, Babbage was government funded as well. Most of Turings work had no commercial value, but was exploited later when technology was available. The mistake you make Ken, is to think commercial success equates to original thinking and research. It doesn't. Original thinking is not ideological. Ken said: "Then compare this with the central production of the power we need to produce the efficient power we have today." Efficient??? Power stations are extremely inefficient, even by ignoring the fact that most of the embedded energy of coal is never realised, the thermal cycle of a power station limits it's efficiency a great deal unless the heat energy is used for heating homes and businesses locally. Also, centralised power stations are just as much a socialist idea as anything. If you want free enterprise and individual responsibility, then renewables meet those needs. From a defence and security aspect, the renewables also come out on top due to their distributed nature.
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