Michaels Mischief #2: Opposing Climate Solutions

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.

Posted by dana1981 on Wednesday, 31 August, 2011

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