The decision to abandon nuclear power will increase Germany’s short-term dependency upon fossil fuel as it engages with long-term aspirations for politically correct (PC) alternatives. In announcing that decision, Angela Merkel expressed the belief that Germany ‘can be a pioneer for a new age of renewable energy sources’. ‘Renewable’ is but one of many PC categories, including ‘alternative’, ‘low-carbon’, ‘green’, ‘non-polluting’ and ‘sustainable’. For ease, ‘green’ is taken as the inclusive term.
Green is good, but so expensive that few consumers opt for green. Subsidy is the key issue and most obviously a matter for economics. Yet, cost-benefit calculations, ‘no free lunch’ presentations and job evaluations are as meat and drink to those with a passion for green. Their argument is that green energy costs are dwarfed by the high costs in failing to save the planet. The minor tragedy is that so much personal energy is squandered in seemingly endless debate. Forget the economics: a resolution can be found in the fundamentals of physics.
Energy can neither be created nor destroyed: power companies transform energy into (more) useful forms. Coal converts water into steam and steam is converted into motion; but not all of the energy in coal goes to steam, and not all of the energy in steam goes to motion. In the processes of transformation, energy is ‘lost’ because part of the conversion is into non-usable forms. Technical efficiency is measured by those percentage losses. The PC argument is that non-green conversions lose too much energy by conversions that are harmful: carbon emissions, environmental pollution, nuclear waste and so on. (The economic argument is for such costs - ‘externalities’ - to be factored into prices charged to consumers. That argument is not disputed but, given the complexity of those evaluations, those issues are left for others to pursue; but see below.)
The efficiency of green processes is presently too low to compete with non-green alternatives. Green requires subsidies, wherein lies the rub: with a subsidy, green changes hue.
Nothing exists, other than as the embodiment of energy. Where that embodiment has an economic value, some part may be expropriated (taxation) and re-allocated (subsidies). Thereby it becomes possible for the unsustainable to be sustained. Yet, while there are individuals capable of lifting you from the ground, by the laws of physics you could never lift yourself. By those same laws, green cannot subsidise itself; and so it must follow that green plus non-green becomes pseudo-green.
The potential for R & D to raise the efficiency of green technology is not denied, which might justify small-scale experimentation. Without that research breakthrough, the diversion of non-green energy to subsidise the production of pseudo-green energy constitutes a drain on the planet’s resources. There lies the potential for a major tragedy.
The ultimate outcome in pushing green subsidies to the limit would be for pseudo-green energy to have expanded, by taking a rising proportion of non-green energy as input, against a background of rising supply costs and falling energy demand. Beyond that interim would have emerged the PC utopia: non-green suppliers would have been driven to extinction (along with their subsidies) with a diminished population supported entirely by high-cost green suppliers. (A moot issue is whether the incorporation of externalities within the price charged to consumers would have directly achieved that same outcome.)