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Will fracking curtail the solar revolution?

September 7, 2011

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

At this year’s Illinois Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair, a longtime exhibitor from Michigan expressed dismay at economic conditions there and the new threats he perceived to the renewable energy industry. He indicated Michigan has established 17 facilities for manufacturing new lithium ion batteries to power electric vehicles and hybrids. In his view, all of them have expressed concern that in a few years their plants will be closed, and China will come to dominate battery manufacturing, just as it has solar-cell manufacturing.

Michigan has tried to replace its lost manufacturing base through supporting the renewable energy industry with taxpayer dollars. Considering the major job losses Michigan already experienced from outsourcing, the expressed anxiety is understandable.

Our Michigan exhibitor expressed another concern regarding the entire renewable energy industry: the rise in production of natural gas from fracking. He is originally from New York, and had just returned from there driving through Pennsylvania, which welcomes the natural gas fracking industry.

He found numerous drilling rigs, pickup trucks with mounted cattle horns and stories of social stresses when drilling crews arrive en masse, disrupting previously quiet lives of existing cultures, such as that of the Pennsylvania Amish.

The fracking industry could be considered the equivalent of a new gold rush. T. Boone Pickens predicts if his fracking energy plan is implemented by the federal government, the country could replace the oil we import from OPEC members to power our vehicles with natural gas obtained from fracking U.S. gas-holding shales within a decade, and in the process, save billions of dollars now going out for oil imports, restore the American economy and put people back to work.

As Pickens claims, we have no energy plan. Even though every president since Richard Nixon has declared we need to end our oil dependence, imports continue to climb. Noam Chomsky believes our military efforts in the Mideast are driven by a desire to control its low-cost oil, so no other nation can and end our global dominance. Even if the shale gas industry continues to expand rapidly, our costly military adventures for oil are not likely to end.

A recent U.S. Geological Survey report indicates that the amount of gas available from fracking shale is far less than original estimates. In the Marcellus shale, high-end estimates of 410 trillion cubic feet have been revised downward to about 84 trillion cubic feet. While still a sizable number, some experts suggest that natural gas supplies from fracking may only offset the decline in input from traditional wells.

As we learn more about fracking, we recognize that its adverse environmental impacts are substantial, and the need for federal regulations to curb the most adverse effects continues to build. The economics of fracking are seen by some observers as a new bubble — the deposits deplete quickly, and as even smaller deposits are developed, the cost of developing the wells and building the infrastructure to bring the gas to major pipelines could easily double the price of the natural gas.

Given the uncertainties surrounding fracking and the remarkable progress in solar pv technologies in recent years, it remains imperative to press on with the solar revolution.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the Sept. 7-13, 2011, issue

One Comment

  1. John M. Stassi

    September 9, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    Let us count the ways in which China has ruined the renewable energy industry in the USA:

    1] China has cornered the world market in rare earth elements, some of which (like neodymium) are needed to make the super magnets used in wind turbines;

    2] China has swamped the world with cheap photovoltaic cells and destroyed or damaged local production in the USA and elsewhere;

    3] China is well on its way to dominating lithium ion battery manufacturing, as this article indicates.

    China’s advantage is that it has no environmental or workplace health and safety regulations, no real labor unions, and no democratic institutions.

    These all cost free world manufacturers lots of money and leaves them unable to compete.

    The only solution I see is requiring that all goods imported into the USA be made under the same regulations (in whatever country they come from) that would apply to these items if they were made here.

    Goods that do not meet these regulations would be taxed, a tariff, that would eliminate any trade surplus that otherwise would accrue to the countries manufacturing these sub-standard items.

    Won’t ever happen, but it’s the only way out as I see it.

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