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Sometimes government programs don’t achieve the best results. Several recent articles illustrate this point. These three articles discuss programs that aim to reduce environmental impacts of energy use, but have unintended consequences that could be avoided.

Biofuels and biomass

Southwest US forests are producing biomass for Europe. We have to be very careful when considering the use of biomass and biofuels to replace fossil fuels. Governments have set up incentives or mandates to encourage the use of, among other sources, biofuel and biomass (sometimes called renewable portfolio standards). However, the net effect on human and environmental health is questionable.

  • Biomass can be transported long distances that might cause life cycle greenhouse gas emissions to be high (the standard mentioned in the article requires that the biomass emit 60% less carbon than coal, but that’s still 40% from being a sustainable solution)
  • Biomass emits more non-CO2 air pollution than coal; humans near power plants would experience more detrimental health effects.
  • CO2 is collected slowly by plant mass (especially trees), but released rapidly; this means that short-term emissions could be high and outweigh long term reductions.
  • Biomass is less energy dense and more expensive than coal; it is unlikely to become cheaper than coal.
  • Biomass is being harvested from areas with high biodiversity and ecosystem services; monoculture farming would have an even worse impact.
  • Biomass farming can require using land otherwise devoted to growing food. This can lead to higher food prices and instability in areas that can’t afford these increases.
  • Some biomass crops require fertilizing and pesticides. These can contribute to further detrimental environmental effects.

To be sustainable, biomass use must incorporate best growing practices and can only supply very-local small power plants.

Energy efficiency

A randomized control trial showed that weatherization funding from the 2008 stimulus was rarely effective. Energy efficiency programs, including weatherization, seem like win-win scenarios. After the initial investment, households can expect money savings and less energy consumed means fewer environmental impacts. However:

  • Participation rates, even with heavy outreach, were only 6% (1% without outreach)
  • While there were some energy and cost savings, “by most measures, savings did not exceed the cost of the improvements.”
  • Projected energy savings were probably over-optimistic compared to reality.
  • Most carbon mitigation plans include large energy efficiency savings that might be much harder to realize than previously thought.
  • As people save money, those extra savings will often be used to increase consumption in other ways.

For energy efficiency measures to be truly effective, we must in tandem make energy use more expensive. This means people to choose to consume less.

Subsidizing technology

There is a good reasoning behind subsidizing certain technologies. Established technologies (like coal plants and gasoline-powered cars) benefit from decades of incremental improvements that have made their production and use cheap. Governments can provide incentives to develop new technologies through subsidies like “grants, tax breaks, factory construction, discounted loans and environmental credits”.

After a short time, the hope is that the technology can stand on its own without government help. The government is basically making a bet on which future technologies will be effective. Elon Musk may recognize this and has been effective at securing at least $4.9 billion in government subsidies for his companies. However:

  • Electric cars could perpetuate the car and highway system when something else might be much more effective (eg. train systems and walkable cities).
  • Subsidizing solar panels might encourage suburban sprawl so that each house can generate enough power for itself while other options might be more environmentally benign (eg. urbanization).
  • These incentives usually benefit the relatively wealthy (stockholders or households that can afford Tesla cars) further exacerbating wealth inequality.

So while these subsidies might be working towards cheaper clean energy and less pollution, I would rather see a carbon fee implemented. This would have the same effect, but wouldn’t exclude other potentially greener technologies.

With simpler policies, we can drum up bipartisan support and achieve better results!