JONATHAN CHAIT JUNE 11, 2010
Lamar Alexander takes to the Wall Street Journal op-ed page to lay out his clean energy vision. It's a lot like the Republican health care vision: let's do all the popular stuff and none of the unpopular stuff it requires.
Alexander outlines his incoherent vision in the form of ten handy bullet points. My favorite is #7: "Stop pretending wind power has anything to do with reducing America's dependence on oil. Windmills generate electricity—not transportation fuel." But wait. I thought I read somewhere that it's possible for cars to run on electricity. Where was that? Oh yes -- the very same op-ed, bullet points number 5 and 6:
5) Electrify half our cars and trucks. This is ambitious, but it is the best way to reduce U.S. oil consumption, cutting it by one-third to about 13 million barrels a day. A Brookings Institution study says we could electrify half our cars and trucks without building one new power plant if we plug in our cars at night.
6) Invest in energy research and development. A cost-competitive, 500-mile-range battery would virtually guarantee electrification of half our cars and trucks. Reduce the cost of solar power by a factor of four. Find a way for utilities to make money from the CO2 produced by their coal plants.
Perhaps Alexander does not see the contradiction, so I'll try to explain it to him. You see, Senator, if half our cars are electric, then electricity would be transportation fuel. Still with me? No? Okay, I'll break it down. The wind would turn the windmills round and round. This would generate electricity, which would be sent to people's houses through wires. The electricity could then be used to run electric cars.
This is not the only problem with Alexander's piece. He outlines goals, like increasing conservation and electrifying half the automobile fleet -- but he has absolutely nothing about how to obtain these goals. His electric car plan is literally what you read above: "Electrify half our cars and trucks." Who would do this? How? He does not say. Cars and trucks run on gasoline because gasoline is the cheapest fuel available. If you wanted half the cars to run on electric power, you'd have to change this so that gasoline was no longer the cheapest fuel available. It could be a tax on carbon emissions, enormous subsidies for electric batteries, regulatory fiat, something. Likewise, if you want people to conserve energy, you need to increase the cost of using energy.
I'm not sure how you have a debate with people like this. It's as if you propose that, in order to get your family out of debt, your 23 year old son living at home gets a job, and the son replies that he likes the part of your idea where he gets paid, but let's leave out the part where he goes to work. This is basically Alexander's case. And he's one of the moderate Republicans! Most of them just deny the science of climate change altogether. The moderate position is that we can fix the problem via magic.
Update: I'm walking back the most condescending portions of this item:
Last Friday I offered a rather condescending reply to Lamar Alexander's Wall Street Journal op-ed on climate change. A member of his staff has convinced me that Alexander's point was more coherent than I gave him credit for. Alexander wrote, "Stop pretending wind power has anything to do with reducing America's dependence on oil. Windmills generate electricity—not transportation fuel." I ridiculed the second sentence, given that Alexander had just touted his goal of electrifying half of the U.S. auto fleet, which of course would mean that wind powered-electricity would be transportation fuel. But the context of the previous sentence suggests a different point, which is that it's the electrification of cars that will determine our dependence on oil, not wind power per se. Alexander is correct that wind power has little, though not zero, relationship to how much oil we use. I'm willing to grant that Alexander was guilty of unclear writing in a limited space rather than the extreme illogic of which I originally accused him.
Still, my broader point stands, which is that Alexander embraces the positive goals of reducing carbon emissions but is unwilling to support any of the changes required to implement it. His vision remains incoherent, but less so than I suggested.