The Pure Poop of Alternative Energy

A friend of mine who is a graduate student in Engineering at the University of Michigan wrote a paper on alternative energy planning that he affectionately calls “Pure Poop.” The main gist of his paper is that there are too many electrical inefficiencies in alternative energy.

I mention this because in a few months, I will be giving a presentation on the Sociology of Alternative Energy, in a “political economy-esque” sort of way. Frank inspired the idea. After all, inefficiencies are what we talk about in Sociology and Economics all the time; inefficiencies of the market, the inefficiencies of the distribution of resources in a bureaucracy, and all that.

So what’s the cost and what are the social benefits? Well, the economics looks something like this:



(Source: author’s calculations based on U.S. Dept. of Energy data)

Where’s the Exchange Theory in that!? No wonder hydrofracking is big! With an ROI over 2.5:1 on Natural Gas, it almost doesn’t matter how much it costs to get the gas – at least to the market. To be clear though, it doesn’t mean that Solar and Wind won’t give an ROI, it means that it’s going to take a long time for Capital to get its money back on its alternative energy investment. The markets, to its own demise, are impatient.

What are the social costs and benefits? The biggest shortcoming in Sociology is that putting numbers on social costs is sort of like playing “Pin The Tail on the Moving Airplane”. We can calculate the cost of remediation, the costs of health issues, the increase in the disability base, and the list goes on. This is all after you figure out the demographics, and effected classes. Most Sociologists tackle each thing one at a time (micro), and hope that someone, somewhere will put it all together to get a bigger picture of social costs of environmental issues. That hasn’t happened yet.

So there’s no “model” that we (as Sociologists) can use to say: “If you frack for natural gas, then the slope of A will be 2X on an Indifference Curve”. Instead, we know (from the micro) that the social costs of environmental messes are high. Whether or not the high social cost of bad energy policy is “aggregate” is something I’ll leave to better people than me to figure out.

Alternative Energy specifically pits short run Economics against Sociology; and that does leave a large pile of “pure poop”.

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