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April 20, 2014

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DAILY MEMO: ENERGY:

Solar, wind not the prescription for cheaper gas

Only a drop in demand will do it, UNLV prof says

From as near as the Nevada Senate and from as far as the halls of the U.S. Congress, we’ve heard that renewable energy is the key to lowering gasoline prices.

During a recent visit to the Sun, state Senate Minority Leader Steven Horsford proffered a list of the benefits of renewable energy. His list — the same list his fellow Democratic state lawmakers are touting — includes that it will counter our addiction to foreign oil.

The argument that developing solar and wind energy will mean cheaper gas has become something of a refrain across the country.

Too bad it’s not true. Solar + wind does not = cheaper gas.

Traditional fossil fuel power plants burn coal or natural gas to generate electricity. They don’t burn gasoline refined from oil. Switching from coal and natural gas power plants to solar or other renewable electric generation would reduce the amount of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and other pollutants released into the air each year, but it wouldn’t reduce the amount of oil we use. And without reducing the demand for oil, the price isn’t likely to fall.

“You’ve still got 3 billion people in China and India that would like to be driving cars,” said William Robinson, an economics professor at UNLV. “I don’t think the price of gas is going down significantly ... unless we lower the demand for gas worldwide.”

But that’s not to say it never will. If you add in electric cars, the equation could work because electric cars could reduce gas consumption.

Cars powered by electricity from solar or wind power plants would be virtually pollution-free. Electric cars also would reduce pollution even if powered by electricity from coal or natural-gas-fired plants because the giant engines in large power plants use fossil fuels more efficiently than a fleet of smaller car engines.

Short of everyone switching to electric vehicles, though, renewable energy does not lead directly to independence from oil.

Switching to renewables to power the electric heat for the small percentage of mostly Northeastern homes that now burn oil would help also.

But experts say that requiring that all vehicles sold in the U.S. get better gas mileage is a better option.

Oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens is touting a different approach: Replace natural-gas-fired power plants with wind turbines and use the natural gas instead to fuel our public transportation and trucking fleets.

Twenty-two percent of American electricity is produced by burning natural gas. Shifting that natural gas from power plants to trucks and buses would help offset some of the $700 billion America spends on foreign oil each year, according to the Pickens Plan.

Pickens also wants to ramp up domestic production of natural gas to meet this demand.

Environmentalists call it an imperfect solution.

They would like to see a new lineup of solar, wind and geothermal power plants providing energy to light our homes and offices and run our cars with virtually no carbon emissions.

They caution that under the Pickens Plan, emissions would go down only slightly. Although natural gas is cleaner burning than gasoline or diesel fuel, it still produces pollution.

Some energy experts say the Pickens Plan probably won’t work for another reason. Wind provides only intermittent power. High-tech batteries will need to be developed to store all that power if homes and businesses are to have electricity continuously.

If high-tech batteries were perfected, we could run our cars on them, too.

Which brings us back to why solar + wind + electric cars = one solution.

And solar + wind = cheap gas is only a myth.

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