Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) -- The Energy Debate

Posted on June 22, 2010

             Madam President, last week the New York Times ran a story, and I ask unanimous consent to have it printed in the Record at this time. 

            The above-referenced article is entitled "Net Benefits of Biomass Power Under Scrutiny."  It is about how the people of Massachusetts are starting to debate the idea that they are accomplishing anything by displacing coal with biomass to produce clean electricity.  I am talking here about producing electricity, not biofuels which we use in our cars. 

            Biomass is essentially burning wood and other organic products in a sort of controlled bonfire to produce electricity.  The argument for biomass goes like this:  Wood is natural.  Trees regrow.  Burn them up today and more trees will grow tomorrow.  Therefore, we won't run out of resources.   Moreover, trees are carbon neutral.  Burning wood may release carbon dioxide, but trees reabsorb carbon so we can benefit from this natural cycle by generating electricity.  Therefore, we are not making climate problems any worse with biomass. 

            Indeed, biomass produces about 50 percent of our Nation's renewable electricity today, according to the New York Times, and by most of the definitions of renewable electricity that we use in proposals in the Senate.  But we can't rely upon biomass to replace significant amounts of the fossil-based electricity we get today from coal.  Biomass electricity has its place, and can be used to burn forest and other wood waste. In Tennessee we have a lot of pine trees.  They need to be removed from the forest, and this is a good way to do that and make a little electricity.  However, we cannot and we should not start cutting down and burning our forests to produce electricity.  The loss of forest land is still one of the major ecological catastrophes in Africa, Asia, and South America.  So are we, the most advanced country in the world,  going to talk about going back to burning up our forests for energy?  Many environmental advocates are now arguing that biomass should not even be considered to be "renewable" or "carbon neutral" because of the fact that burning wood releases greenhouse gases.  While that is true, so does the natural process of decay, but the carbon is reabsorbed by the growth of new trees.  Biomass can be, and should be, an important -- albeit a small part -- of our electricity portfolio by using excess forest material and industrial wood waste.

            Unfortunately, the New York Times piece misses out on one of the most important concerns about biomass.  Just like other renewable electricity sources, it cannot be the solution for our clean energy needs because of the problem of scale.  We would have to continually forest an area 1 1/2 times the size of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to replace the electricity created by two standard coal plants or one standard nuclear reactor.  Wood has only half the energy density of coal.  That means, if nothing else, we have to do twice as much work in hauling it around.  There is a utility in Georgia that is using wood to replace coal in a 100-megawatt powerplant.  This utility has trucks running in there day and night hauling wood to keep the plant running, and that is only 100 megawatts -- about one-tenth the size of one nuclear reactor.  For the southeastern United States to meet a 12-percent renewable electricity standard, as called for in the Waxman-Markey energy climate bill, by using biomass alone, we would have to cut down more trees than the entire U.S. paper industry uses each year.

            I think it is worth taking note of all this as we move toward the idea that renewable resources are the answer to our energy problems.

Tomorrow, there will be a group of my colleagues going to the White House to discuss with the President the issue of how to proceed on clean energy.  My fear is that we may all be asked to put our differences aside and settle this issue by pushing through a "renewable electricity standard" that says all we have to do is choose a number -- 17 percent by 2020 or 25 percent by 2030 -- and before you know it, we will have all the energy we need from wind, the Sun, and from the Earth running our highly advanced technological country. 

            In fact, more than half of the States already have adopted some version of these renewable electricity standards, but they haven't accomplished much.  New Jersey wants to close down a nuclear reactor and replace it with an offshore wind farm.  It will have to build 50-story wind turbines along its entire 125-mile coast, and it will still need to have the nuclear plant or a natural gas plant or coal plant or some other plant to provide electricity when the wind doesn't blow, which is most of the time. 

            To meet its requirement of 33 percent renewable electricity by 2020, California has put up wind farms, developed its abundant geothermal resources, and siphoned methane from almost every landfill in the State, and it still only gets 12 percent of its electricity from renewables. 

            Last year, a Wall Street Journal article cited the California State Energy Commission's warning that the renewable requirement could begin causing reliability problems -- that means that when you turn your light switch on, the light might not go on -- and increase electricity rates by 2011, which is next year.  California State agencies were warning that simply increasing the renewable requirement from 20 percent to 33 percent could cost $114 billion. 

            Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record the Wall Street Journal article from July 3, 2009. 

            Mr. President, countries such as Denmark and Germany have done the same thing.  Denmark, which is often cited for its wind power, has pushed its windmills up to 20 percent of its electrical capacity.  That sounds good.  Many people regard 20 percent as about the theoretical limit that wind power can supply to a total electric grid, even for a small country such as Denmark.  Yet Denmark hasn't closed even one single coal plant as a result of all these new windmills.  So it is still dependent on fossil fuels, and it has the most expensive electricity in Europe because of all of its renewable electricity.  Meanwhile, France, which has gone to 80 percent nuclear power, has per capita carbon emissions 30 percent lower than those of Denmark, and it has so much cheap electricity that France is making $3 billion a year exporting its electricity -- mostly from nuclear power -- to other countries.

            So what are we getting into when we say we are going to solve our energy problems by passing a law telling ourselves we have to get 15, 17, or 20 percent of our electricity from renewable sources, very narrowly defined, by 2020? 

            First, it is important to point out that 80 percent of the facilities built to satisfy State renewable standards have been windmills.  So a renewable electricity standard is really a national windmill policy instead of a national energy policy.  Wind turbines are easy to put up, especially in remote areas.  We have built 35,000 megawatts in total wind energy capacity, which represents an increase of more than 100 percent in the past 3 years.  But most wind turbines only generate electricity about 33 percent of the time.  That is how often the wind blows.  The best wind farms -- the ones on the eastern and west coast mountaintops or on the windy plains of the Dakotas -- operate a little more than 40 percent of the time.  That means our 35,000 megawatts in windmill capacity only generates about 10,000 megawatts at best -- the equivalent of ten standard nuclear reactors. 

            Moreover, the wind doesn't always blow when it is needed and often blows when it is not needed.  The strongest winds are at night or during the fall and spring, which are periods of low demand, while the periods with the least wind are hot summer afternoons, when the electricity demand peaks.  Wind and other renewables are not dependable in the terms that utilities need dependable electricity. The Tennessee Valley Authority, in the region where I live, says it can only count on the wind power it produces in Tennessee and even the wind power it buys from the Dakotas about 10 to 15 percent of the time when it is actually needed.  That is also what has happened in Denmark.  They have to give away almost half of their wind-generated electricity to Germany and Sweden at bargain prices because it comes at a time when it is not needed.  The result has been that the Danes pay the highest electrical prices in Europe and still haven't achieved much reduction in carbon emissions. 

            Then there is the matter of subsidies.  We hear a lot about oil subsidies in the Senate.  I suggest that when we talk about big oil, we also talk about big wind.  The U.S. taxpayers are already committed to spending $29 billion over the next 10 years to subsidize the investors, corporations, and the banks that have financed the big wind turbines, and they only produce 1.8 percent of our electricity.  If we went to 20 percent of our electricity from wind in the United States, that would be $170 billion from American taxpayers. 

            Windmills are and can be said to be a big success compared to solar electricity at today's prices.  California now has more solar electricity than any other State, and in March, the California Public Utilities Commission announced the opening of one of the largest photovoltaic stations in California -- 21 megawatts.  Solar power makes more sense as a supplement to our power by offsetting some of our demand by placing solar panels on rooftops, not large-scale electricity plants.  We all hope we can reduce the cost of solar power, which today costs four times as much as electricity produced from coal. 

            These are technologies we are counting on to solve our energy problems.  I think we have to exercise some caution here.  The assumption is that all we have to do is subsidize these technologies and get them up and running, and they will find their place in the market.  That doesn't seem to be true.  All of these technologies still have much to prove before they can shoulder a significant portion of our electricity.  Biomass facilities need to be placed where they are most efficient and can be used as a supplement to low-cost reliable sources of electricity that already provide the large amounts of clean and reliable energy we need.  We already have a proven technology in nuclear power that provides us with 20 percent of our electricity and 70 percent of our carbon-free electricity.  We should focus on that. 

            As the President and our colleagues consider our clean energy future tomorrow and the things we agree on, we can agree to electrify half our cars and trucks, and we can agree to build nuclear plants for carbon-free electricity.  We can certainly agree on doubling energy research and development to bring down the cost of solar power by a factor of 4 and to create a 500-mile battery for electric cars. 

            But we need to remember, as we think about the next 10, 20, or 30 years, the United States is not a desert island.  We use 25 percent of all the energy in the world to produce about 25 percent of all the money, which we distribute among ourselves, 5 percent of the people in the world.  We ought to keep that high standard of living.  We need to remember we are not a desert island.  Someday, solar, wind, and the Earth may be an important supplement to our energy needs, but for today, we are not going to power the United States on electricity produced by a windmill, a controlled bonfire, and a few solar panels. 

            I yield the floor.