A story last Sunday clearly illustrated one of the weaknesses of our energy strategy in the U.S.
The wood pellet market has cooled, the story said. One local shop was selling 10 to 20 pellet stoves a day a couple of years ago. Now it sells that many in a week.
Last year, a wood pellet manufacturer in Maine was running 24 hours a day, seven days a week to produce enough pellets. This year, it’s operating at half that pace.
One reason is a mild winter that cut the demand for all types of fuel.
But the other — wildly fluctuating oil prices — has stymied our ability to fashion a rational energy policy for decades.
The surge in wood stove sales two years ago was largely fueled by heating oil prices that approached $5 per gallon in the summer of 2008. Just a year later, the price was half that.
The dramatic cost advantage of a wood pellet stove over the oil boiler in the basement disappeared, and with it the heavy demand for wood stoves and pellets.
Now the industry is retrenching, awaiting the next surge in oil prices, which is sure to come.
The same problem has crippled alternative energy development in the U.S. for 40 years.
Wind, solar and biotech projects — including compact, gas-efficient cars — have too often died on the altar of free market oil prices.
After the gasoline crisis in the 1970s, U.S. automakers took a cue and started producing small, efficient cars. Customers bragged about their high mileage ratings.
When prices fell again, customers gradually returned to their gas-guzzling ways — and car companies gladly accommodated them — until Americans began driving SUVs as big and comfortable as their living rooms.
Meanwhile, fluctuating oil prices have given us a start-stop energy policy. When oil prices are high, alternative energy projects make financial sense. When oil prices drop, they do not.
States like Maine, meanwhile, are punished with high electric rates for their commitment to “green” power.
Residential electricity in southern Maine — where 86 percent of our energy comes from hydro (40.3 percent), nuclear (22 percent) and gas (23.5 percent) and only 8.5 percent from coal — costs 11.07 percent per kilowatt.
In the South Central states, where half or more of the power is generated by coal, a kilowatt is 6.03 cents. In Oklahoma, it is 4.8 cents, less than half our rate.
Meanwhile, Maine can’t freely eat the fish from its lakes and streams because of mercury from those coal plants.
They get the low prices; we get the tainted fish.
And with king-coal/big-oil’s political muscle in Washington, we see little chance this will change.
There is also no chance the rest of the U.S. will wind-mill its way to energy independence. One source estimates it would take 720,000 large-scale wind turbines to provide just 25 percent of the nation’s electricity.
Just under 50 percent of the nation’s power currently comes from coal, but 34 states account for 97 percent of all U.S. coal-fired production.
In fact, even with large-scale wind turbine construction in Texas, the clean power generated is not expected to keep up with growth in demand, let alone reduce the use of existing coal.
Which means Texas will be building wind farms and coal power plants.
Which probably leaves us, if we truly want a cleaner environment, relying more on natural gas in the short run and and, ultimately, nuclear power in the long.
That will be difficult for the Three-Mile-Island generation to accept, but all forms of energy — from wind to hydro to oil and coal — come with environmental and social costs.
There are now 434 operating nuclear reactors in the world. While about a fourth of those are in the U.S., we produce only 20 percent of our power from nuclear, while France generates 76 percent of its electricity from the atom.
The future will involve rationally weighing these costs, selecting a strategy and sticking with it — something our partisan political system too often seems ill-equipped to do.
But, at the very least, this nation’s energy outlook will not improve until we stop punishing the states that rely on cleaner alternatives, like Maine, with higher prices, and stop rewarding the states that do not.
How clean is coal?
• Burning releases 659.3 pounds of CO2 per million Btu into the atmosphere, while mining releases trapped methane.
• Strip mining creates waste that must be relocated, altering the natural landscape forever.
• Burning coal creates ash waste, containing heavy metals and alkali, which must be stored, often leaching mercury and arsenic into water supplies and harming aquatic life.
• Coal miners, as we’ve recently seen, face risk from heavy equipment, cave-ins, explosions, plus exposure to coal dust, arsenic, sulfur, mercury and other toxic substances.
• Mercury and other pollutants travel thousands of miles, polluting soil and water in other states.