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Wall Street Journal Report Misfires

September 17, 2010

On Monday, the Wall Street Journal published a special report on Power Investing.

The report had several reporters addressing different methods for generating electricity, but in each case the reporter tried to put renewables in a favorable light, no matter how farfetched the underlying technology.

The WSJ section seemed to be an effort to reject coal while promoting renewables – the exception being the coverage on natural gas and how it is replacing coal in many applications. The revolution in natural gas, as the result of fracking, is, in fact, making natural gas more competitive.

The article Not Just a Lot of Hot Air went to great lengths to promote enhanced geothermal, better known as Hot Rocks. Hot Rocks has been under development in Australia for nearly a decade, and has been unsuccessful. The article also highlighted a search for underground supplies of hot water, but searching for hot water hasn’t contributed, in any important way, to increased generation of electricity from geothermal sources.

Traditional geothermal can produce small amounts of electricity at cost-competitive prices, and should be developed where it is economically feasible.  Traditional geothermal, however, can only play a small role in generating electricity for the United States. Hot Rocks is a fool’s game.

Similarly, the reporter covering hydro went to great lengths to give the impression that hydro was making a comeback – when the evidence is contradictory.

The article featured the use of pumped storage, which has been used for a hundred years, as a “battery” like method for storing electricity generated by wind. While technically feasible, most pumped storage has been opposed by environmental groups. The Hudson River proposal for pumped storage is an example of widespread opposition to pumped storage.

Furthermore, there must by situations where a supply of water can be pumped to a higher elevation for storage. These are not readily found in flat areas conducive to wind generation of electricity. Wind is providing the impetus behind pumped storage, but pumped storage represents just another cost, along with transmission lines, of wind generated electricity.

The article went on to hype the broad subject of using water to generate electricity, including wave power and hydrokinetics in rivers. The hydrokinetic experiment in Minnesota has not gone well and it’s doubtful hydrokinetic installations will accomplish very much.

The hydro article did highlight low-head dams, of which there are thousands scattered around the U.S., which could generate substantial amounts of electricity. Low-head hydro can produce electricity at competitive prices, but once again, there is opposition to these dams, such as on the Fox River in Illinois.

On the positive side, there has been a small increase in electricity generated by new generating equipment installed in existing large dams, but this is hardly reason to say hydro is making a comeback.

Factually, hydro is good and could play a greater role in the United States if it weren’t for opposition from environmental groups who still want to tear down four huge dams in Oregon as a way to help salmon.

The WSJ promoted backyard wind turbines, “to catch the breeze at your door.”

And, of course, the WSJ section on power investing had to mention algae.

What the WSJ didn’t highlight are the billions of dollars being wasted by the Department of Energy promoting farfetched, unreliable and illusory technologies. Why spend money on Hot Rocks here when it is already being studied in Australia? Why spend money looking for underground hot water when, even if it’s found, it can supply only a miniscule amount of electricity?

The Department of Energy has just announced more grants for marine, hydrokinetic and geothermal projects, but none for low-head dams.

All in all, this WSJ section was a sorry excuse for providing investment information, and could better be characterized as a puff-piece promoting renewables.

Not exactly the type of objective reporting we should expect from the Wall Street Journal.

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