Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Glenn Fox, PhD, Lectures Seniors on the Wastefulness of Green Energy

Yesterday I attended one of the "Third Age Learning" lecture series that Mary Ann has signed up for. I could go for $5, as a guest. Two to three hundred seniors are signed up for these lectures by respected authorities in various subject areas. The subject yesterday was: "Rural Economics and Green Energy in Ontario: It's not easy being green" by Glenn Fox, University of Guelph Professor.

I was quite appalled that this turned into what I thought was a one sided presentation of everything that was wrong with the renewable energy initiative in Ontario and in Europe. I didn't hear one thing that was right about green energy.

I am guessing that some of the 300 or so member of the audience were taken in, even though I did not interview every member of the audience afterwards. That's because Glenn Fox did sound "fair and balanced" without actually being fair or balanced. He avoided most of the outrageous claims of the anti-wind power advocates. Even when he was making an obviously outrageous claim, he presented it as an unlikely possibility. Also, being a university professor in economics, you would not have any reason to suspect him of twisting the truth. Of the two people in the audience we did actually talk to after the lecture was over, one of them was outraged at this one-sided presentation, the other stated that they thought it was fair and balanced. I don't see why a lot of other people would not match this very small sample.

The presentation itself was strictly from an economic viewpoint. With many statistics, bar charts etc, the professor made a case that renewable power was more expensive than hydro electricity, coal, gas, oil, or nuclear. In fact many times more expensive, given our current price of electricity to consumers in Ontario.

The same was done in Europe, going especially into Denmark's alternative energy and Spain's. Glenn stated that Denmark lost a huge amount of money to Norway and Sweden, who bought excess wind energy at cheap prices and sold back Hydro energy at peak prices.

Then he matter-of-factly stated that there was no known inexpensive way to store electrical energy from wind power, even though the case of Norway and Denmark was an example of how Hydroelectric generators can be used for this purpose, and how Norway was making money on this principle.

The professor even managed to toss out a few truly outrageous claims without anyone being able to call him on it because of the humorous way he did it, for example some Russian scientists have advanced a theory that oil in the ground does not come from geological plant matter, it it spontaneously generated.

When asked about the fact that oil is non-renewable, Glenn Fox mentioned that new technology could extract ever more oil from the ground, and that we had no idea how much oil could be discovered in the future. And yet, he never pointed out that speculative "new technology" could also help with renewable energy.

One question I asked was about his assertion that 5 jobs in Spain had been lost for every megawatt of wind power installed. I asked how this was possible, and he admitted that while there was more employment in the electrical segment of the economy, the rest of the economy had overall lost jobs because of the increase in the price of electricity, which he said had forced businesses to close. What this sounded like to me, was that this "fact" had assumed that every job lost in Spain was being blamed on wind power, because I don't believe it is actually possible to directly connect any single unrelated job loss in an economy to the cost of electricity. Anyway, this "fact" should have been the subject for a debate, or not presented at all, but it was simply presented as a truth. Many people might have come away with the idea that wind power normally costs the economy 5 jobs per megawatt, simply because it was impossible or unrealistic in the context to challenge the professor. (Questions were to be written on a slip of paper and handed in anonymously, which discouraged confrontation. This is the format of all the lecture series apparently, and yes it makes sense in a fair minded lecture, but not if the professor is only dealing to one side.)

I would not have minded if this lecture was any way fair to the controversy, and yes, there is a controversy. But the professor never even stated why we were trying to use renewable sources in the first place. Unless Mary Ann had asked about running out of oil, I don't think that would have received even a mention. Glenn made no mention of global warming or climate change, other than a reference to possible environmental costs that might theoretically be added to any of the energy alternatives. It was never mentioned how much these costs might be, though. And it was obvious that these costs would never really be added because they could not be quantified by conventional economists or accountants.

There was no mention at all of the amount of money that Middle Eastern wars have cost us, even though I wrote a question about it on a piece of paper and handed it. It was simply skipped over. I could see there were several other questions he also just skipped over without having to even mention. At least if questions are asked from the floor, the audience gets to hear the question and maybe it will give them something to think about, even if it is ignored.

In the end, I was quite resentful of being ambushed by this 2 hour long brainwashing session dressed up as an educational opportunity.

Further research into Glenn Fox finds him on the Fraser Institute website, a conservative think tank in Canada. He participated in "Taking Stock of Environmentalism", a research paper attacking "The Precautionary Principle", which may be one of the philosophical foundations of environmentalism. The paper is available for free download from their site. I hope it's not an April Fool's joke, but the date of the paper is April 1, 2000.

Glenn Fox's contribution to the paper was described:
"The Ambiguous Advice of the Precautionary Principle. The manner in which the Precautionary Principle is typically invoked is one-sided. It recognizes one category of unseen consequences but not another."
Picture: Glenn from his UoG web profile. The subliminal message given in Glenn's picture is "gentlemen, start your engines". I should give him some credit, at least, for not being in the driver's seat of a Hummer.


  1. I can well appreciate your being annoyed by this presentation. Glenn Fox, as you point out, is affiliated with, and publishes for, the Fraser Institute.

    The mission of the Fraser Institute is '... a free and prosperous world where individuals benefit from greater choice, competitive markets, and personal responsibility. Cutting through the weasel words: a world where corporations can operate with a minimum of interference from government regulation and oversight.

    The majority of the 'educational' materials published by the Institute have a heavy 'free markets' spin, disguised as 'discuss[ing] complex economic subjects in a manner that can be easily understood by everyone.'

    In fact, much of their material is simply neoliberal propaganda.

    Economics, as any economist will admit, is largely a matter of opinion. To suggest, as the Fraser Institute so often does, that economics is a 'science' is grossly misleading. The facts and statistics can be cherry-picked to support whatever contentions one wishes to advance.

    In the case of Fox's position on the costs of alternative energy, at least as you have presented it in this entry, the major flaw seems to be the intentional, egregious and flagrant dismissal of the externalities associated with conventional power generation. Your perception seems to be borne out by publications to which Fox is party.

    Neoliberal economists often argue that, because these externalities cannot be 'measured,' they should be excluded from the equations. As you put it in your blog entry, Fox dismissed the externalities as, 'a possible environmental costs that might theoretically be added to any of the energy alternatives' [my emphasis added]. In other words, 'Don't worry about those theoretical costs.'

  2. You mentioned the word externality, which was the exact term Glenn Fox used, and my second question (which was skipped) was whether war would be considered an externality.

    According to Wikipedia, an externality "is a cost or benefit, not transmitted through prices[1], incurred by a party who did not agree to the action causing the cost or benefit."

    Reading the Wikipedia entry, apparently war is not considered an externality. I think maybe it should be, if the need for oil causes a war.

  3. There are, in fact, two primary categories of externalities associated with 'conventional energy':

    'Consumption' externalities, such as air pollution, respiratory problems in urban settings and, arguably, climate change are just a few of the many factors that are currently not factored into the 'costs' of our consumption of nonrenewable energy sources.

    'Extraction' externalities include things like mine tailings, leachates, oil spills, soil contamination at extraction sites, as well as social instability (as we find in all too many oil producing states). Wars, of course, should be considered a negative externality, not only in terms of their human costs but of the ongoing diversion of domestic financial resources from social goods to the military.

    As long as some economists argue that these (difficult to cost) negative externalities are 'theoretical' and can be excluded from the price of a resource (along with aspects such as the true cost of government subsidies), arguments such as Glenn Fox's are fraught with distortions and are questionable ... what academic economists would refer to as, 'Comparing apples to oranges   ;-)

  4. I would urge you to read more of prof. Fox's work. This might help understand the point he is trying to make.

  5. I was not complaining that I didn't understand Glen Foxx's point. I was complaining that instead of providing learning, he is propagandizing to seniors. (and apparently doing the same for younger people like you at the University of Guelph.)

    I took Glenn Foxx's point to be that wind power is not as profitable as using fossil fuels, and I do not dispute it. Point taken. But my point is that we need to preserve the environment and save some fossil fuels for future generations. Which means we need to be prudent and diversify our dependence on fossil fuels. Glenn Fox argues in some of his other writing that the prudence principle is overestimated. I argue that greedy shortsighted oil companies are paying people like Glenn Fox to help obfuscate certain problems so the oil companies can continue to reap short their huge but short term profits.

    If Glenn had no inclination to answer to my questions at the lecture I attended, I fail to see how reading more of his propaganda will serve to make his points any clearer than they are already.

    Now if you want to understand how propaganda works to control the mind, click on the topic "propaganda" to the left (the girl mountie is pointing to it) and read any one of my 113 blogs on the topic.

  6. I fail to see how reading more of his propaganda will serve to make his points any clearer than they are already.

    The fact that one fails to see something does not imply an inexistence of what is supposed to be seen. One could just have bad eyesight or may be looking in the wrong direction.

  7. You quoted only part of my sentence. Here is what I actually said

    "If Glenn had no inclination to answer to my questions at the lecture I attended, I fail to see how reading more of his propaganda will serve to make his points any clearer than they are already."

  8. The first part is irrelevant because basing your desire to understand someone's argument on your perception of his/her willingness to answer your questions in a way you think the question should be answered does not say anything about whether you could learn something new by reading his/her other work. It just says that you have already evaluated everything this person has ever said or written, and your belief that nothing could change this evaluation. From this, one could learn more about you than about Glenn Fox.

  9. If we are to benefit from Prof. Fox's insights, how about some links to his articles, Mr. Rajsic?

    I assume that this summarizes his position on renewable electricity sources in Ontario.

    First of all, I'm appalled that Fox would PowerPoint some of those hoary old chestnuts about bird kills, property values and 'health effects' (yet to be supported by any credible scientific data). These arguments have been adequately debunked.

    But, in the final analysis, this is a debate about electrical sources with explicit subsidies (i.e. within the FIT pricing structures) and sources with massive hidden subsidies ... primarily in uncosted externalities. Fox is engaging in an exercise of comparing apples and oranges, which undermines his credibility as an economist.

    Although Fox cavalierly dismisses the effects of coal-fired plants, the reality is considerably different.

  10. One scary statistic presented by Glenn Fox was the loss of jobs in Spain due to renewable energy initiatives. I asked Glenn a question about this study at the end of the lecture, and I was not satisfied by his answer. So here is more background information I found on the internet.

    Debunking Spanish Study Green Job Loss

    There is a study (in pdf format) linked in the above web page that you might want to look at

    WWW.UNEP.ORG about Green Jobs

    Also, here is the National Renewable Energy Laboratory Response by Eric Lantz and Suzanne Tegen, to the Report Study of the Effects on Employment of Public Aid to Renewable Energy Sources from King Juan Carlos University (Spain)

    NREL Response to Green Job Loss report.

  11. Well, Predrag, while I appreciate your posting the link, it really does not help advance this discussion.

    I'm not about to invest in (yet another) economics survey text, nor am I about to spend more time on economic theory and philosophy. Although I appreciate that you economists have a lot of fun dealing in those abstractions, I had something more specific and relevant to the issue at hand.

    I am also bound to deprecate as illegitimate any economic argument which ideologically dismisses all 'costs' which cannot be observed as part of an act of exchange. Certainly the developments of the past decade have largely undermined the credibility of the 'Austrian School' and its offspring.

    In the realm of energy policy, any analysis which does not include a realistic (i.e. in the popular, rather than the 'economics' sense) assessment of both the actual subsidies (estimated by the IEA as well in excess of half a trillion in 2008) as well as the hidden subsidies (in the form of externalities) lacks credibility and leaves itself open to an accusation of tendentiousness.

  12. "Well, Predrag, while I appreciate your posting the link, it really does not help advance this discussion."

    It probably doesn’t, if what you mean by advancing the discussion is labelling someone as propagandist.

    If, on the other hand, the objective of the discussion is learning about the principles of economics, the meaning of costs and benefits, the meaning of externalities, or learning about the person that you are labelling, then it could have advanced it.

  13. I guess I am the one labeling Glenn Fox a propagandist, so how obout if I give him the benefit of the doubt, where doubt exists. I based my statement on the one lecture I attended and reading a bit more (but not much more) about him on the Internet. The lecture was titled "It's Not Easy Being Green". Maybe Glenn did not come up with the misleadingly neutral title. Maybe he did not realize that there was no other presenter to give the other side of the story (like why we are trying to build renewable energy sources in the first place, or to explain hidden subsidies to non-green energy sources). It was definitely not his idea that questions should be submitted on pieces of paper, but that left him free to ignore any that went against his point of view. (Although other lecturers in this educational series read aloud all the questions.) Also, Glenn did not argue any of the outright lies that have been spread by the rabid anti-windpower campaign. (although he mentioned that some researchers think that oil is being produced constantly under the Earth's crust, he made it clear enough to me at least, that he did not consider this to be a proven fact)

    And finally, I guess I should admit that I hold University Professors with PhD's to a higher standard of scholarship than news columnists and politicians. So while I admit that Professor Fox may not be as extreme a propagandist against green energy as some others, I would hope most university professors are more balanced in their presentations, or at the very least make it clear they are presenting only one side of a controversy.

    About a week ago, I also wrote my opinion about Prof. McKitrick, also from the University of Guelph Economics Department, also involved with the Fraser Institute, about his anti-Earth Hour opinion piece in the Vancouver Sun.

    Professor McKitrick "Why I Will Leave My Lights On"

  14. Although no standard of quality can be objectively criticized to be wrong (since value is always subjective), just for the sake of comparison, it seems your standards are different from the standards of the Canadian Agricultural Economics Society.

  15. The announcement on that page was

    "Congratulations to Dr. Glenn Fox in becoming a CAES Fellow. This is in recognition from the society for his years of innovative scholarship and productive service. In addition to becoming a CAES Fellow - Glenn also won the 2010 CAES publication of enduring quality. Once again congratulations."

    Well I did say I was only judging based on the one lecture I attended, and possibly no one at the CAES even attended that lecture. The lecture I attended, along with about 200 other seniors, in my own opinion, was not fair or balanced, and I have presented a lot of supporting evidence of this in my blog. After the lecture, I overheard one person saying that Glenn Fox's speech proved the Ontario Government was full of idiots, another person told me that he thought the presentation was biased against the green energy program. Probably many others fell somewhere in the middle.

    I guess it's possible that this is the only time Glenn ever presented a biased lecture. I really cannot judge all of them, nor am I going to buy his book at $99 (second hand), so I'm going to call this presentation as I saw it, and the CAES can make their own judgment about Glenn based on their own criteria.

  16. And how do you expect others to take your claims seriously when I had to spend two days just to persuade you to limit the scope of your judgements to your experience?

  17. I would like to think of my blog as my opinions, an expression of freedom of speech, and all my opinions here are open to questions and discussion. I hope that others would take me seriously, right or wrong, based on whether I try to support my opinions, and whether I try to answer questions respectfully or consider other opinions that differ from mine.

    When you think of how difficult it really is to get someone to change their opinion, two days does not seem like a lot, especially if you were able to work on other things during that time.

    You certainly seem to have a fundamental truth there, that everyone should limit the scope of their judgment to their personal experience. If there are exceptions, I can't think of any right now.

    I appreciate that you took the time to read what I had to say, and to post several replies on my blog. I believe that everyone can win when there is a respectful exchange of ideas.

  18. Well, Predrag, thanks for the discussion, such as it was. I expect that, as far as the economics of 'green energy' are concerned, we will have to agree to disagree.

    In this particular instance, I fear my opinion accords more with Joseph Stiglitz than with Glenn Fox (and the Fraser Institute) ...

    'Whenever there are "externalities" — where the actions of an individual have impacts on others for which they do not pay or for which they are not compensated — markets will not work well. But recent research has shown that these externalities are pervasive, whenever there is imperfect information or imperfect risk markets — that is always.'

  19. Wow... lots of heat (but I'm not sure how much light) is being generated here! I did personally have the good fortune of being at said seminar and quite enjoyed it. I would have loved to have heard Professor Fox's comments on all the questions submitted but the time allotted ensured that wasn't about to happen.

    On a slightly technical note, your comment regarding the case of Norway & Denmark using "hydroelectric generators" as an example of "an inexpensive way to store electrical energy from wind power" leaves me absolutely baffled! Aside from being quite impossible (Do hydroelectric generators store anything?), it clearly misrepresents the statements and point being made by Professor Fox and that makes me wonder if your condemnations here are simply born out of the fact that Professor Fox's presentation didn't reinforce your own preconceived biases?

  20. I thought the point being made by Glenn Fox was that
    1. There is no effective way to store electricity or wind power.
    2. Denmark is losing a lot of money to Norway and Sweden, because they buy wind power cheap, then sell power back when Denmark needs it, but at a higher price.

    He is wrong on the first count, hydroelectricity can be used to store wind power. Not inside the generators of course, the generators do not contain energy, they convert water power (the weight/speed of falling water). The energy is from the water, and the water is already a stored form of energy, in the reservoir behind the dam.

    He right on the second count. Denmark has no hydroelectric power, and Norway's power is about 99% hydroelectric. But the money lost by Denmark is gained by Norway. Whether this is an economic loss or an economic gain depends mainly on whether you are Norwegian or Danish. Canada has both types of power, and in theory the gain and loss would almost cancel. Norway gets paid to balance the load for Denmark's wind turbines, by storing energy or shutting it down, whichever they choose to do. If the reservoir level is too high already (it happens), they may choose to spill the extra water. This wastes energy, but dams also serve to control flooding etc, so storing energy is not the most important consideration.

    If Norway and Denmark were the same country, and had the same power authority, there would be no problem with Denmark losing money to Norway, it would all balance out. As it is now, I guess you could say that Denmark is not getting the best of the deal, but that is only because they do not own any hydro resources, not because of the science.

    From wikipedia Pumped Storage Hydroelectricity

    "Pumped-storage hydroelectricity is a type of hydroelectric power generation used by some power plants for load balancing. The method stores energy in the form of water, pumped from a lower elevation reservoir to a higher elevation. Low-cost off-peak electric power is used to run the pumps. During periods of high electrical demand, the stored water is released through turbines."

  21. The criticism that 'There's no cost effective way to store electrical energy' is a canard often used by opponents of renewable energy.

    There are, in fact, numerous ways of doing so and mechanical storage (as in the case of pumped hydroelectric storage referred to above) is only one of them. There have been successful implementations of TES (thermal energy storage), chemical conversion methods (including hydrogen with reconversion through fuel cells) and emerging technologies such as superconductors show great potential (pun intended ;-)

    In addition, we're already beginning to see implementations of approaches such as V2G (vehicle to grid) which will inevitably grow in capacity as the number of hybrid, electric and fuel cell vehicles increases.

    The public would be much better served by balanced presentations of the true scope of alternate energy than by biased defenses of conventional solutions which base their justification on incomplete cost analyses (flawed economics).

    As far as the criticism that 'more heat than light' is being generated here, I can only quote Jonathan Swift who wrote, 'There are none so blind as those who will not see.'

  22. Those are very fine and well expressed thoughts Madeye. Your closing Swift quote got me to wondering... who are the "none so blind as those who will not see" that you are referring to? At a cursory glance it would seem that every definable "side" in the equation is blinded by what they see. Perhaps some theorists and intellectuals might consider themselves to have a more exalted grasp of the reality but I wonder? Do you think it is possible for anyone to rise very far above "not seeing" what they do not want to see (and perhaps can't possibly see because of their vested position)? Perhaps Mr. Swift was having a bit of fun with his quote in that it quite aptly describes the perspective of every "side" as it looks at the other. It is heart-warming to me though that your response infers that you are right (and perhaps see) and that I am blind (and most likely don't see). My guess is that you are right!

  23. Gord, no personal criticism of yourself was intended!

    What I was attempting to address was a central problem in both financial accounting and standard economics, with what accountants refer to as 'intangibles' and economists as 'externalities.' These are aspects of 'transactions' which pose difficulties in assignment of quantative values.

    Accountants use artifacts such as 'goodwill' to make the numbers 'work.' Economists generally choose to disregard externalities as being impossible to 'quantify.' It is not that these experts are 'unaware' of those aspects of transactions; they simply choose not to include them in their calculations; an example of 'selective blindness.'

    A key characteristic of 'propaganda' is selective use of information to advance a political agenda. By arbitrarily excluding various intangibles and externalities (or by assigning spurious values), experts can distort virtually any analysis to their own purposes.

    I'm reminded of Pierre Trudeau's observation (after his education in economics at Harvard and LSE) that, 'Economic judgements [are] not the product of a science, but more often the result of special interests.' We witnessed the cumulative effects of unscientific economics in the summer of 2008. Greenspan's mea culpa notwithstanding, all too many economists persist in their 'selective blindness.'

    In dealing with the pressing issue of atmospheric emissions, economic analyses which cavalierly disregard the significant externalities are suspect; but, in terms of public education, those border on the criminal.

  24. Although slightly off topic (at least in terms of the economics of green energy), it is interesting (and somewhat encouraging) to note that, Surging renewable sector pulls even with nuclear power in U.S. (raising the percentage to 10.9%).

    (In Canada, the percentage is approximately 16%).

    A number of studies have been published recently demonstrating that it is technically (and economically) feasible to achieve a transition to virtually 100% renewable energy by 2050. This study from WWF-International is representative.

    Of course, there would be massive resistance to any aggressive strategy to shift to renewables from the vested interests in the conventional energy sector (not to mention the inevitable denials of technical feasibility and predictions of economic disaster ...LOL!!)

    However, the reality is that we are already at 392 ppm atmospheric CO2 - well in excess of the 350 ppm generally accepted as the safe upper limit.

  25. Madeye... loved your comments, but I dare say, most experts exclude a great deal more than intangibles and externalities... more than a few seem to go so far as to resoundingly exclude even common sense (an exclusion that often proves very costly indeed… although I suppose if common sense won't get the experts to where they want to go then it must be excluded!).

    Along the lines of what you are suggesting, I would think that propaganda is unavoidable. For at least the last few thousand years, the "selective use of information to advance a political agenda" has been, and remains, one of the few essential ingredients in creating and maintaining an organized (half-organized, or even disorganized) society. The political underpinnings of virtually every human endeavour cry out for propaganda (in the way that you are defining it here)… I'm guessing that we are going to get to keep it and that since it has such a robust evolutionary consistency to it, propaganda might actually be doing something good… perhaps sparing us from something truly frightening (the "truth" maybe… whatever that might be?).

    Occasionally in Canada (actually far too frequently in the last few years) we are all given front-row seats in an entertaining display of the real federal "political agenda". My personal fear on that front is that all the political parties have actually moved far beyond "the selective use of information to advance a political agenda" and are now embarking in full force upon "the selective use of intelligence to advance a political agenda"! While this might be dangerous (and I believe it is), it certainly is going to lead to an interesting world on a lot of fronts for all of us... 392 ppm atmospheric CO2 being just one of them.

    I appreciated the thoughts you shared… once again they got me to thinking!

  26. Gord, you raise two very pertinent points:

    First: In debates about many issues (including climate change and green energy) 'common sense' can actually be dangerous thing - and, in fact, much of the negative propaganda is dressed up as 'common sense.' The debate must be based on evidence - 'evidence' in the scientific sense. An appeal to 'common sense' is all too often an appeal to the emotions.

    Second: You are correct - people are more likely to believe a position which corresponds to the position they would like to believe. That is especially true when, as you say, the truth is 'something truly frightening.

    Which is why it is so vital, in these days of astroturfing and right-wing think tanks, to constantly question the sources of our information.

    Thank you for your input to this discussion.

  27. This interesting opinion piece was published in the The Record yesterday: Green Energy Act is saving us money.

  28. The article in The Record, while interesting, isn't something that I would consider very reality-based by any means... unless of course one lives in an alternate reality. To essentially say that paying 80.2 cents really only costs 11.5 cents because the 68.7 cent loss goes to a good cause beggars the economic imagination. If Satnik's math and mindset is so attractive (and so effective) I wonder why Revenue Canada has yet to discover it? If only I could pay every 80.2 cents worth of my tax bill with 11.5 cents and spend the 68.7 cents difference on stuff that would move the economy, I could have fun with that myself. To have an Ockham's razor moment, it makes me wonder, "Why be green?" when being stupid might potentially be just as effective and probably much more fun for more people more of the time. Hmmmm, I wonder?