This month my Princeton University Alumni magazine enclosed a supplement, Quest: Research News from PPPL. Its most interesting news was in the sections titled “New Paths to Fusion Energy” and “Advancing Fusion Theory.” As the PPPL director reminds us: “Fusion powers the sun and stars, and harnessing its power on Earth could provide a safe, clean, and virtually limitless way to meet global energy needs.”

It is by no means certain whether the Princeton researchers and their international partners will succeed in unleashing fusion energy soon, late, or ever. What is certain is that success would sharply diminish the value of most energy investment. It would turn many into a total loss.

The point is that there is such an enormous number of possible developments affecting energy production and conservation that prediction is extremely speculative. This unpredictability is revealed by a comparison of the projections made by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration in 2008 with those this year.

The EIA spends more than $100 million collecting and publishing data on all energy production factors and issues, and produces an annual energy outlook report containing projections and analyses of energy topics. Its 2008 AEO estimated that coal would produce more than 40 percent of America’s energy by 2035. AEO 2013 foresees energy generation from coal falling to 35 percent as natural gas generation rises to 30 percent. And it presents an alternative scenario in which coal will amount to 27 percent of total generation as natural gas rises to 43 percent.

These huge differences in projections over just five years arise from new development in “fracking” and shale gas production. When I examined the EIA website in 2008 these innovations received no attention. This is no criticism of the administration. It can only project the future on the basis of factors already known. It has no means for anticipating the results of technological innovations.

The website I examined in 2008 demonstrated the impossibility of reliable prediction. It provided a continuous stream of reports on energy developments under 13 separate headings: aerospace, alternate fuels, batteries, electronics, fuel cells, hydrogen, hydro/water, nuclear, solar cells, thermal, vehicles, waste power, and wind power. There were dozens of reports for each of these categories. Under aerospace, for example, there was “Construction Begins of the 200 mph, Solar Powered Turtle Airship.” This described a demonstration model for a solar-powered lighter-than-air airship by Turtle Airships Co. The company’s release claims “We can save over $100 billion each year on fuel costs alone, another several hundred billion dollars in airport construction, and eliminate a major source of carbon emissions. Airships are a trillion dollar industry, still in its infancy, that will grow for decades.”

I’m not recommending investing in this company. For all I know it’s full of hot air. It may already have failed. It may even be a swindle. The point is that the energy production and conservation sectors embrace a huge number of possibilities, making confident predictions illusory.

These are grounds enough for Gov. Paul LePage’s criticisms of our state-mandated wind-power industry. Angus King, John Baldacci, and the Democratic legislators have no prophetic powers that can support Maine’s commitment to a wind-power solution. They had no idea of the potential of shale gas when the state’s Maine Wind Energy Act was passed in 2008.

LePage’s plans to fast track the expansion of natural gas infrastructure in the state takes these more recent, and fast moving, developments into account.

The argument for wind power does not rely on the claim that it is cheaper than the alternatives. It is not. It relies on the hope that if it is adequately subsidized long enough its technological development will advance to the point when it will become economical. This could happen. It seems equally likely that other technological developments could turn every wind generating facility into useless junk. This is far less likely to happen to the Hydro-Quebec facilities which our governor also hopes to include in Maine’s energy portfolio.

LePage is convinced that Maine’s energy costs are the biggest obstacle to it economic progress. His solutions do not rely on hope and prophecy. They rely on current, observable realities.

John Frary, of Farmington, is a retired professor.

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