The Department of Energy’s "Billion Ton Study" has shown that wind and solar energy combined "could at best provide only 5 percent of our total energy needs."

Herman Cain on Tuesday, October 4th, 2011 in his book, "This is Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House"

Cain says solar, wind energy have little potential

If you want a glimpse of America’s energy future under a Herman Cain administration, look no further than his new book, "This is Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House."

Metro Atlanta’s would-be Republican presidential nominee wrote that we need to drill for oil offshore and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and boost our nuclear energy capabilities.

"Let’s face it, wind and solar energy development will not bring us to energy independence," the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO wrote. "Even the Department of Energy’s ‘Billion Ton Study’ has shown that these two sources combined could at best provide only 5 percent of our total energy needs."

Do solar and wind energy really have so little potential?

We contacted the Cain campaign, which did not respond, so we scoured the U.S. Department of Energy’s "Billion Ton Study," a 2005 report whose official title is "Biomass as Feedstock for a Bioenergy and Bioproducts Industry."

As you might suspect, it’s about biomass, biological material such as plants or cow manure that can be used to produce energy. Like solar and wind energy, it’s "renewable," or comes from natural sources that are constantly replenished.  

It does not say what Cain said it did.

In fact, the "Billion Ton Study" mentions only solar and wind energy in passing. The crux of the report is to explore whether there’s enough biomass in the U.S. to replace 30 percent or more of the nation’s petroleum use. (Their answer is "yes," assuming that certain policies and technologies are in place.)

Now, just because Cain’s claim isn’t backed up by the "Billion Ton Study" doesn’t mean his broader point about solar and wind is wrong. We dug further.

We found that under current government energy policies, the futures of solar and wind are limited, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which tracks energy statistics. Unless policies change, by 2035 wind and solar combined will account for 4 percent of U.S. consumption of electricity, or the stuff that runs our TVs or washing machines, their projections show.

Solar and wind will account for 2 percent of total U.S. energy consumption in 2035. This includes electricity as well as other forms of energy, such as fuel that powers cars.

But these data do not describe what these technologies could do at their best, which was the main point of Cain’s statement. To get a better sense of this, we interviewed energy experts and read federal studies and peer-reviewed research.

The scientific consensus is that there is more than enough sunshine and wind to supply the nation’s total energy needs, experts told us, thanks to the wind-swept Great Plains and Texas and sun-baked states such as New Mexico.

"I don’t think anybody can contend there isn’t enough. There’s more than enough," said Noam Lior, who has studied solar and other alternative energy technologies and their potential at the University of Pennsylvania.  

But could it actually happen? Could solar and wind actually provide, say, 10 percent of the nation’s total needs?

"It’s not just possible," said Daniel Matisoff, who studies environmental policy at Georgia Tech. "It’s likely."    

For instance, a 2008 Energy Department report said it’s possible for wind energy to provide 20 percent of the nation’s electricity supply by 2030, with significant upgrades in the nation’s energy grid, policy changes that support the growth of the wind industry, and some wind turbine technology improvements.  

Electricity, however, makes up only a portion of the nation’s total energy use. The country needs fuel to power its cars and trucks as well. Getting consumers to switch to plug-in electric cars might be tough because of their limited range, said Marilyn A. Brown, a Georgia Tech professor who studies energy policy.

There are other big hurdles as well. The wind doesn’t always blow, and sun doesn’t always shine, so the U.S. would need to engineer systems that would keep a steady flow of electricity to homes and businesses.

Electricity produced by fossil fuels is often less expensive than wind or solar. And lots of the nation’s wind and solar resources are in remote areas. The country needs to install expensive transmission lines to transport it.

All in all, Cain has it wrong on solar and wind energy. The federal government’s "Billion Ton Study" did not say that wind and solar energy combined "could at best provide only 5 percent of our total energy needs."

Scientists think solar and wind alone can top 5 percent of the nation’s total needs with policy and infrastructure changes. They could even power the entire nation if the U.S. commits to an energy overhaul, though it would take a lot of resources, time, political will, and possibly some new technologies to get this done.

Cain earns a False.