Energy & Environment

Paul Krugman’s All-Renewable Delusion

Wind turbines in Desert Hot Springs, Calif. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)
The all-renewable future envisioned by greens would require paving the equivalent of California with nothing but wind turbines.

In 2008, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman was awarded a Nobel Prize for “his analysis of trade patterns and location of economic activity.”

Unfortunately, when writing about energy issues in the Times, Krugman doesn’t bother to do any analysis at all. Instead, as he proves yet again with his April 16 column, “Earth, Wind and Liars,” Krugman likes to make glib pronouncements about renewables and how they can save us from climate change while making us richer and sexier. In this latest edition, Krugman completely ignores wind energy’s massive footprint and the growing backlash against the wind industry. Further, like his many fellow travelers on the left, Krugman refuses to acknowledge that if we are going to be serious about slashing carbon dioxide emissions, nuclear energy must play a major role. (I’ve written three articles in these pages about Krugman’s energy silliness. See here, here, and here.)

Krugman launches his column with an attack on Peter Thiel, the billionaire technology investor and Trump supporter. Sounding rather Trumpish himself, Krugman calls Thiel “a terrible person.” After insulting Thiel, Krugman pivots to the renewable-energy sector, which he says is making “progress that can both change the world and save it.” And then — bogeyman alert — Krugman claims that renewable-energy deployment is being stymied by “many politicians and some businesspeople” who believe in the “primacy of fossil fuels.” Those people, says Krugman are “our modern Luddites” who, he claims, “can still do a lot of damage.”

While Krugman loathes Thiel and hydrocarbons, the point of his column is to profess his love for Big Wind. The bigger, the better. He writes that making wind turbines “really efficient requires making them very big and tall — tall enough to exploit the faster, steadier winds that blow at higher altitude.” He goes on to say that in a few years we will be seeing “850-foot turbines that totally outcompete fossil fuels on cost.”

Given that forests of turbines taller than Trump Tower (which stands 664 feet high) could soon be blighting our landscapes and seascapes, Krugman claims there is “no longer any reason to believe that it would be hard to drastically ‘decarbonize’ the economy,” nor, he claims is “there reason to believe that doing so would impose any significant economic cost.”

That in a nutshell, is the all-renewable delusion. For years, groups such as the Sierra Club, 350.org, and Greenpeace have relentlessly claimed that we don’t need hydrocarbons or nuclear energy and that switching to renewables not only will be fun, it will be cheap, too. To bolster their claims, they have endorsed the work of Stanford engineering professor Mark Jacobson, who has repeatedly claimed that wind, solar, and a few splashes of hydropower are all that will be needed to drive the U.S. economy.

But last year, Jacobson’s claims were thoroughly debunked by an all-star team of scientists in a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They determined Jacobson’s work had “invalid modeling tools, contained modeling errors, and made implausible and inadequately supported assumptions.” They also found that the wind turbines needed for Jacobson’s all-renewable scheme would cover “nearly 500,000 square kilometers, which is roughly 6 percent of the continental United States.” (In November, I reported on Jacobson’s $10 million defamation lawsuit against the lead author of the PNAS paper, Chris Clack. In February, apparently aware that his pitiful case would be dismissed and that he could be countersued, Jacobson suddenly withdrew the lawsuit.)

The idea of covering a land area larger than California with nothing but wind turbines is ludicrous on its face

Even if we ignore the deleterious health effects that low-frequency noise produced by wind turbines can have on humans and the murderous effect that turbines have on birds and bats, the idea of covering a land area larger than California with nothing but wind turbines is ludicrous on its face. It’s doubly absurd given that over the past few years, rural communities from Maine to California and Ontario to Scotland have been rejecting the encroachment of Big Wind. Among the latest examples of the rural backlash: On April 10, in South Dakota, the Davidson County Commission unanimously rejected a permit for a proposed nine-turbine wind project.

Krugman doesn’t even need to visit flyover country to see the backlash against his favorite industry. Three upstate New York counties — Erie, Orleans, and Niagara — as well as the towns of Yates and Somerset are all fighting a 200-megawatt project called Lighthouse Wind, which aims to cover about 20,000 acres of land on the shores of Lake Ontario with dozens of turbines. Meanwhile, fishermen in Montauk are fighting a pair of offshore wind projects that are proposed off the eastern tip of Long Island.

By my count, since 2015, more than 200 government entities have moved to reject or restrict Big Wind. Given the rural resistance to today’s wind turbines, which stand 500 to 600 feet high, it’s easy to imagine how that resistance will flourish when Krugman gets his hoped-for turbines, with their red-blinking lights, and spinning blades, 85 stories high.

Further, as though he were reading from the Greenpeace handbook, Krugman neglects in his column to provide a single mention of nuclear energy. That’s a stunning omission given that the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that “achieving deep cuts will require more intensive use of low-GHG [greenhouse gas] technologies such as renewables [and] nuclear energy.”

If Krugman were really interested in the feasibility of decarbonizing the economy without using nuclear, he could have consulted the academic literature (excluding Jacobson, of course). Last year, Benjamin Heard of the University of Adelaide, along with Barry Brook of the University of Tasmania and two other Australian scientists, published a peer-reviewed article called “Burden of Proof,” which reviewed two dozen studies on the feasibility of relying solely on renewables. Heard and his colleagues concluded that while the idea of using renewables alone to power the economy is a popular one, “there is no empirical or historical evidence that demonstrates that such systems are in fact feasible.”

The punchline here is obvious: Krugman likes to insult his foes, bash the hydrocarbon sector, and praise renewables. That’s fine. He’s done it before. But before Krugman repeats the shopworn, fact-free rhetoric that the Green Left has been using for decades, he should perhaps do a modicum of homework

Robert Bryce Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the producer of the forthcoming documentary Juice: How Electricity Explains the World.

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