Pieces of the Green New Deal may become law if the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package passes. But the green plan has one glaring problem: It can’t be accomplished without government involvement in almost every aspect of energy production and consumption. It would require subsidization from top to bottom — from demand to supply. The slew of practical barriers the plan would face raises the question: Is the Biden administration’s goal to transition to a clean-energy future that can actually meet the demands of modern society? Or is it to transfer wealth to select interest groups that will dutifully return the favor when it’s time for reelection?
The plan contains subsidies to key businesses working in the solar and wind industries, handouts to the affluent to purchase electric vehicles, a Clean Electricity Payment Program that rewards utilities with payments if they meet carbon reduction goals and punishes utilities with a ‘fine’ if they don’t, and federal investment in ‘green’ infrastructure, like EV charging stations and new transmission lines to transport renewable energy from remote locations.
The plan is to drive fossil fuels out of the economy, but the truth is fossil fuels won’t disappear entirely because — let’s face it — they can’t. We need reliable baseload energy. Limiting domestic production of fossil fuels will just make the U.S. more dependent on imports. This scenario has already played out in Germany, where the power grid relies on Russian coal imports and soon will be importing natural gas from Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline. In addition, as supply plummets in the face of inflexible demand, the price of goods and services that rely on fossil fuels will rise, making almost everything more expensive.
A solution to this baseload energy problem could be carbon-free nuclear technology. But it appears the Biden administration doesn’t take this prospect seriously, predicting in its recently released Solar Future Study that nuclear power as a share of the U.S. energy mix will decrease from 20 percent to 11 percent by 2035 and to 7 percent by 2050. A serious proposal would aim to increase nuclear power’s role over the coming decades, not decrease it.
Instead, Biden is betting on solar to meet the majority of our renewable energy needs. However, reliance on solar poses several major challenges. Solar produces intermittent power which means battery storage will be necessary for it to work on a large scale. The Solar Future Study predicts that storage capacity will increase to more than 1,600 GW in 2050. This may be overly optimistic given that in 2020 the U.S. had just over 24 GW of energy storage capacity, not to mention the challenges still being worked out for large-scale storage like in the Moss Landing energy-storage project, which overheated over Labor Day weekend, taking 300 megawatts offline.
Next, solar is not energy-dense, meaning it requires massive amounts of land to produce energy at scale. Converting open space to solar farms inevitably means compromising wildlife habitat. This is already happening to the Californian desert tortoise. Again, the Solar Future Study predicts that by 2050 only 0.5 percent of U.S. land will be required for solar farms. That’s an area about twice the size of the state of Vermont. Some suspect this number is too conservative.
The raw materials needed for things such as batteries and photovoltaic (PV) panels are complicated, too. The rare-earth market is overwhelmingly dominated by China, where PV supply chains have been linked to forced labor of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. Biden hopes to ramp up domestic mining and refining but faces a series of obstacles, from NIMBY movements to environmental-regulatory barriers. As things stand now, it looks like the U.S., along with the rest of the world, will be dependent upon authoritarian China for the vast majority of rare-earth mining plus PV production for years to come.
The end of a solar panel’s lifecycle, which is roughly 25 years, also poses serious problems. Currently, recycling solar panels is not profitable. The majority of solar waste is laid to rest in landfills or is shipped overseas, primarily to nations with limited environmental oversight. The Solar Future Study acknowledges this, admitting there is no current solution to the end-of-life problem and notes the importance of “protecting the reputation of solar as a ‘clean’ technology.”
Biden has repeatedly claimed that his plan will create “good-paying union jobs” in the renewable sector and the Solar Future Study claims the solar industry will employ 500,000–1.5 million people across the country by 2035. But those jobs will only be “created” because of taxpayer-funded government loans. It’s also worth noting that the solar industry has had trouble attracting labor because the jobs are short-term and don’t pay as well as jobs in other parts of the energy sector like natural gas, oil, and coal.
The estimated 11 million workers employed in the fossil fuel industry can’t be transitioned to “green” jobs as easily as advertised. Are coal-plant workers in West Virginia going to uproot their families and relocate to southern California for short-term solar installation? Is the goal to create a migrant workforce that travels the solar belt and sends remittances back to their families in abandoned coal country?
The closer you look at the Democrats’ “climate solutions,” the less serious they seem. The reality is, we need a reliable baseload energy source regardless of any green utopian vision. Betting on solar is a losing proposition. This hard reality can’t be willed away, and punishing the use and production of fossil fuels will only set Americans up for higher energy bills and regular power outages. In the race to slow climate change, we need more serious solutions.
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