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Green Dreams and Energy Reality

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Green Dreams and Energy Reality

The Hill January 22, 2019
Energy & EnvironmentClimateRegulations

From individual state pledges to eliminate all greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 to the Green New Deal that promises 100 percent green energy by 2030, the drumbeat for renewables is growing louder with every headline. There’s only one problem: Barring Star Trek-like discoveries of new energy technologies, it’s not possible. Not even remotely.

There are a few “inconvenient truths” about “clean” green energy. First, it’s not all that clean.  Second, the scale of the proposed transition is eye-popping.

Start with the myth that green energy is “pollution-free.” It’s not. When we read “green energy,” most of us probably think about wind turbines and solar panels. But historically, along with small quantities of geothermal power, the biggest single source of green energy has been hydroelectric power — electricity generated by dams on rivers.

Most environmentalists don’t like hydroelectric dams because they wreck natural habitats and prevent fish from swimming upstream to spawn. That’s one reason many of those same environmentalists want existing hydroelectric dams, such as the dams constructed by the U.S. government decades ago on the Columbia River, removed. And even if environmentalists didn’t oppose hydroelectric dams, there are few sites for building dams.

Wind power is an environmental disaster. That’s right. Those nice spinning turbines, at least when they spin, slice-and-dice thousands of birds each year. And bats. You may not like bats, but bats are vital for pollinating many crops, especially fruit. Wind turbines also are noisy, emitting low-frequency noise that has well-documented adverse health effects on people who live near them. Then there’s the visual pollution. The wealthy residents off Cape Cod didn’t like the prospect of huge offshore wind turbines despoiling their views, which ultimately sank the Cape Wind project. And most people don’t like 300-foot-tall wind turbines dotting hillsides and mountain ridges. Finally, wind turbines require huge amounts of land because they must be spaced far apart. As my Manhattan Institute colleague Robert Bryce has documented, those environmental issues have contributed to a growing backlash against “big wind.”  

Constructing wind turbines is highly polluting, too. The turbines require large quantities of rare-earth metals. Most of those are mined outside the United States, such as in Mongolia, where environmental protections are few. The environmental damage has been extensive. Wind turbines also require large amounts of cement for foundations. But cement is manufactured from limestone using a chemical process that releases carbon dioxide. Bye-bye, cement.

What about solar? Although not as spread out as wind, solar still requires lots of space. Sure, you can mount solar panels on rooftops. But rooftop solar is far more costly than large-scale solar facilities. Moreover, the systems of poles and wires that run down our streets aren’t designed to support lots of rooftop solar. To make that possible, those systems will need to be rebuilt.

Both wind and solar are intermittent. No wind, no sun, no power. That means building battery storage, lots of it. Here’s one example. New York may enact the Climate and Community Protection Act this year, which calls for zeroing out all greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The Green New Deal wants this by 2030.

Just to provide enough battery storage to supply electricity for one cloudy windless day in New York state would require about 1.5 million megawatts of battery storage, the equivalent of 160 million Tesla Powerwalls. By comparison, today, there are about 700 MW of battery storage facilities in the entire United States. And even if current battery storage costs fall by 80 percent, the cost would be $750 billion, according to the Energy Information Administration. That’s just for New York, which accounts for about 4 percent of all U.S. energy consumption. Are green-energy dreamers ready to spend $20 trillion just for battery storage?

To meet U.S. energy needs with wind and solar power would require staggering quantities of materials, causing extensive environmental damage, while covering huge swaths of the country with wind turbines and solar photovoltaics. It would require building thousands upon thousands of miles of high-voltage transmission lines — environmentalists hate those, by the way — to deliver all of that power to cities and towns. And it would necessitate gigantic quantities of battery storage, costing many trillions of dollars, to deal with two pesky realities: The wind doesn’t always blow and the sun has an annoying tendency to disappear at night.

Most green-energy dreamers will dismiss everything I’ve said as naysaying or, to use a new Orwellian term, “fact-mongering.” But, try as they might, they cannot overturn the laws of physics or economics.

Want a realistic clean-energy solution? Embrace nuclear power, which provides clean, reliable, on-demand power. But that won’t happen. After all, living life in a fantasy world is much more fun than dealing with reality.

This piece originally appeared at The Hill

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Jonathan A. Lesser, PhD, is an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the president of Continental Economics, an economic litigation and consulting firm. 

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