Last year, California, the nation’s most populous state and the world’s fifth-largest economy, declared that all of its energy would come from renewable sources by 2045. It became the second state in the nation, after Hawaii, to set that goal.
Since then, several governors who won their elections in 2016, including those from Nevada, Michigan and New York, campaigned on 100% clean energy. New Mexico’s new Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham campaigned on a promise of 80% renewable energy by 2040. Xcel Energy announced plans to be 100% carbon-free by 2050.
And in Washington, D.C., democratic socialist Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been pushing a “Green New Deal.”
This plan would commit the entire country to abandon all use of fossil fuels in energy production by 2035. It’s gained significant support from Democrats. The list includes at least eight Democrats considering a presidential bid in 2020.
But these wildly ambitious goals tend to overlook inconvenient questions. Such as: Is it even possible to get to 100% renewable energy? Is it worth the costs and disruptions that would entail? Would it even be good for the environment?
The Nation’s Renewable Energy Picture
First, consider the fact that as of today, the U.S. gets less than 12% of its energy production from renewable sources. Those include wind and solar (which accounts for 4% of domestic energy production), biomass (4.6%) and 2.7% from hydroelectric power.
Nuclear energy accounts for 9% of the nation’s energy production. The rest is made up of fossil fuels: oil (23%), natural gas (34%), and coal 16%.
According to the Energy Information Administration, which is the research arm of the Department of Energy, on current trends, by 2050 renewables will still account for less than 15% of the nation’s energy supplies, with fossil fuels making up 78%.
In other words, attempting to turn the country’s energy supply to 100% renewable would be a monumental task. It would involve fundamentally reshaping the nation’s energy economy. And it would add significantly to energy costs – since renewable energy is generally more expensive.
How that could be achieved without crashing the economy is anyone’s guess.
Is Renewable Energy ‘Clean’?
The idea of getting to 100% renewable gets even more difficult, since environmentalists oppose several forms of renewable energy claiming they aren’t “clean enough.”
As the National Resources Defense Council puts it, “not all sources of energy marketed as ‘renewable’ are beneficial to the environment. Biomass and large hydroelectric dams create difficult trade-offs when considering the impact on wildlife, climate change, and other issues.”
Environmentalists don’t like biomass energy derived from burning trees, for example. They say it’s too polluting and won’t reduce carbon emissions. The only kind they deem acceptable is biomass derived from “energy crops like switch grass grown on non-forested land.”
That restriction, however, would severely hamper the ability of biomass to meet the nation’s growing energy needs.
Environmentalists also tend to oppose hydroelectric power because the dams required can be harmful to local environments. For example, they fought against a proposed dam in the Cleveland National Forest in California. And they opposed turning an existing dam in Vermont into a hydroelectric facility. They said it would harm fisheries and water quality.
As one environmental group put it, “should hydropower really be considered a clean power source? The simplest answer is ‘sometimes’.”
As a result, hydroelectricity’s share of the nation’s energy supply will shrink down to 2% of the nation’s energy supply by 2050, according to the Energy Department.
Wind And Solar Often Aren’t Green Enough
Environmentalists have also fought against wind and solar farms.
They successfully convinced Los Angeles not to buy any power from the Soda Mountain Solar Project planned for the Mojave Desert. Environmental groups said it would harm local animals.
In 2012, the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and Defenders of Wildlife filed suit to stop the 4,600-acre Calico solar plant northeast of Los Angeles. They called it one of the most ecologically damaging renewable energy projects in the state.
Environmentalists also succeeded in blocking GreenHunter Energy’s 500-megawatt wind project for a remote part of Montana near the Canada border.
An extensive U.S. Chamber of Commerce report – “Project No Project”— found 140 renewable projects that had been delayed or killed, many after fierce opposition from environmental groups.
Meanwhile, nuclear Energy, which is limitless and has zero carbon emissions, never shows up on any list of “clean” energy.
Renewable Energy Is A Massive Land Hog
There’s another problem with renewable energy that environmentalists and politicians tend to overlook when pushing their 100% renewable plans.
Most forms of “clean” energy require massive amounts of land to produce relatively small amounts of energy.
California’s Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, for example, stretches over 3,500 acres – five square miles – to produce about 392 megawatts.
The Spotsylvania Solar Energy Center Project planned for Virginia will consume a similarly vast amount of land to generate 500 megawatts.
By comparison, a natural gas-powered plant in Midland, Michigan, which is a postage stamp by comparison, generates 1,633 megawatts.
It would take roughly 3,600 Ivanpahs to supply all of the country’s electricity needs. That would mean mirrors covering New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island and part of Massachusetts.
Wind power is even more of a land hog. According to the Nature Conservancy, it takes 30 times the land for windmills to produce as much electricity as a nuclear power plant.
A study by Harvard researchers found that meeting current electricity needs using wind power alone would require 12% of the entire continental U.S.! That’s an area more than twice the size of California. That’s to say nothing of future energy demands.
Another problem: Wind farms and solar plants can only be located in areas where there is enough sun and wind to make them viable.
Biofuels Also Require Vast Lands
A report by the World Resources Institute, which The New York Times calls a “prominent environmental think tank,” blasts biofuels as land hogs that will raise the price of food while doing little to meet the world’s energy needs or fight global warming.
And that’s to say nothing of the miles of new power lines required to get the power from remote areas suitable for wind and solar farms to where it’s needed.
There’s also the political problem of finding enough land to site the huge number of new wind and solar plants needed. Local communities are increasingly hostile to existing efforts.
Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute came to this conclusion: “Renewable-energy projects are facing a growing rural backlash, and that backlash is already limiting the growth of renewable sources and in particular, the growth of wind. The obvious conclusion is that renewable energy alone cannot meet our economy’s enormous energy needs. And no amount of populist spin can change that fact.”
Renewable Energy Is Expensive
Aside from all these hurdles, the final one that remains is that renewable energy is expensive.
A recent analysis by the Brookings Institution, a left-of-center think tank, found that:
Adding up the net energy cost and the net capacity cost of the five low-carbon alternatives, far and away the most expensive is solar. It costs almost 19 cents more per KWH than power from the coal or gas plants that it displaces. Wind power is the second most expensive. It costs nearly 6 cents more per KWH. Gas combined cycle is the least expensive. It does not cost more than the cost of power from the coal or less efficient gas plants that it displaces. Indeed, it costs about 3 cents less per KWH.
To place these additional costs in context, the average cost of electricity to U.S. consumers in 2012 was 9.84 cents per KWH, including the cost of transmission and distribution of electricity. This means a new wind plant could at least cost 50% more per KWH to produce electricity, and a new solar plant at least 200% more per KWH, than using coal and gas technologies.
Green groups note that those costs are coming down, but so are costs from traditional energy sources, especially natural gas.
Renewable Energy Mandates Boost Utility Bills
Research by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, finds that states that have already imposed renewable mandates – that require utilities to produce a certain percentage of their power using renewable sources like wind or solar – have “the highest residential electricity rates in the country.”
The more stringent the mandate, the higher the cost. States that require 25% or more renewable have utility rates 27% higher than those with lower mandates (10% or less). Their rates are 50% higher than states with no such mandates.
More troubling is the fact that these higher costs hurt the middle class and poor hardest. That’s because they spend a greater share of their household income on utility bills than do the rich.
Once you get beyond the bumper sticker appeal, calls for 100% renewable energy look like a bad deal for the economy, families, and even the environment.
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