Democratic presidential candidates may disagree on a lot, but they all agree that the solution to climate change is the expansion of renewable energy, particularly solar and wind.
Some candidates see a role for nuclear. Sen. Cory Booker and businessman Andrew Yang have called for new plants, while former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg want to maintain existing plants.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris haven’t taken a position on nuclear, while Sen. Bernie Sanders favors closing existing plants.
But the centerpiece of all the Democratic candidates is renewables, upon which the candidates propose spending trillions.
Doing so, they all claim, will be good for the economy and the natural environment, including by preventing climate change.
But around the world, renewables are in crisis because they are making electricity more expensive, subsidies are expiring, and projects are being blocked by wildlife conservationists and local communities.
In Germany, the world leader in renewables, just 35 wind turbines were installed this year. The country needs to install 1,400 per year to meet its climate change targets.
“While climate activist Greta Thunberg is sailing with wind power to the Sustainability Summit in New York,” wrote Die Welt, “the German wind power industry is sailing into the doldrums.”
The halting of wind deployment in Germany has resulted in the industry shedding 25,000 jobs over the last year.
It’s not clear Germany can handle much more wind. Its electricity grid operator increasingly has to cut off electricity from industrial wind farms on windy, low-demand days, to avoid blow-outs.
The same is happening in California. The grid operator increasingly must pay neighboring states to take the state’s excess solar electricity, and cut off power coming from solar farms, on sunny, low-demand days.
Experts say the deployment of industrial wind energy in the United States is likely to stall when the key wind energy subsidy, known as the production tax credit or PTC, expires on December 31 of this year.
Renewables advocates say that costs will eventually come down, subsidies will be renewed, and state mandates will kick in enough to save the industrial wind and solar industries.
But those efforts are unlikely to be successful enough politically to make much difference to the economics of renewables.
In Ohio, lawmakers recently scaled back renewable energy mandates due to their high cost, choosing to instead to subsidize nuclear plants.
Around the world, renewables are making electricity more expensive, despite years of promises by advocates that prices would come down.
“German electricity consumers will again have to pay higher subsidies to producers of green electricity in the next two years,” reported Die Welt last month.
In Australia, the “increasing regularity with which wholesale power prices are sinking below $0 during sunny and windy days is being more than canceled out by more frequent high prices, defying expectations of a softening in levels overall,” noted The Australian Financial Review on Sunday.
“While I am an advocate for renewable energy, my motivation is driven by economics, not by warm and fuzzy feelings,” a renewable industry leader emailed me recently to say.
“I’ve drawn out the long term macroeconomics and come to the conclusions that you do. Essentially, the math doesn’t pencil out for wind, solar, and water,” he said.
The University of Chicago found earlier this year that renewable energy mandates “significantly increase average retail electricity prices.”
Thanks to the heavy deployment of renewables, electricity prices in California between 2011 and 2018 rose seven times more (28%) than they did in the rest of the country (5%), while electricity prices have risen 50% in Germany since 2006.
Today, Germany spends nearly twice as much for electricity that produces 10 times more carbon emissions than France. Just 14% of Germany’s energy and 35% of its electricity in 2018 came from renewables. And Germany’s carbon emissions haven’t declined significantly since 2009.
Many of the best wind sites have already been taken in the US and Europe, leaving developers with places that offer weaker wind, and further from major cities and industrial centers.
Some renewables advocates claim hopefully that construction of transmission lines will make wind energy more viable in windy states like Kansas and Nebraska, but environmental opposition in those places is growing.
In Nebraska, local residents and conservationists have filed a lawsuit to block the local utility from building a transmission line that will cut through 95% of the migratory flyway of the endangered whooping crane.
Despite much fanfare, the whooping crane has struggled mightily to recover from extinction, and the main cause of whooping crane death from humans is transmission lines.
In Australia, a former Green Party head denounced a proposed wind farm for threatening the extinction of endangered bird species. “Wind turbines kill birds,” wrote conservationist Bob Brown. “Multiple species of international migratory, endangered and critically endangered shorebirds use the wetlands… For which of these species will the wind farm be the thousandth cut?”
The wind industry has long denied that it has much impact by pointing out that house cats kill more birds than wind turbines.
But house cats can’t and don’t kill the large, slow-to-reproduce endangered and high-conservation value species like bald eagles, whooping cranes, and the European red kite, a raptor.
Dealing with environmental lawsuits and grassroots resistance is expensive. Industrial wind and solar developers have to hire lawyers, public relations specialists, and scientists willing to testify that this or that project poses only a modest threat to endangered birds and bats.
The evidence is mounting that industrial wind farms are having significant impacts. In 2017, leading bat scientists warned that if wind turbines continued to expand, they would make the hoary bat extinct.
Germany’s leading technology assessment research institute published a study last October concluding that industrial wind turbines are causing a “loss of about 1.2 trillion insects of different species per year” which “could be relevant for population stability.”
The news media in Germany is finally covering the issue. Geo magazine, the National Geographic of Germany, published a cover story about the threat wind turbines pose to the endangered European red kite.
Germany’s industrial wind developers say endangered species protections are an “absolute planning obstacle” and are seeking to be exempt from prohibitions on killing them.
And like Germany and the US, Australia will face more trouble in the future given the difficulty of building long new transmission lines.
Germany gets nearly as much of its renewable electricity from solar as it does from biomass, which a growing body of science suggests is actually more polluting and carbon-intensive than fossil fuels.
There was a natural experiment globally, just like there was between Germany and France. Between 1965 and 2018 the world spent $2.1 trillion to get 31% more electricity from nuclear than it got for the $2.6 trillion it spent on solar and wind.
Nuclear is the only energy source that has proven capable of fully replacing fossil fuels at low-cost in wealthy nations.
While hydro-electric dams can sometimes play that role, they are limited to nations with powerful rivers, many of which have already been dammed.
The underlying problem with solar and wind is that they are too unreliable and energy-dilute. Solar and wind farms require between 400 and 750 times more land than nuclear and natural gas plants.
As we approach the limits of renewables, it seems inevitable that, over time, Democratic politicians will increasingly point to nuclear energy as the centerpiece of their plans for saving the climate, not solar panels and wind turbines.