It is fashionable for pundits to quote the old adage, “the cure is worse than the ailment,” referring to the imposition of martial law, under the guise of public health. Many Americans now think even coronavirus may hurt the country less profoundly than lockdowns, quarantines, mandatory business closures, decreeing who is essential and who is not, dictating the number of customers a business may serve, or unconstitutionally banning church services.
Policies that cause worse problems than they were meant to solve are not new, of course, nor unique to public health issues. I often ponder the unintended consequences of environmental policies, especially those involving renewable energy. Though prompted by an almost-universal desire to end pollution and improve the environment, sometimes the result is also higher electric bills, for example.
Many states have now passed renewable energy mandates, requiring a certain percentage of electric power to come from renewables, especially wind and solar. Some governors and legislatures, including Colorado’s, have set ambitious goals to completely banish fossil fuels within a few years. It is a popular position, as recent elections show, but we don’t always ask how it will be achieved.
In some states, the plan is developed enough that people are beginning to see what it really means. The most recent example, comparable to what it would require in Colorado, is Virginia’s new “Clean Economy Act,” adopted last month. That state’s utility monopoly, Dominion Energy, has published its plan to reach “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, as now required by law. The first step is to raise electric rates for families, businesses, hospitals, and schools by 3% per year for the next 10 years. On average, families will pay an additional $500 per year for electricity.
In theory, that’s enough money to build a mix of wind and solar facilities large enough to replace the entire power supply of a state with 8.5 million people. That will include over 31,000 megawatts of solar capacity, which the report says will require a land area 25 percent larger than Fairfax County, roughly 313,000 acres, or nearly 500 square miles. It will also include at least 430 colossal wind turbines off-shore, and thousands of half-ton battery packs to store energy for use when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow.
The higher rates may not be affordable for many families. But aside from economics, there are two specific environmental problems with such an ambitious plan. First, as my friend Paul Driessen of CFACT points out in an excellent column, there is no discussion about the impacts of manufacturing all that equipment – no estimate of the steel, aluminum, concrete, copper, lithium, cobalt, silica, rare earth metals and countless other materials needed to manufacture miles of solar panels and hundreds of wind turbines, nor of the mining impacts or the oil and gas required. We have a clue, though.
Science writer and journalist Matt Ridley says wind turbine manufacturing requires 200 times more raw materials per megawatt of power than modern combined-cycle gas turbines. Solar panels are made of silicon, aluminum, copper, boron, phosphorous, rare earths and other minerals that must be mined, and the manufacturing process leaves highly toxic waste behind. In recent years, that manufacturing has moved from Europe, Japan, and the U.S. to China, Malaysia, Taiwan, and the Philippines—– countries far less concerned about protecting the environment or their workers.
Second, now that people can see what it takes to make a state completely “green,” they are considering how the plan will impact local environments, and predictably, environmental organizations are unhappy. That’s because Virginia has no area of 500 square miles where there are no people, farms, plants, or wildlife. That is the equivalent of 237,000 football fields, an area twice the size of the entire Grand Valley.
Here is a little secret – it will never happen. There is no chance such a huge area of Virginia countryside will be denuded of vegetation, covered with aluminum, steel, and plastic, and peppered with access roads and power lines. The environmental impact statements would take years, followed by decades of appeals, lawsuits, and court orders sending it back to the drawing boards.
Dominion Power will not be required to refund the money, though. They’ll keep the 30% increase whether they build any of this or not (in case anyone wonders why the utility would support such a pie-in-the-sky scheme). Other states, like Colorado, should be watching closely before adopting similar schemes, “cures” that might be worse than the ailment.
Greg Walcher is president of the Natural Resources Group and author of “Smoking Them Out: The Theft of the Environment and How to Take it Back.” He is a Western Slope native.
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