As fuel prices rise in the aftermath of banning Russian oil imports, it’s worth remembering that the Biden administration’s outlook on domestic energy also raises more questions than answers. The administration vows to “jump-start” the use of wind power – an initiative that many in the media and public policy seem eager to defend.
A recent report by National Public Radio claimed that “disinformation” about the economics of wind and solar power was influencing rural areas’ decisions on whether to approve large-scale wind and solar projects. According to Sarah Mills, a public-policy researcher at the University of Michigan, “These local officials are not necessarily experts in energy” and “misinformation can fuel restrictions that are more stringent than needed . . . and sometimes act as outright bans on renewable energy.”
Mills’s comments constitute a denial of the adverse economic effects – and quite possibly the negative health consequences – of building industrial wind in rural communities. Or perhaps she simply expects such communities to “take one for the team” by shouldering all the burdens required to meet her vision of a “sustainable” green-energy nirvana.
In terms of health effects of low-frequency noise emitted by wind turbines, there has been much research on that topic, and there is disagreement about the effects and their severity. For Mills to claim that restrictions are more stringent than needed is premature.
But in terms of wind-power economics, and the problems of integrating huge quantities of wind energy into the power grid, the picture is much clearer.
Wind-power generation is unreliable and expensive. Absent the federal production tax credit, subsidies for interconnecting to the high-voltage power grid that delivers electricity from generating plants to local distribution utilities, and mandates for local utilities to purchase wind (and solar) generation, far fewer wind turbines would be built, whether on land or at sea.
Just ask Warren Buffett, who said the only reason to build wind turbines was for the tax credits.
Despite benefiting from subsidies and mandates since Jimmy Carter was president, wind generation is still uncompetitive. So is solar, which suffers from the same intermittency problems as wind, along with not being available at night. And developing both will require huge investments in high-voltage power lines crisscrossing the country – power lines that environmentalists typically oppose.
Proponents like to claim that the U.S. should strive to meet all of its electricity needs with renewables, together with batteries to store electricity when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. That includes the additional electricity that will be needed after everyone is forced to drive an electric vehicle, rip out their gas furnaces and water heaters, and replace their gas stoves with electric ones.
Talk about disinformation. The U.S. can’t and won’t achieve this green nirvana, at least not if we want to have a standard of living anything like that of today. Yet, that is what the Biden administration is touting to “solve” the problem of high gasoline prices and galloping inflation.
Here are some numbers to consider. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2019, the U.S. consumed about 63 Quads of end-use energy. (A Quad is 1,000 trillion British thermal units, a common measure of energy consumption.) “End-use energy” means the energy used by cars and trucks, furnaces, manufacturing, and so forth.
In 2020, wind and solar power facilities, including rooftop solar, generated about 460 million megawatt-hours (MWh) of electricity. That’s about 1.5 Quads, which is a slight overestimate because it doesn’t account for the lost energy from transmitting and distributing electricity to end users.
To generate 63 Quads of energy, which is what environmentalists’ program of replacing all fossil fuels with renewable electricity would require, wind and solar would need to generate 42 times more electricity than they generated in 2020. Put differently, they’d need to produce 2 million MWh of electricity per hour to meet all U.S. energy needs. And wind and solar tend to be least available when electricity demand peaks in the early-morning and early-evening hours.
All of that wind and solar power would require backup with battery storage. How much battery storage? One Tesla Powerwall stores just under 14 kWh of electricity. That means that storing just one hour’s worth of average U.S. electricity use when everything is electrified would require over 180 million Powerwalls. Even if Tesla increased production of Powerwalls by tenfold to 1 million per year, that would still require 180 years of Powerwall production.
Even as gas prices soar to record highs in response to geopolitical factors, many rural Americans understand that today’s green-energy solutions won’t resolve current challenges. And they don’t want to play host to economic boondoggles by allowing construction of giant wind and solar farms in their backyards. They understand that carpeting rural lands with wind and solar is a fool’s errand. That’s not misinformation or disinformation. It’s basic arithmetic. Here’s hoping the Biden administration can do the math.
Mr. Lesser is the president of Continental Economics, an energy and economic consulting firm, and an adjunct fellow with the Manhattan Institute. His report “IS THERE A FUTURE FOR NUCLEAR POWER IN THE UNITED STATES?,” was published last month.
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