A wide variety of “de-carbonization” policies are being proposed at the federal, state, and local levels of government under the seductively populist branding of the “Green New Deal.”
Green New Deal advocates claim that the world will end (or be terribly unlivable) unless we immediately switch to a 100% renewable energy society. Save the planet and save yourself by embracing our ideas!
Unfortunately, politicians and the liberal media have failed to ask some very basic questions on the Green New Deal — which, if asked, would reveal the entire plan is completely unworkable.
Question 1: What is your proof that there is a pending “climate crisis,” and how can man really exercise control of the earth’s climate?
Green New Deal advocates have built their entire pitch not only on the notion that the earth faces a “climate crisis” that will devastate our planet, but that they believe they can control the climate to such a degree that they can save us.
Let’s start with the obvious: Yes, the Earth’s climate changes — and it always has.
Some 20,000 years ago, Canada, New England, and the upper Midwest were covered by the Laurentide Ice Sheet, an ice mass that would have buried present-day New York City and Boston. Between 18,000 and 10,000 years ago, the ice sheet retreated in a large-scale warming cycle, leaving us with coastlines and sea levels that have broadly persisted to the current day.
Science and the simple observation of the historical record 1 well document that the Earth has experienced periodic cycles of warm such as the Minoan, Roman, and Medieval warm periods and intervening cooler periods, such as the Little Ice Age from the 14th to 19th centuries. The warm periods are also known as “optima” because they are not incidentally related to agricultural surpluses and civilizational stability. The Romans grew grapes in Britain, and the advent of the Medieval Warm Period saw the Vikings colonize Greenland. These settlements were abandoned with onset of the Little Ice Age, which has been linked to the great 14th century famines and epidemics and ensuring political turmoil of Northern Europe2; at the height of the Little Ice Age, Alpine villages were destroyed by encroaching by glaciation.
It is reliably reported that the massive glacial melt and subsequent smaller cycles occurred without the presence of SUVs, or any other anthropogenic (i.e., human) influence. Are there anthropogenic effects? Of course. We know at the most basic level that a plowed field creates heat thermals, and that the paving and serried physical texture of cities makes them “heat islands” in hot summer weather.
But is this a crisis? Is the planet burning up? Not according to the many serious scientists, including the late Freeman Dyson, who are prominent enough not to be cancelled or cowed into silence.
Let’s consider the dubious track record of Green New Deal advocates. To put it mildly, they have a history of being completely wrong. These are the same folks who claimed in the 1970s that the earth was cooling, but by 1989 were making this alarming prediction through the United Nations:
Associated Press, June 30, 1989: A senior U.N. environmental official says entire nations could be wiped off the face of the Earth by rising sea levels if the global warming trend is not reversed by the year 2000.
Time and time again, none of the constantly renewed threats of imminent catastrophe have occurred. The IPCC models proved to have no predictive value. By the late 2000s, the preferred term of art amongst alarmists had shifted from “global warming” to “climate change,” apparently because the lack of evidence was too obvious.
Think back to basic middle school science: humans inhale oxygen (which is typically about 21% of air that is mostly nitrogen) and exhale CO2; plants absorb CO2 and produce oxygen in a beautiful ballet that is core to our existence. This is why, for example, we pump CO2 into greenhouses to improve plant yields.
Climate scientists — real scientists, such as William Happer and Richard Lindzen — have shown that CO2 levels have been much higher in geologic history, and that quite simply, there is no evidence tying “warming” or change to CO2 levels.3
There is much more here, including the dominance of other greenhouse gases such as water vapor, the effect of clouds and ocean cycles such as La Nina/El Nino, the rather significant variable of the sun itself, and the sheer impossibility of accurately modelling something as complex as global climate. Beyond this, warmer cycles are better for human life — as the cycles throughout recorded history have shown, colder weather is much more dangerous.4
As we have seen with the disaster of COVID-19, from gross misdiagnoses, hugely destructive shutdowns and mandates, and outright dangerous treatment regimens — including a now possibly damaging experimental vaccine — we now know that the community of medical and public health experts sought to shutter all dissent through direct censorship. Science, unfortunately, now follows the money, and “climate change” — which has been described as a “quasi-religious movement”5 — has primarily resulted in massive taxpayer subsidies to “green energy” interests. Everyone wants to feel virtuous about protecting the environment, and reducing pollution and striving for energy efficiency are worthwhile goals, but “environmentalism” has effectively been hijacked as climate hysteria that is leading down a dangerous path of economic self-destruction.
Even if there were a climate crisis, would you entrust its solution to the same politicians and “experts” who brought us the COVID-19 debacle?
Bonus Question 1.1: If you truly believe CO2 is an urgent issue, why are you not demanding massive energy transitions in China and India?
The United States has steadily cut its CO2 emissions as a result of the fracking revolution and shift to natural gas generation, while India and China continue to ramp up coal-fired generation aggressively.6 China already relies on coal for nearly 60% of electricity production, and has just approved a quadrupling of new coal construction over last year. On top of this, we see than Germany is reverting to coal, and reopening lignite mines to maintain energy security, despite massive investments in renewables over the past decade, China says it will reach peak carbon emissions by 2030, and achieve carbon-neutrality by 2060.
Color us skeptical. But beyond this, if you believe that CO2 is a danger, won’t this all be too late? Based on its newly released report7, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that the world has less than a decade left to make “deep, rapid and sustained greenhouse gas emissions reductions in all sectors. Emissions should be decreasing by now and will need to be cut by almost half by 2030”. Aside from the fact that the doomsday clock has —once more — been pushed back, doesn’t it seem that the United States is already doing more than its share?
Question 2: How will we electrify everything? (Or: when will the first Boeing 787 fly on batteries?)
Renewables advocates push for the replacement of fossil fuel within a few decades — if not sooner. Yet while the US electric grid is indeed an engineering marvel, in reality the grid only accounts for about 20% of end-use consumption — with the rest primarily reflecting direct consumption of petroleum and natural gas for transportation, industry (e.g., refining and chemicals), and commercial and residential use (e.g., heating). The electric grid consumes over a third of all sources, but only a third of this makes its way to end users as electricity because of losses in generation and transmission.8
The electric grid is very convenient, but not as energy-efficient as direct consumption of fuels, which is something that affects the ultimate environmental benefit of electric vehicles (EVs), particularly considering that EVs use vast amounts of minerals and metals that are very energy-intensive to mine and manufacture (and why EVs are substantially heavier). The relative inefficiency of the grid is also why cooking and heating directly with natural gas is some three times more energy efficient than using electricity; direct consumption is in general more efficient.9 This leaves aside the entire question of how the existing electric grid, which is already very efficiency-sensitive to distance, could handle four times its existing energy load with “total electrification.”
Electricity can be most usefully thought of as a medium for energy transfer. The alternating current (AC) transmitted and distributed by the grid does not exist in nature and doesn’t come from a wall socket, but must be manufactured by a generator spun by mechanical (wind; hydropower) or thermal (nuclear, coal, gas, oil) energy. Direct current (DC) electricity power can be produced by solar [photovoltaic, or PV] panels, but needs to be inverted to AC for grid use; more about this below. In this sense, the quip that an EV in the Upper Midwest — or China — is really a coal-powered vehicle is accurate.
Associated with the efficiency of direct use of fuels is the concept of “energy density,” best exemplified by the 16-gallon gasoline tank in a mid-sized internal combustion engine (ICE) car, which these days will enable over 550 miles of travel. We use fossil fuels because they have very high energy densities, and they are convenient to store and use.10 Another way to think of energy density is to compare the output per acre of a fossil fuel or nuclear power plant to the vast acreage required by a solar or wind farm, with much less power output. Energy density is why heavy trucks and construction equipment use diesel, rather than gasoline, and why a weight-sensitive jetliner uses kerosene, which has the highest density of any fossil fuel.
And we still need fossil fuels as chemical production feedstocks.
So, will a Boeing 787 fly on batteries? It won’t. Will we electrify everything? We can’t.
Question 3: Even if we switch to all-electric appliances, vehicles, and devices, where will all that new electricity come from?
The notion that we can readily replace fossil fuels with a combination of renewables and the presumed electrification of everything reflects a misunderstanding — if not denial — of the basic realities and physics of electricity and energy.
Renewables — by which we specifically mean wind and solar energy — have particular and significant drawbacks that not only degrade electric grid reliability, but which simply cannot address the power needs of a modern economy.
The attempt to replace a single MW of thermal generation with renewables requires multiple MWs — and even then, still requires thermal back-up. Other renewables such as hydropower are already limited and largely tapped put, while “biomass” involves combustion. Nuclear generation has a clear and important role, but has limitations for covering peak power demand; it also has a very long lead time for development, and nothing seems to be in the pipeline.
As we have now seen from the power failures across the Texas ERCOT system in February 2021, the near-blackouts in the Duke and TVA systems during the 2022 Christmas cold snap, and the more recent dire warnings about declining reliability and reserve levels from the large PJM system, the flooding of renewables into the electric grid create enormous problems for the reliability of systems — who have no control over the subsidized pricing that makes renewables artificially competitive.
We have come to take the utter reliability of the US electric grid — the “largest machine in the world” — for granted. Our computers, our Twitter feeds, and the internet — to say nothing of our lighting, our homes, our businesses — all rely on consistent, smooth, and constantly available power. But, as we see with South Africa’s ESKOM, it doesn’t take much for an electric grid — or civil society along with it — to collapse.
Transportation in the US alone consumes a third of energy inputs, 90% of which are petroleum, and only 6% renewables or power from the electric grid. If you assume that we are able convert half of the ICE transportation fleet to EVs, you will have to double the output and carrying capacity of the grid. Leaving the grid upgrade and expansion costs aside, you also would need to double the entire existing energy input into the grid to cover the shift in load from petroleum.
Given that the average construction time for a nuclear plant now exceeds seven years, why are new plants not being proposed or undergoing their permitting projects? How can EVs succeed if there is no additional electricity?
Wind and solar renewables alone cannot solve the shortage because of their power intermittency and grid-destabilizing characteristics.
Could it be renewable energy advocates really do not understand these basic issues of physics? Or, perhaps the real intent is to simply reduce transportation and other everyday uses of energy? The recent rise in media narratives surrounding “15-minute cities” suggests the answer may very well be “yes.”
Question 4: How will you solve the intermittency and unreliability of renewables? (Hint: “Assume a battery” isn’t the answer)
The inescapable intermittency of wind and solar is a main reason why this power is naturally more expensive, and a further reason while we will still need fossil fuels such as natural gas. Solar is obviously intermittent, because of the reality of nighttime and cloudy weather. Wind is even more unpredictable. It is an ancient technology, in use for over a millennia for grinding flour, and famous for reclaiming the Dutch polders from the North Sea beginning as far back as the 12th century.11 Prefabricated Aerometer windmills remain iconic images of rural US, where they were also used to pump water. But as these historic uses show, wind power makes practical and economic sense when it is harnessed to tasks like milling and pumping that themselves can be carried out intermittently.
But electricity demand is not intermittent, and it must be satisfied immediately.
When confronted with the severe intermittency problems of solar and wind power as applied to the electric grid — their passive dependence upon weather, low effective capacity, and generally poor reliability — the first instinct of renewable proponents is, like the old joke about the economist12 to lean back thoughtfully and “assume a battery.”
But batteries don’t create power; they simply store it, and their capability for grid level use is still very limited and very expensive.
Commercial batteries have been around a long time. They were among the first and longest-lived of Edison’s many innovative industrial products in the late 19th century— and were originally designed for automotive use. Even so, some 130 years later, we have never achieved meaningful grid-level battery storage aside from pumped hydro. The photographs of the vast arrays of container-sized batteries adjacent to the even vaster solar farm on the California CCA website13 are impressive visuals, but the newest battery arrays now only last up to four hours. Real work — running motors, as opposed to electronics or lighting — consumes a lot of energy. If you have ever bought an emergency home generator, you know that the kilowatts you need are primarily determined by the motors you have to run — the refrigerator compressor, the garage door openers, the well, and heating pumps.
Even if you had perfect grid-level battery storage and transmission from remote sites — say two weeks — you would still need multiples of wind and solar projects to replace thermal generation. This is physical reality. With only eight hours of useful sunlight per day, a solar panel has at best a 33% capacity factor, which drops with cloudy or rainy weather, poor atmospheric conditions, and weaker wintertime insulation. Wind power similarly has a capacity factor in the 30% range or less, though offshore wind may achieve 40% levels.14 Thermal plants, by contrast, can operate 24/7 as needed, and typically exhibit capacity factors in the mid 90% range outside of scheduled maintenance.
What this means is that, to replace a 500 MW coal plant, you would need 1500 MW or more of wind capacity — or 2500 MW of solar. And that assumes multi-day battery storage that might enable the accumulation of enough power to cover the intermittency, but that storage ability does not exist outside of pumped hydro.15 Even then, with a few rainy or low wind days, the batteries are drawn down, and renewable capacity simply ceases to exist.
PJM’s February 2023 paper warning about declining grid reliability and reserve margins with the advent of renewables and thermal retirements — both dictated by political policy — cites even more conservative values,16 noting that on average replacing a single 1 MW of thermal generation requires 5.2 MW of solar, 14.0 MW of onshore wind, and 3.9 MW of offshore wind. These values appear to reflect PGM’s concern with diminishing returns, where the more renewables in a system, the more thermal ramp-up is necessary to cover the sudden loss of power when night falls or the wind dies. A recent study by the New England systems operator found that reserve margins — back-up generation from all sources —would have to increase to as much as 300% from the normal 15% to ensure reliability under various future ”deep decarbonization” scenarios.17
There seems to be much debate about the cost-transparency of battery projects, such as in California, and the concerns about energy and mineral consumption noted earlier apply here as well. The evidence suggests that grid-level battery storage is vastly expensive — a price tag that is on the order of annual US GDP18 — made more so by the fact that the unreliability of renewable energy would require vast amounts of storage that increases as fossil fuel use declines. Like much else in green energy, this is highly dependent upon subsidy and is not economic on its own.
Want to know why the cost of power in California keeps rising? Maybe it’s the fact that you have to build at least twice the capacity in renewables and still maintain fossil fuel back-up to replace existing generation.
This is also a prime reason why the natural gas industry is perfectly happy to stand by and watch renewables flood the market; they know that every renewable MW needs one or more MW of natural gas generation — to sustain grid reliability — primarily because natural gas can be ramped up within minutes (unlike coal or nuclear). In other words, the natural gas industry wins either way, but every day consumers must pay more.
Question 5: How much renewable energy can you impose before the AC grid collapses?
Even if you could build a 100% renewables-based system — in other words, you have solved the battery storage problem and replaced all thermal generation with five or more times the capacity with wind and solar — the grid could not function. As we have shown, the grid operates on AC power, which is man-made and doesn’t exist in nature, as does DC power.
AC power flow can only be created by a spinning generator turbine powered by mechanical energy — in turn produced by steam or gas expansion, an ICE, or waterflow (i.e., nuclear, fossil fuel, or hydro). The mechanical inertia from many spinning generators in an AC system is itself critical to maintaining AC flow — and frequency and phase — which smooths out variations in energy demand throughout the day. Solar and wind power can be added to and matched to the AC flow, but they cannot create or maintain it by themselves.
Photovoltaic or PV solar panels can only produce DC power,19 which has to be inverted to AC to be used by the grid. Whether at the rooftop or solar farm scale, a relatively simple “grid tie inverter” senses the phase and frequency of the grid AC and, via electronic switches, converts the straight-line DC power into grid-compliant fluctuating AC. Wind turbines mechanically rotate generators and thus produce AC power when they spin, but the many turbines across a wind farm have to be converted to match the phase and frequency of the AC grid; wind turbine AC is thus converted to DC at the wind farm level, and then tie-inverted back into AC power to match the grid’s phase and frequency.
So, while solar and wind can be matched to the AC grid’s frequency and phase, they can’t practically create or maintain that dominant AC flow, which can only be produced by an array of centralized spinning turbines and their inertia. “Spinning reserve” means just that — a thermally powered AC generator that can be dispatched 24/7, with reserve mechanical capacity that can be tapped at a moment’s notice to keep the AC current flowing with demand. Theoretically, the battery array alongside a solar farm could be used to spin an AC generator, but that would largely negate the value of the battery itself.
Renewables of all types (including AC-generating hydropower and biomass) now produce around 12% of total energy in the US, about half of which goes into the AC grid. What is the threshold beyond which an AC grid system can no longer absorb DC renewables?20
Final Bonus Question: How much will the Green New Deal cost the average consumer?
Too much. Need a quick example? Take a look at your current electricity and gas rates! READ: The Real Cost Drivers Behind California Electricity and Gas Utility Rate Spikes
Al Medioli is a Senior Fellow at the Transparency Foundation
1 The Romans grew grapes in Scotland, for example
2 William Rosen, The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Greta Famine of the 14th Century, Viking, New York 2014
8 EIA energy balance sheet chart
9 T2 report Levelized Cost of Energy
10 Nuclear fuel has by far the highest energy density, but as far as convenience is typically only used in ships
11 The Dutch, who have built one of the economically strongest world economies on a tiny land mass a full third of which is below sea level, are a standing rebuke to the climate alarmists, and irrefutable evidence of the incremental ability to adapt to environmental change. The Dutch are not panicked about sea level rise.
12 The punchline to an old joke about a group of academics stranded on a desert island with a cache of canned food but no tools has the economist, after much thought, finally proclaiming “assume a can-opener.”
14 A mid-2022 study from the Geological Survey of Finland cites 2018 Global Energy Observatory findings that solar PV produced 11.4% of the calendar year, while wind produced 24.9% of the calendar year.
15 Which clearly cannot be built everywhere, as it requires a hilltop reservoir
16Energy Transition in PJM: Resource Retirements, Replacements & Risks Feb. 24, 2023
19 Thermal solar (aka “concentrated solar power”) can power a steam turbine generator; based on arrays of rotating parabolic mirrors, this is much more complex than static PV panels and is not suitable for rooftops (though fixed panels can produce hot water for domestic use)
20 This begs the question of a radical grid redesign and implementation of a new ”smart grid”, that combines distributed DC generation from rooftop solar with direct recharge of EV batteries. An intelligent distributed generation system would also use natural gas-fired ”combined heat and power,” given its high potential energy efficiencies. Aside from the fact that such a smart grid is somewhere in the distant future, it would likely render the new, subsidy-dependent remote battery arrays obsolete.