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Coerced conversion to renewable energy sources will degrade human living conditions. That’s certainly true relative to a voluntary conversion actuated by purely private incentives. It’s likely to be true even in an absolute sense, depending on the speed and severity of the forced transition. A coerced conversion will mean lower real incomes during the transition (one recent estimate: $42,000 total loss per U.S. household to transition by 2030), and the losses will continue after the transition, with little redeeming improvement in environmental conditions or risk.

The Reality

There are several underpinnings for the assertions above. One is that the sensitivity of global temperatures to carbon forcings is relatively low. We know all too well that the climate models relied upon by warming alarmists have drastically over-estimated the extent of warming to date. The models are excessively sensitive to carbon emissions and promote an unwarranted urgency to DO SOMETHING… with other people’s money. There is also the question of whether moderate warming is really a bad thing given that it is likely to mean fewer cold-weather fatalities, increased agricultural productivity, and significant reforestation.

Another underpinning is that the real economics of renewable energy are vastly inferior to fossil fuels and will remain so for some time to come. Proponents of renewables tend to quote efficiencies under optimal operating conditions, free of pesky details like the cost of installing a vast support infrastructure and environmental costs of producing components. Solar and wind energy are tremendously inefficient in terms of land use. One estimate is that meeting a 100% renewable energy target in the U.S. today would require acreage equivalent to the state of California. And of course rare earth minerals must be mined for wind turbines and solar panels, and fossil fuels are needed to produce materials like the steel used to build them.

But the chief renewable bugaboo is that the power generated by wind and solar is intermittent. Our ability to store power is still extremely limited, so almost all surplus energy production is lost. Therefore, intermittency necessitates redundant generating capacity, which imposes huge costs. When the winds are calm and the sun isn’t shining, traditional power sources are needed to meet demand. That redundant capacity must be maintained and kept on-line, as these facilities are even costlier to power up from a dead start.

LA Hucksterism

These issues are typified by the unrealistic expectations of Los Angeles’ plan to replace 7% of the city’s power consumption with renewables. The cost predicted by LA regulators is slightly less than 2 cents per kilowatt hour for solar and even less for battery power, which are unrealistically low. For one thing, those are probably operating costs that do not account for capital requirements. The plan promises to provide power 16 hours a day at best, but it’s not clear that the 7% estimate of the renewable share takes that into account or whether the real figure should be 4.2% of LA’s power needs. The project will require 2,600 acres for solar panels, and if it’s like other solar plant installations, the stated capacity is based on the few hours of the day when the sun’s rays are roughly perpendicular to the panels. So it’s likely that the real cost of the power will be many times the estimates, though taxpayers will subsidize 30% or more of the total. And then there is the negative impact on birds and other wildlife.

The Question of Intent

Michael Schellenberger goes so far as to say that a degraded standard of living is precisely what many fierce renewable advocates have long intended. Modern comforts are simply not compatible with 100% renewable energy any time soon, or perhaps ever given the investment involved, but a target of 100% was not really intended to be compatible with modern comforts. In fact, the renewable proposition was often intermingled with celebration of a more austere, agrarian lifestyle. Schellenberger discusses the case of Martin Heidegger, an early anti-technologist who said in 1954 that modern technology “puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy....” Of course, Heidegger was not talking about the use of solar panels. Others, like Murray Bookchin, were ultimately quite explicit about the “promise” of renewables to dial-back industrial society in favor of an agrarian ideal. And here’s a quote from a new book by John Barry, Professor of “Green Political Economy” (!) at Queen’s University Belfast:

The first question which serves as the starting point of this chapter is to ask if the objective of economic growth is now ecologically unsustainable, socially divisive and has in many countries passed the point when it is adding to human wellbeing?”

If that’s the question, the answer is no! The quote is courtesy of David Middleton. Green Professor Barry has one thing right, however: growing anything will be tough after crowding erstwhile farm and forest land with solar panels and wind turbines. But at least someone “green” is willing to admit some economic realities, something many alarmists and politicians are loath to do.

Welfare Loss

Involuntary actions always involve a welfare loss, as “subjects” must sacrifice the additional value they’d otherwise derive from their own choices. So it is that coerced adoption of renewables implies a starker outcome than zero economic growth. Objective measurement of all welfare costs is difficult, but we know that the adoption of renewables implies measurable up-front and ongoing economic losses. Matt Ridley notes that the impact of those losses falls hardest on the poor, whose energy needs absorb a large fraction of income. This, along with fundamental impracticality and high costs, accounts for the populist backlash against radical efforts to promote renewables in some European states. The politics of forced adoption of renewables is increasingly grim, but attempts to sell a centrally-planned energy sector based on renewables continue.

Ridley is rightly skeptical of carbon doomsday scenarios, but the pressure to curb carbon emissions will remain potent. He advocates a different form of intervention: essentially a carbon tax on producers with proceeds dedicated to new, competing sequestration or carbon capture technologies. Still coercive, the tax itself requires an estimate of the “economic cost of carbon”, which is of tremendously uncertain magnitude. The tax, of course, has the potential to do real harm to the economy. On the other hand, Ridley is correct in asserting that the effort to fund competing carbon-capture projects would leverage powerful market forces and perhaps hasten breakthroughs.

Mandated Misery

The attempt to force a complete conversion to renewable energy sources is meeting increasing political challenges as its cost is revealed more clearly by experience. Alarmists have long recognized the danger of economic damage, however. Thus, they try to convince us that economic growth and our current standards of living aren’t as good as we think they are, and they continue to exaggerate claims about the promise of renewable technologies. One day, some of these technologies will be sufficiently advanced that they will be economically viable without taxpayer subsidies. The conversion to renewables should be postponed until that day, when users can justify the switch in terms of costs and benefits, and do so voluntarily without interference by government planners.