Backup Capacity, Brad Allenby, Carbon Capture, Cost Parity, Decarbonization, El Hierro, Ezra Klein, Francis Minton, Geothermal, Green Energy, Green Mandates, Hydrocarbons, Intermittancy, Joseph Sternberg, Land Use Requirements, Legal Insurrection, Lithium Batteries, Manhattan Contrarian, Mark P. Mills, Murtaza Hussain, Net Zero, Rare Earth Minerals, Renewable, Solar Power, The Intercept, Tuomas Malinen, Walter Jacobson, Wind Power
A number of countries have targeted net zero carbon dioxide emissions, to be achieved within various “deadlines” over the next few decades. The target dates currently range from 2030 -2050. Political leaders around the world are speaking in the tongues favored by climate change fundamentalism, as Brad Allenby aptly named the cult some years ago. The costly net zero goal is a chimera, however. The effort to completely substitute renewables — wind and solar — for fossil fuels will fail without question. In fact, net zero carbon emissions is unlikely to be achieved anywhere in this century without massive investments in nuclear power. Wind and solar energy suffer from a fatal flaw: intermittency. They will never be able to provide for all energy needs without a drastic breakthrough in battery technology, which is not on the horizon. Geothermal power might make a contribution, but it won’t make much of a dent in our energy needs any time soon. Likewise, carbon capture technology is still in its infancy, and it cannot be expected to offset much of the carbon released by our unavoidable reliance on fossil fuels.
Exposing Green Risks
The worst of it is that net zero mandates will inflict huge costs on society. Indeed, various efforts to force conversion to “green” energy technologies have already raised costs and exposed humanity to immediate threats to health and well being. These realities are far more palpable than the risks posed by speculative model predictions of climate change decades ahead. As Joseph Sternberg notes at the link above, climate policies:
“… have created an energy system of dangerous rigidity and inefficiency incapable of adapting to a blow such as Russia’s partial exit from the European gas market. It’s almost inevitable that the imminent result will be a recession in Europe. We can only hope that it won’t also trigger a global financial crisis.”
Escalating energy costs are inflicting catastrophic harm on businesses large and small throughout the West, but especially in Europe and the UK. A Finnish economist recently commented on these conditions, as quoted by Walter Jacobson at the Legal Insurrection blog:
Jacobson also offers the following quote from Murtaza Hussain of The Intercept:
“If you turned the electricity off for a few months in any developed Western society 500 years of supposed philosophical progress about human rights and individualism would quickly evaporate like they never happened.”
Where’s the Proof of Concept?
This is not all about Russian aggression, however. We’ve seen the cost consequences of “green” mandates and forced conversion to wind and solar in places like California, Texas, and Germany even before Russia invaded Ukraine and began starving Europe of natural gas.
Frances Minton at the Manhattan Contrarian blog points to one of the most remarkable aspects of the singular focus on net zero: the complete absence of any successful demonstration project anywhere on the globe! The closest things to such a test are cited by Minton. One is on El Hierro in Spain’s Canary Islands, which has wind turbine capacity of more than double average demand, It also has pumped storage with hydro generators for more than double average demand. In 2020, however, El Hierro took all of its power from the combined wind/storage system only about 15% of the time. 2021 didn’t look much better. Diesel power is used to fill in the frequent “shortfalls”.
The land use requirements of a large scale transition to wind and solar are incredible, given projected technological capabilities. Ezra Klein explains:
“The center of our decarbonization strategy is an almost unimaginably large buildup of wind and solar power. To put some numbers to that: A plausible path to decarbonization, modeled by researchers at Princeton, sees wind and solar using up to 590,000 square kilometers – which is roughly equal to the land mass of Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Ohio, Rhode Island and Tennessee put together. ‘The m footprint is very, very large, and people don’t really understand that,’ Danny Cullenward, co author of ‘Making Climate Policy Work’, told me.”
That’s a major obstacle to accelerating the transition to wind and solar power, but there are many others.
A Slap of Realism
Mark P. Mills elaborates on the daunting complexity and costs of the transition, and like land use requirements, they are all potential show stoppers. It’s a great article excepting a brief section that reveals a poor understanding of monetary theory. Putting that aside, it’s first important to reemphasize what should be obvious: shutting down production of fossil fuels makes them scarce and more costly,. This immediately reduces our standard of living and hampers our future ability to respond to tumultuous circumstances as are always likely to befall us. Mills makes that abundantly clear:
“… current policies and two decades of mandates and spending on a transition have led to escalating energy prices that help fuel the destructive effects of inflation. The price of oil, which powers nearly 97% of all transportation, is on track to reach or exceed half-century highs, and gasoline prices have climbed. The price of natural gas, accounting for 40% of all industrial energy use and one-fourth of global electricity, has soared past a decadal high. Coal prices are also at a decadal high. Coal fuels 40% of global electricity; it is also used to make 70% of all steel and accounts for half its cost of production.
It bears noting that energy prices started soaring, and oil breached $100 a barrel, well before Russia invaded Ukraine in late February. The fallout from that invasion has hardened, not resolved, the battle lines between those advocating for and those skeptical of government policies directed at accelerating an energy transition. …
Civilization still depends on hydrocarbons for 84% of all energy, a mere two percentage points lower than two decades ago. Solar and wind technologies today supply barely 5% of global energy. Electric vehicles still offset less than 0.5% of world oil demand.”
As Mills says, it surprises most people that today’s high tech sectors, such as electronic devices like phones and computers, and even drugs, require much more energy relative to product size and weight than traditional manufactured goods. Even the cloud uses vast quantities of energy. Yet U.S. carbon intensity per dollar of GDP has declined over the past 20 years. That’s partly due to the acquisition of key components from abroad, mitigation efforts here at home, and the introduction of renewables. However, the substitution of natural gas for other fossil fuels played a major role. Still, our thirst for energy intensive technologies will cause worldwide demand for energy to continue to grow, and renewables won’t come close to meeting that demand.
Policy makers have been deceived by cost estimates associated with additions of renewable capacity. That’s due to the fiction that renewables can simply replace hydrocarbons, but the intermittency of solar and wind power mean that demand cannot be continuously matched by renewables capacity. Additions to renewables capacity requires reliable and sometimes redundant backup capacity. At the risk of understatement, this necessity raises the marginal cost of renewable additions significantly if the hope is to meet growth in demand.
Furthermore, as Mills points out, renewables have not reached cost parity with fossil fuels, contrary to media hype and an endless flow of propaganda from government and the “green” investors seeking rents from government. Subsidies to renewables have created an illusion that costs that are lower than they are in reality.
So Many Snags
From Mills, here are a few of the onerous cost factors that will present severe obstacles to even a partial transition to renewables:
- Even with the best battery technology now available, using lithium, storing power is still extremely expensive. Producing and storing it at scale for periods long enough to serve as a true source of power redundancy is prohibitive.
- The infrastructure buildout required for a hypothetical transition to zero-carbon is massive. The quantity of raw materials needed would be far in excess of those used in our investments in energy infrastructure over at least the past 60 years.
- Even the refueling infrastructure required for a large increase in the share of electronic vehicles on the road would require a massive investment, including more land and at much greater expense than traditional service stations. That’s especially true considering the grid enhancements needed to deliver the power.
- The transition would place a huge strain on the world’s ability to mine minerals such as lithium, graphite, nickel, and rare earths. Mills puts the needed increases in supply at 4,200%, 2,500%, 1,900%, and 700%, respectively, by 2040. In fact, the known global reserves of these minerals are inadequate to meet these demands.
- Mining today is heavily reliant on hydrocarbon power, of course. Moreover, all this mining activity would have devastating effects on the environment, as would disposal of “green” components as they reach their useful lives. The latter is a disaster we’re already seeing played out in the third world, where we are exporting much of our toxic, high-tech waste.
- The time it would take to make the transition to zero carbon would far exceed the timetable specified in the mandates already in place. It’s realistic to admit that development of new mines, drastic alterations of land use patterns, construction of new generating capacity, and the massive infrastructure buildout will stretch out for many decades.
- Given U.S. dependence on imports of a large number of minerals now considered “strategic”, decarbonization will require a major reconfiguration of supply chains. In fact, political instability in parts of the world upon which we currently rely for supplies of these minerals makes the entire enterprise quite brittle relative to reliance on fossil fuels.
The demands for raw materials, physical capital and labor required by the imagined transition to net zero carbon dioxide emissions will put tremendous upward pressure on prices. The coerced competition for resources will mean sacrifices in other aspects of our standard of living, and it will have depressing effects on other markets, causing their relative prices to decline.
For all the effort and cost of the mandated transition, what will we get? Without major investments in reliable but redundant backup capacity, we’ll get an extremely fragile electric grid, frequent power failures, a diminished standard of living, and roughly zero impact on climate. In other words, it will be a major but unnecessary and predictably disastrous exercise in central planning. We’ve already seen the futility of this effort in the few, small trials that have been undertaken, but governments, rent-seeking investors, and green activists can’t resist plunging us headlong into the economic abyss. Don’t let them do it!