What If It Doesn’t Work?

I watched the second round of the Democratic Presidential Debates this week. Among other issues, all 20-something Democratic presidential candidates endorse plans to reduce carbon emissions by 2025 or proposals to ban all carbon emissions by 2050 as a major plank in their platforms.

And, it doesn’t stop with presidential candidates. It is everywhere and all the time. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has effectively prohibited the expansion of natural gas usage in the New York City area by blocking permits for new natural gas pipelines into growing areas. The city of Berkley, California, will not allow any new natural gas connections after January 1, 2020 and has plans to become a zero-carbon emitting community by eliminating all fossil fuels, including private transportation. The state of California has instituted a carbon-free emissions program by 2045. More than a hundred cities across the country are touting a carbon-free footprint or plans to be carbon-free in the not-so-distant future. I recently talked to a lady roughly my age who passionately said, “We have to do something to keep my grandchildren from stewing in their own juices.”

To say hydrocarbons and carbon emissions are out of favor among the political class and across portions of the country is a dramatic understatement. Proponents of a carbon-free world tout that wind and solar combined with batteries will add more than two-and-a-half times more energy to the world over the next decade than U.S. shale oil production has over the past 15 years.

Those are very optimistic, if not unrealistic, goals. To accomplish zero-carbon emissions, two-thirds of today’s electric generation sources will have to be displaced, new ways to heat homes and businesses currently heated with gas or oil will have to be identified, the country’s entire transportation fleet will have to be replaced over the next 25 years with carbon-free alternatives, and growth will have to be served by carbon-free services. And, it all has to be done in a way that is efficient and affordable.

Despite politicians racing headlong into joining the Paris Climate Change Agreement, only seven small countries have come close to meeting their carbon reduction pledges. The International Energy Agency states 2018 world energy demand grew by the fastest pace this decade with fossil fuels providing 70% of the energy growth for the second straight year.

If the U.S. economy must be converted to carbon-free energy within two-and-a-half decades, why is energy growth still coming from fossil fuels? Despite what anyone may want, the answer is that renewable energy even with government subsidies remains too expensive. Will the public and growing or shrinking economies tolerate energy starvation in a digital world if the zero-carbon emission plans don’t work or are too expensive for ordinary people to afford?

We in the Southeast have a particularly difficult challenge. There is little or no wind generation potential and the abundance and movement of clouds makes solar more of a reliability challenge than in the West, which has fewer clouds. People generally say we will just move all that wind and solar in the West to the South and the East where the people live. However, that task would be one of the greatest and most expensive engineering feats in history. The cost of electricity — and therefore the cost of everything — will dramatically increase in cost in a carbon-free world. That means air conditioning, heating, eating, driving, computing, manufacturing and everything else will be much more expensive.

Solar generation will also change our countryside and the natural beauty of the country to a sea of solar panels. There are currently 59 nuclear power plants with 97 operating nuclear units in the country, which provide about 20% of the electricity and 10% of the energy consumed in the U.S. PowerSouth is investing in Vogtle Units 3 and 4, the only nuclear units currently under construction in the U.S. The two new nuclear units provide a very, very small fraction of the country’s electricity, but replacing the electricity they generate would require approximately 64,000 acres (100 square miles or an area 10 miles by 10 miles square) of solar panels and a massive battery system. The coal and natural gas electric generation fleet dwarfs the nuclear fleet. How much land will be needed to replace that generation and how much land will be left for something other than solar panels? I didn’t hear that from the presidential candidates this week.

Zero-carbon emission energy programs are not the foundation of a bright economic future for our country. What if plans to transform our use of energy don’t work or are prohibitively expensive for ordinary people? Maybe climate change is not the existential threat that the promises and plans of zero-carbon emission advocates are.

I hope you have a good month.