Despite the 57-0 drubbing the Green New Deal (GND) recently took in the Senate, its central thesis is not going away. Last week from his perch at the New York Times, Paul Krugman advised that “the Green New Deal is arguably an exercise in pragmatism” and “a proposal for economic transformation.” For his part, Al Gore has doubled down on his support for “the spirit” of the GND, intoning that we need “to move as quickly as possible to a carbon-free economy.”
The truth is that the GND is merely the latest in a long series of claims that a “new energy economy” is not only important but an inevitability. The origins are actually far older than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Just one example: “There can be no more urgent task for mankind than to find, as rapidly as possible, alternatives to burning” fossil fuels. Such was the conclusion of a major energy study published in 1974. That’s been the conventional wisdom — and policy — for 45 years.
However, after nearly a half-century and literally trillions of dollars spent in pursuit of a “new energy economy,” oil, natural gas, and coal still supply over 80% of global (and America’s) energy. But that reality has done nothing to mute the call to shift our economy to one fueled by wind, solar and batteries. When confronted with the staggering economic and practical hurdles, what we encounter a conga line of pundits and politicians invoking — drum roll — the spirit of a moon shot.
Considering that this year is, after all, the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, it should be no surprise that a raft of Senators, including Murphy (D-CT), Booker (D-NJ), and Gillibrand (D-NY), all specifically invoked the need for a GND moonshot. Sympathetic headlines also invoke a “clean-energy moonshot.” California — surprise — has it’s own Clean Energy Moonshot project.
But when it comes to true societal-scale challenges — not trivial PR like Nike’s “moonshot of human potential” for marathon runners — the moon landing is a silly analogy. Transforming the energy economy is not like putting a dozen people on the moon a half dozen times. It is like putting all of humanity on the moon — permanently. The science and engineering for that just doesn’t exist.
It distills to this: when it comes to our energy supply, physics has become subsidiary to loony aspirations. It bears noting that it would take 100 years after the first modern dream of getting to the moon (Jules Verne’s 1865 book) before science and engineering advanced enough to make it possible to plan and build machines for an actual moon landing. The pursuit of goals in the here-and-now has to deal with the realities of the engineering that exists, and what physics permits.
Consider a set of five numbers that illuminate this reality.
1: Begin with one of nature’s strangest laws, the law of inertia. Societies are physical systems and the rate at which any kind of change can be implemented is anchored in the scale of what one is trying to change. Simplistically, it’s far easier to steer a bumble-bee than a Boeing. So, in order to visualize the scale challenge:
What happens when only one billion people, say, out of the six billion total in the world’s emerging economies, increase their energy use to a level of only one-half the per capita we use in the U.S.? Global energy use will explode by an amount equal to adding an entire United States worth of demand.
2: Meanwhile, over the past two decades, total world energy use rose by 50%, an amount equal to adding two entire United States’ worth of demand. And despite massive subsidies and popular media visuals of fields festooned with windmills and rooftops laden with solar cells, those two energy sources don’t even provide 2% of global energy.
3: One can generate three million kilowatt-hours of electricity over a 30-year period by spending $10 thousand on a shale well, and burning the natural gas produced. You get about 500 thousand kilowatt-hours over that same period if you spend the same amount on wind/solar technology. The same capital spent on solar/wind hardware yields just 15% as much energy. Why? Wind/solar energy is much more diffuse than inherently energy-dense hydrocarbons.
Yes, wind and solar technology are improving, but so are the underlying technologies in producing shale hydrocarbons. And the implicit, if not explicit, belief that wind/solar can yet improve at the kind of rate we’ve seen for information tech is genuinely a form of magical thinking. In any case, any “urgent” policy to expand wind/solar now will necessarily use the technologies that exist today.
4: Enthusiasts forecast four hundred million electric cars (EVs) on the world’s roads in two decades — 100 times more than today. Even if that happens, those EVs would eliminate only 5% of global oil use. The math here is simple: a 400 million EV future would comprise 20% of the 2 billion cars on the world’s roads in 2040; cars use less than 30% of world oil.
5: Electric utilities have quietly added to the grid some five billion dollars worth of oil- and gas-burning reciprocating engines (think, big cruise-ship-like diesel engines). In fact, since the year 2000, the U.S. grid has added three times as many such big fuel-burning engines as were added over the previous half-century. How come? Around the year 2000 big wind installations got rolling. And when wind unexpectedly disappears, giant automobile-like engines are one of the few machines that can ramp up fast enough to keep homes and the Internet lit. This is just one of many ‘invisible’ subsidies that are incurred by adding episodic power to grids.
Yes, batteries are an option. But let’s return to the scale challenge (never mind costs). Records show it’s common for the entire American continent to experience dense cloud cover together with no wind for at least two days. Producing the quantity of batteries needed to store just two days of U.S. electric demand would require 1,000 years of output from the world’s biggest battery factory — Tesla’s Gigafactory in Nevada.
The world will doubtless install far more wind and solar farms, and lots of batteries — though it’s likely China will be the manufacturer and exporter of much, if not most of that hardware. The bottom line reality is that the scale of global energy appetites requires the proverbial “all of the above” approach. But an all solar-wind world is more than a “moonshot.” It’s a Jules Verne type dream.
Mark P. Mills is a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and author of the recently released report, "The New Energy Economy: An Exercise In Magical Thinking."