As children we learned the truism that “there is no free lunch.”
However, this lesson seems to have been lost on many California climate activists, academics and legislators who tout “all or nothing” proposals involving renewable energy while forgetting that even carbon-free energy has many hidden costs in the form of lost jobs, toxic waste, wildlife depletion and energy poverty. The entire life-cycle of renewables, not just their use, must be factored into a serious analysis of their costs and benefits. This life-cycle includes mining, production, recycling and disposal.
This is particularly important because California climate activists are often drawn to “all or nothing” proposals instead of reasonable climate-mitigation policies that can gain broad support. They insist on 100 percent of this (renewable energy) and zero of that (fossil fuels).
The hidden costs of renewables
As a new infographic prepared by California Resources Corporation (CRC) demonstrates, the entire life-cycle of renewables, not just their use, must be factored into any serious analysis of their costs and benefits. Per CRC:
“Renewables are not as reliable [as fossil fuels], nor are they free. All forms of energy have social, environmental and economic costs and impacts, including wind and solar. The key to California’s vibrant future is producing an affordable, reliable mix of local traditional and renewable energy sources to power our state’s diverse communities.”
Let’s take a quick look at some of the costs of renewables, from mining to disposal, that CRC has identified.
- Solar panels, batteries, electric cars, wind turbines (not to mention wireless devices and many commercial products) rely on cobalt and other rare earth elements, which are not readily available.
- China produces more than 80 percent of rare earth elements and has 36 percent of the world’s rare earth deposits. The Democratic Republic of Congo produces more than 50 percent of the world’s cobalt. The United States holds or produces less than 1 percent of these critical materials.
- Mining one metric ton of rare earth elements, which would be enough to produce two commercial power wind turbines, generates 9,600 cubic meters of waste gas, 75 cubic meters of acidic wastewater and approximately one ton of radioactive waste.
- Wind and solar energy have a significant effect on wildlife. As California mandates increasing the use of wind and solar energy, this should be taken into account.
- Wind turbines kill 573,000 birds, including 83,000 raptors, and over 888,000 bats every year.
- In the Mojave Desert, one solar plant alone incinerates 3,500 birds each year.
- California has more than 35 million registered vehicles, including emergency vehicles. Forcing Californians to convert to higher-priced electric vehicles would hurt working families, reduce consumers’ freedom to choose how to get around, and require our state to generate or import significantly more electricity than we do today for 24/7 coverage. As noted previously, the automobile market is moving in a lower-carbon direction already.
Mandates and subsidies
California has the highest poverty rate in the nation, and a worsening housing crisis. Households living in poverty are being pushed to live further away from their work, on routes unavailable via mass transit. In addition, most households cannot afford to purchase solar power systems, even with government subsidies, which are set to expire.
- Mandating renewable energy can equate to a wrong-direction wealth transfer that adds to California’s high cost of living and hurts housing affordability.
- In fact, nearly one million California households already live in energy poverty
- Californians pay some of the highest electricity rates in the nation, with inland communities paying tiered rates that people living on the cooler coastline do not experience.
- The safe handling and disposal of the batteries that are the key component of electric vehicles and proposed solar power storage systems is a growing challenge.
- In in less than 20 years, there may be seven million used electric vehicle battery packs in the U.S., mostly in California. The life cycle cost of mining, manufacturing, recycling and disposing of batteries must be considered when evaluating the use of EVs and solar in our energy mix.
Having a clear understanding that, though renewables play an important role in our energy mix, they are not a panacea that can thrive without other traditional energy sources. As noted previously, this is especially important in California where legislators and academics try to pretend that “all or nothing” approaches are cost-free.
Two recent examples are noteworthy.
Last year California’s overwhelmingly Democratic legislature defeated a bill that would have required all of California’s electricity to come from non-carbon sources.
Not to be outdone, Assembly member Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) this year introduced a bill that would potentially upend California’s – and eventually the nation’s economy – by banning the sale of any vehicle with an internal combustion engine (ICE) after 2040.
The proposed law, Assembly Bill 1745, is dubbed the “Clean Cars Act,” which appears to dismiss the enormous efforts that regulators and industry have undertaken to make cars increasingly less emission-intensive. The bill spares almost no vehicles on the road today. Cars with high gas mileage like the Honda Accord? Gone in 22 years. Hybrids like the Toyota Prius? Ditto. Plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt? Even these are too “dirty” for Mr. Ting. And you can forget about more functional vehicles like Ford F-150 trucks.
As columnist Justin Salters put it in the Bakersfield Californian:
“California already has the most aggressive greenhouse gas and air quality emissions reductions in the world. In 2016, the state adopted a greenhouse gas emissions target to reduce emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2030. And, in 2017, the Legislature extended the state’s signature Cap-and-Trade program as the mechanism for achieving its emissions reductions goals.
“There is no question that these policies are responsible for the increased energy costs paid by California families and businesses. But at the same time, they are actually working at moving the state towards its emissions goals.
“California taxpayers have already invested hundreds of millions of dollars to encourage the purchase of more efficient internal combustion engine vehicles, but AB 1745’s focus on 22 years from now ignores opportunities we have to continue making progress today.”
While the bill is supported by the same “keep it in the ground” activists that have been fighting a losing battle to ban all fossil fuels for years – groups like Bill McKibben’s 350.org, Earthjustice, and Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate – it’s being taken seriously enough by Democrats in Sacramento that it is to have a hearing next week. AB 1745 is not an attempt, as 350 Bay Area claims, to make “progress to a new, better standard for our vehicles.” We have already been making considerable progress in this regard – including the slow but growing adoption of electric vehicles (EVs), which, while they do not emit carbon as they drive, are still powered primarily by natural gas and coal-generated electricity.
Full disclosure: I am one of the 1.9 percent of Californians who bought an all-electric vehicle in 2017. The other 98.1 percent of Californians who purchased cars or trucks got vehicles that were dramatically more environmentally friendly than they were years ago. It is inevitable that there will be a slow but steady increase in the adoption of all-electric vehicles as prices drop and the charging infrastructure becomes more robust, but EVs simply aren’t practical for the vast majority of Californians. Some may find an “all or nothing” approach that mandates by government fiat that almost every car on road today, in the nation’s most populous state, be banned in two decades to be a worthwhile trade-off in the fight against climate change, but advocates for this approach ignore the dramatic improvements in ICE emissions, and thus in our air quality. They also ignore the cost of a wholesale shift to renewables and the seismic impact such a ban would have on the nation’s economy.
Another recent example of an “all or nothing” proposal is Stanford professor Mark Jacobson’s study claiming that the United States can transition to 100 percent wind, water and solar (WWS) energy by 2050 – even without employing carbon-free nuclear energy. While it made for a good theoretical extrapolation, the study quickly faced massive criticism from both the scientific and environmental communities even as the wholly unworkable-in-real-life framework was hailed by fringe environmentalists as proof that such a transition is possible. (An Energy In Depth report revealed that Dr. Jacobson’s own data showed that the transition to 100 percent renewables would cause a net loss of more than 1.2 million long-term jobs and he altered his data based on our discovery.)
The real (high) cost of renewables
Regardless of one’s view of Assembly member Ting’s legislation or of the feasibility or even desirability of Dr. Jacobson’s “100 percent renewables” goal, “all or nothing” proposals beg the question of whether this is a goal worth pursuing and if renewable energy is a panacea that will solve all climate ills, as some activists, academics and politicians would like us to believe. In reality, these energy sources are an increasingly important, yet also flawed, part of our energy mix in the future.
This is no way an argument against renewables; even with their costs they do indeed move us in the direction of lower global carbon emissions and this is a good thing.
It is important, however, to recognize that extreme “all or nothing” solutions rarely make sense nor are they without costs that are conveniently ignored by those arguing in favor of them.
It is also important to remember that the United States leads the world in carbon emissions reduction thanks to the shale boom of the past decade – and the fracking that made it possible. Unleashing the ability to extract hydrocarbons from tight shale formations has created an economic renaissance in many parts of the nation at the same time that we’ve witnessed dramatic decreases in greenhouse gas emissions. And it gets even better: according to a recent a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper illustrates that not only that renewables must have natural gas as a backup to be a viable energy option but, because of this, fracking has actually accelerated renewable energy growth.
It is also important to remember, despite claims that renewables can completely replace oil and gas in the near future, that California uses all of the oil it produces – 200 million barrels per year. If we produce less, that means we have to replace this oil – because solar and wind don’t replace oil, and demand for gasoline and diesel is projected to go up for several decades before tapering off. Importing oil rather than producing it here in California would yield 588 more tanker ships per year in our harbors and nearly 300,000 more rail cars in our terminals. These options have a larger carbon footprint than producing at home – which brings it jobs, tax revenue and enhanced economic activity – and they also present national security concerns.
All forms of energy – oil, gas, wind, solar, geothermal, nuclear – have environmental, economic, and social costs. The key to California’s bright and less carbon-intensive future is, as CRC noted, producing an affordable, reliable mix of local traditional and renewable energy sources to power our state’s diverse communities and economy.
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Source: Energy In Depth