Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a newly minted member of Congress, has been making the rounds to help promote a “Green New Deal” for America.
Chief among her plans is a transition to 100 percent “renewable” energy in 12 years.
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Such a vast transformation of America’s power and transportation sectors could be viewed as commendably bright-eyed and optimistic.
But it runs up against practical limitations that would likely cripple the U.S. economy — if not the nation’s entire standard of living.
For starters, proponents of renewable power often overlook an immutable problem: Wind and solar are inherently intermittent — because the wind doesn’t always blow, and the sun doesn’t always shine. In fact, the most advanced wind turbines only reach their rated capacity roughly 42.5 percent of the time, according to the Department of Energy.
And the most high-tech, motorized solar panels achieve their rated capacity roughly 26 percent of the time.
As a result, wind and solar power perennially require back-up power generation. And that means standby electricity cranked up on-demand from natural gas, coal, and nuclear power plants.
Under Ocasio-Cortez’s ambitious plan, however, the United States would be precluded from relying on coal or natural gas to make up the difference when wind and solar systems inevitably run short. And that would necessitate either the rapid construction of many new nuclear power plants, or the implementation of a staggering armada of battery installations to store and provide critical back-up electricity.
Construction of nuclear plants has been on the decline in the United States for many years, though, due to rising costs. And most green advocates fiercely oppose nuclear power.
Which leaves battery storage as the only feasible means to achieve a 100 percent “renewable” portfolio.
But batteries have their own limitations. The most optimistic assumption for lithium-ion battery efficiency is 80 percent — which means that 1 megawatt-hour of stored electricity will yield only 0.80 of a megawatt-hour in output.
And batteries also degrade with time. But the lithium-ion batteries needed for electric vehicles and other green technologies have yet another limitation: They require copious amounts of cobalt and other relatively rare minerals.
The worrying thing about cobalt is that it is principally sourced from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, via an industry rife with child labor and human rights abuses. Significantly, cobalt is often produced as a byproduct of copper and nickel mining — two metals still found in the United States.
But under the Green New Deal, fossil fuels would no longer be an option for powering industrial machinery. And so, without sturdy gasoline and diesel engines capable of chewing through miles of hard rock, mining in the United States would likely cease to exist.
Battery storage itself is a complicated endeavor. Solar and wind have seasonal peaks, which means that they could deliver strongly during the summer, for example.
But then they could experience fallow periods requiring massive, long-term battery substitution. Adding such vast battery arrays to America’s grid would be stunningly expensive — provided sufficient quantities of cobalt and other needed minerals remain available.
A 2018 study published in Energy & Environmental Science suggested that wind and solar power could theoretically meet 80 percent of current US electricity demand.
But the serial battery system needed to cover a mere 12 hours of electricity storage under such a scenario would cost more than $2.5 trillion at current prices.
Scrapping the very foundations of America’s entire electricity infrastructure in favor of a rapid, utopian embrace of wind and solar invites disastrous consequences.
And then there are the wider ramifications of halting all fossil fuel use. The United States would become completely reliant on electric cars — and that would vastly increase electricity demand, since all those plug-in vehicles would need frequent recharging. In addition to meeting the current daily electricity needs of 325 million Americans, the nation’s power grid would then have to expand exponentially to accommodate hundreds of millions of new electric vehicles.
Those new electric cars would have to be made entirely out of plastics or other composites, too. Without fossil fuels, the United States would be hard pressed to produce any more steel.
Steelmaking not only requires metallurgical coal as a key ingredient but also furnace temperatures as high as 2000 degrees Celsius—an intensive amount of heat that wind and solar simply can’t generate.
Wind turbines require large amounts of steel in their construction. And because gearboxes and turbine blades can fail after only two to three years of use, additional steel would be required on an ongoing basis to replace damaged parts. Large electric trucks and electric trains would be required to transport these hefty components to remote wind sites — a further drain on both available steel and electricity.
Overall, the permutations of transitioning away from affordable, reliable, robust electricity toward an uncharted world of wind and solar projects are daunting, if not outright impossible. Far better would be to invest in an all-of-the-above strategy. The 21st century is already bringing fascinating advances in everything from Thorium-driven fission and “liquid salt” nuclear reactors to “ultra critical” boilers that burn coal far hotter and more efficiently than before.
There is undoubtedly a place for the wider use of solar panels, for example — particularly to supplement the daily needs of homes and businesses.
And wind turbines can be used sensibly in regions that enjoy plentiful wind. But scrapping the very foundations of America’s entire electricity infrastructure in favor of a rapid, utopian embrace of wind and solar invites disastrous consequences.
Far better would be to explore new technologies across every possible avenue of power generation.
Terry M. Jarrett is an energy attorney and consultant who has served on both the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Missouri Public Service Commission. He contributes regularly to LeadingLightEnergy.com.
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