Midterm issues: Renewable energy (E - 57)

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“Renewable energy” is a catchall term for energy sources (e.g., wind or solar) that can produce electric power or mechanical power without burning fossil fuels (coal, oil or natural gas). Use of renewable energy is favored to avoid carbon emissions, which are supposedly contributing to rising global temperatures that could, if the trend is allowed to continue, have catastrophic consequences. 4 things to know about the Paris climate agreement, Brian Resnick, vox.com,

The backbone of the Paris agreement is the global target of keeping global average temperatures from rising 2°C (compared to temperatures pre-industrial revolution) by the end of the century. Beyond 2 degrees, we risk dramatically higher seas, changes in weather patterns, food and water crises, and an overall more hostile world.

In mid-2017, President Trump announced that he would pull the United States out of the Paris agreement (no congressional approval was required as Congress had not approved, nor indeed been consulted about, this agreement in the first place). Never mind science, the US reaction was predictably political.

Most of the president’s supporters were delighted. See, e.g., Conservatives applaud Trump for keeping his promise to withdraw from Paris climate accord, Melanie Arter, cnsnews.com,

Political foes attacked the decision as a disastrous blunder. The states would not allow the national government to set policy on this matter, it was vowed, and actions would be taken to ensure continued US support for the Paris agreement whether the president liked it or not. To our disappointment, this reaction was eagerly embraced by officials in various states (e.g., California, New York, Washington, and even tiny Delaware). Rethinking a plan to combat global warming,

[The president] offered solid arguments for withdrawing from the Paris agreement, with which many intelligent people happen to agree. *** Automatic resistance by the current minority party to anything the current majority party wants to do is undermining the viability of our democratic system of government – and it needs to stop.

Nothing has happened to bridge the partisan divide in this area, and it seems that there might be differences of opinion worthy of being thrashed out in the upcoming political campaigns. The future of life as we know it on this planet sounds pretty important, after all, as do energy policies that could affect the pocketbooks of all Americans. But what precisely is the issue to be debated and how strongly do people feel about it?

A. Framing the issue – Fans of the manmade global warming theory (MMGWT) – hereinafter collectively referred to as Side A - are prone to characterize their intellectual opponents as climate change deniers. We in science, they say, understand that the manmade use of fossil fuels is creating a dangerous situation, and are rallying the global community to take action before it is too late. Even if the problems posed by climate change prove less serious than feared, switching to renewable energy sources will pay off by creating a cleaner and more economical energy infrastructure. Let’s get on with it!

Members of Side B prefer to talk about global warming versus climate change (an amorphous concept, not readily tracked). They question whether the MMGWT has truly been proven, or is simply a theory subject to continuing evaluation as some eminent scientists have suggested. Sure, human activities influence global temperatures to some extent, but CO2 accounts for only about .04% of the atmosphere and other factors, such as fluctuations in the level of solar activity, may be much more important. As for the choice of energy sources, let’s leave that up to the free market (based on cost vs. benefit), shall we, instead of allowing government regulators to dictate the choice by imposing mandates and/or subsidies.

There are several strands in this debate, so a yes or no conclusion may not be appropriate. Scientifically speaking, is the MMGWT valid, false, or somewhere in between? How much global warming would be involved, and would warmer weather (within reason) necessarily be bad? Would shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy have a big or insignificant effect on the apparent warming trend? And if wind and solar power would truly be cleaner and more economical than burning fossil fuel, as Side A claims, why should government action be needed to bring about a win/win transition?

Before deciding what positions to take on renewable energy this fall, politicians might do well to consider what voters are thinking about this subject.

B. Public opinion – Available polling indicates that a majority of Americans give credence to the MMGWT and believe global warming is occurring. Global warming concerns steady despite some partisan shifts, Megan Brenan & Lydia Saad, gallup.com, 3/28/18.

Majorities of Americans overall say most scientists think global warming is occurring (66%), it is caused by human activities (64%) and its effects have begun (60%). *** The 43% of Americans who say they worry a great deal about global warming or climate change is similar to last year's record-high 45% and is still up significantly from 32% in 2015.

The poll results seem to be importantly influenced by political affiliation, however, which is not what one might expect if people were focusing on the merits of the scientific argument. Consider, for example, these 2018 responses.

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By Gallup’s reckoning, 48% of US adults currently fall in the “concerned believers” category, 32% are in the “mixed middle,” and 19% are cool skeptics. The results vary with political affiliation, e.g., 45% of Republicans but only 1% of Democrats are classed as skeptics.

Also, women are more likely to be believers than men (54% v. 44%); college graduates are more likely to be believers than non-college graduates (59% v. 44%); and younger Americans are more likely to be believers than their elders (18-34: 58%; 35-54: 50%; 55 up: 40%).

From these results, one might conclude that the debate is pretty well over – and the skeptics lost. But when respondents are asked open-ended questions versus being questioned about global warming or climate change, they don’t typically put global warming at the top of their worry list. New Gallup poll: Americans don’t even mention global warming as a problem, Marc Morano, climatedepot.com,

ULY 2018 (36 “problems” cited by respondents): Immigration/illegal aliens 22%, dissatisfaction with government/leadership 19%, race relations/racism 7%, unifying the country 6%, economy in general 4%, healthcare 3% . . . environmental/pollution 2% . . . no mention of global warming as such.

So do Americans really care about global warming? Probably not so much, because when queried about a complex subject they don’t fully understand most people will respond with what they think pollsters want to hear. Knowing the MMGWT is supported by the media and educators in our society, they aren’t inclined to challenge it (particularly if their political party supports it). Don’t buy the polls showing Republican approval of Trump’s Helsinki performance, Jonah Goldberg, townhall.com,

Motivated by what social scientists call "social desirability bias," people use polls to virtue-signal. This surely explains at least some of the findings showing surging popularity for socialism, particularly among millennials. No doubt many are sincere, but some probably just think it sounds cool to say such things.

In sum, the strong correlation between political affiliation and views on global warming – e.g., 45% of Republicans, but only 1% of Democrats, are in the skeptic camp – suggests that the positions of the two sides are based primarily on political considerations versus the evidence for and against the MMGWT.

C. Science – There are many moving parts in the Earth’s climate system, and much to be learned about the causes of the apparent warming trend. Scientific inquiry about the MMGWT will continue for years, with results that remain to be seen.

Regrettably, Side A has claimed there is an overwhelming scientific consensus so the debate is over and it’s time to switch to renewable energy no matter what the cost. Consider, for example, the results of an effort to schedule a genuine scientific discussion in the halls of Congress. The March for Science, part B,

On March 29, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology conducted a hearing on climate science with testimony from four scientific witnesses (Judith Curry, John Christy, Michael Mann, and Roger Pielke) followed by an opportunity for each committee members to make statements or ask questions as they saw fit. Dr. Mann is a prominent climate alarmist, noted among other things for his “hockey stick” graph, while the other three witnesses are considered climate skeptics. Democratic members addressed their questions to Dr. Mann almost exclusively, while Republicans engaged primarily with the other three witnesses. *** For all the squabbling, the hearing provided an interesting exchange of views on an important topic – but it didn’t appear to change any minds.

If politicians are going to talk about the MMGWT on the campaign trail this fall, it may behoove them to acknowledge they don’t have all the answers and pay attention to reports that appear to contradict the Side A talking points.

For example, here’s evidence that a rising level of atmospheric CO2 won’t necessarily be harmful. Not only do higher CO2 levels boost crop yields, thereby helping to produce more food for the Earth’s growing population, but they have also been increasing (rather than reducing, as some have maintained) the extent of forest cover. Don’t tell climate change fanatics this piece of news, Hank Berrien, dailywire.com,

According to a new study published in Nature, in the roughly quarter century between 1982 and 2016, global tree canopy cover increased by 865,000 square miles. The greatest increase in tree canopy occurred in Europe, including European Russia, where it exploded by 35%. A close second was found in China, where tree canopy gained 34%. In the U.S., tree canopy increased by 15%.

Or consider reports that the global warming trend may reverse at some point due to natural causes that are not a function of human activity, e.g., fluctuation in solar activity. If so, Side A may find itself fulminating against global cooling rather than global warming. Earth is set for BIG FREEZE, Sean Martin, express.co.uk,

The last time there was a prolonged solar minimum, it led to a ‘mini ice-age’, scientifically known as the Maunder minimum - which lasted for 70 years. The Maunder minimum, which saw seven decades of freezing weather, began in 1645 and lasted through to 1715, and happened when sunspots were exceedingly rare. During this period, temperatures dropped globally by 1.3 degrees Celsius leading to shorter seasons and ultimately food shortages.

D. Economics – If wind and solar power were truly cleaner and cheaper than fossil fuel power, then a strong case could be made for using them whether the MMGWT turned out to be right, wrong, or somewhere in between. There are a few holes in the economic arguments Side A has been presenting, however, including the following:

#CAPITAL COSTS – In the case of wind and solar power, there is no cost for fuel. The physical facilities required for generating electric power are expensive, however, and the all-in cost comparisons for new capacity generally favor combined cycle natural gas (CCNG) power plants unless available tax credits (government subsidies) are taken into account. Relevant government estimates are recapped below. Levelized cost and levelized avoided cost of new generation resources in the Annual Energy Outlook, US Energy Information Administration (EIA), Table 1b,
March 2018.

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#INTERMITTENCY – Note that natural gas power is classified as “dispatchable,” which means it is available with sufficient reliability to provide base-load power for the grid. Wind and solar power are available intermittently, so they must be backed up by more reliable power sources to ensure consumers will have access to electric power whenever they want it – e.g., at 3:00 AM or when the wind isn’t blowing. Simple, neat and wrong, John Nichols, SAFE newsletter,
Spring 2012.

The EIA cost data provide an apples and oranges comparison because base-load power is inherently more valuable than intermittent power. And the growing use of wind and solar (W&S) power threatens to compromise the reliability of the electric grid. Reliable versus intermittent energy sources,

Misleading cost comparisons may result in decisions that make sense for now but will backfire in due course. At least that’s how we see it, although W&S fans envision a dynamic, constantly adjusting profile of power suppliers replacing the traditional baseload + temporary use of supplementary sources model. US number one in the world in wind energy production, American Wind Energy Association,

“The U.S. is blessed with world-class wind resources,” said Tom Kiernan, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association. “We’re tapping into this homegrown resource more than ever thanks to American innovation and U.S. workers building some of the most productive wind turbines in the world. Now more than ever, low-cost, stably-priced, zero-emission wind energy is keeping our air clean and cutting costs for consumers. American wind power is well on its way to supplying 20 percent of U.S. electricity by 2030.”

Some would go further and assert that the grid can be powered 100% by renewable energy, and they probably aren’t counting on the construction of a new generation of nuclear power plants (base-load power). California moves closer to enacting 100 percent renewable energy target, John Siciliano, Washington Examiner,

“This is a massive victory for Californians who’ve been demanding a swift transition to clean energy in the state," said May Boeve, executive director of the anti-fossil fuel group 350.org. Boeve's group has been calling for a transition to 100 percent renewable energy by midcentury, and an end to all coal mining and oil drilling, as the only way to address the threat posed by global warming.

Sorry, but this kind of thinking is totally impractical – as will become painfully clear if enough people fall for it and continue to accept government support (mandates and subsidies) for renewable energy. Either the reliability of the electric grid will be effectively undermined or countervailing support will be necessitated for base-load facilities that are in danger of being shut down, e.g., coal and nuclear power plants. Reliable versus intermittent energy sources,
op. cit.

Here’s an example of the kind of policy distortions that the latter approach could be expected to create. What a concept, burying long-term subsidies for nuclear power plants in the military budget! As the saying goes, “you can’t make this stuff up.” Senators from both parties look to the military to save nuclear power, John Siciliano, Washington Examiner,

The Nuclear Energy Leadership Act was supported by Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI),
Chris Coons (D-DE), James Risch (R-ID), Mike Crapo (R-ID), and Shelley Moore Capito (D-WV).

#GREEN JOBS – This type of pitch typically features extravagant claims about the number of jobs that could be created by proposed projects, with no consideration of existing jobs that will disappear as a result of higher energy costs. The False Promise of Green Energy, Morriss et al., Cato Institute (

A recent example was the offshore wind power study commissioned by DE Governor John Carney last year. Given the EIA cost estimates (see prior discussion), which indicated that offshore wind facilities would be considerably more expensive than onshore wind or solar facilities, we were convinced from the beginning that the project was a bad idea and attempted to represent this view in public comments. Assessing proposal for offshore wind power projects,

“Forget it” wasn’t the desired answer, however, and after nine months the working group’s final report left the door open for Delaware to participate in future offshore wind projects without squarely addressing the cost issue. Delaware electric power customers and/or taxpayers may bear the resulting cost penalty in due course, just as they have done for the Bloom Energy fiasco. Bloom Energy & Offshore wind power, Rick Jensen Show (WDEL),

Meanwhile, other eastern coastal states have demonstrated a lot of enthusiasm about the perceived potential of offshore wind power and the size and complexity of the facilities envisioned keeps growing. Not long ago, it was said that the offshore wind turbines would be as high as the Washington Monument. Now there is talk of building wind turbines nearly as high as the Eiffel Tower, which could generate 10 megawatts of electric power or more. The technical challenges are formidable, and the cost penalties could mount up quickly if the facilities were not genuinely cost competitive. The race to build a wind behemoth, Erin Ailworth, Wall Street Journal,

How do you safely and quickly move turbine blades the length of soccer fields? Will cranes and ships need to be redesigned to handle bigger turbine towers? How soon can new factories and other infrastructure be built in emerging markets?

E. Renewable energy policies – Assuming a government decision to favor renewable energy (or basically W&S) vs. fossil fuels, the simplest and most effective policy option would be to impose a carbon tax on fossil fuels. This has not been seen as politically expedient, however, because it would be obvious how much the cost penalty was and who was paying it. Instead, regulatory schemes have been devised that achieve similar results with less transparency.

At the federal level, the previous administration issued a number of rules designed to bring about a progressive reduction in carbon emissions by power plants, factories, motor vehicles, etc. Among these rules was the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, which was put into effect without seeking congressional approval, blocked by court challenges, and is currently in the process of being replaced by a rule that would continue the goal of reducing carbon emissions but - to the consternation of CPP fans – provide greater state latitude on the details. Trump to end “war on coal” with rule replacing Obama-era Clean Power Plan, Valerie Richardson & Douglas Ernst, Washington Times,

Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, blasted the move as a “declaration of war against America and all of humanity” and Rep. Barbara Lee, another Democrat, warned that the rollback “will kill people.” “President Trump’s decision to replace the Clean Power Plan with weaker rules governing power plant emissions is the latest in a string of terrible decisions that undermine our fight against global warming, lower our quality of life and endanger lives,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat.

There have also been state and regional programs to boost renewable energy (not including nuclear), notably a multistate compact called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (
RGGI) that was founded at the end of 2005 with the intent of capping and then reducing carbon emissions from electric power production. Nine states (DE, MD, NY, and the New England states) are currently participating.

Without going into all the mind-numbing details – RGGI’s carbon emission caps, Delaware’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards Act (REPSA), renewable energy credits (RECs) and solar renewable energy credits (SRECS), Sustainable Energy Utility (SEU), etc. – suffice it to say that this scheme calls for a rising percentage (up to 25% by 2025) of electric power distributed in Delaware to be from renewable energy sources and the distribution of proceeds from the sale of carbon emission allowances to firms whose activities are viewed as environmentally beneficial.

Low natural gas prices as a result of the fracking boom have led to a pronounced switch from high-carbon coal power to lower-carbon natural gas power, which has made the carbon emission reduction targets that were initially established easier to accomplish than was expected. As a result, these targets have been raised several times by the RGGI and Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) has made corresponding changes in its regulations for Delaware. These changes have resulted in increased charges to electric power consumers in DE or, in effect, a tax, and DNREC has made them without seeking approval from the DE General Assembly.

DNREC’s latest round of regulatory changes was covered at a sparsely attended public hearing on August 29, and is slated to be adopted within a month or so. Here’s one assessment of the effect. New RGGI regulations proposed, DE State Senate, Republican Caucus,

The proposed regulations - that will become law without any vote from the legislature - will change the pricing structure for the quarterly auctions of emission allowances. Under the new regulations, the price (that is supposed to be determined by the market at auction) could not fall below a certain amount. The number of allowances for sale can also be affected. *** In short, what these changes mean is that we expect revenue for DNREC and the Delaware Sustainable Energy Utility to rise from $10 million in 2017 to between $30 million and $60 million by 2030.

F. Summing up – For those who prefer free markets to government management of the economy, the government’s efforts to force a transition to renewable energy seems misguided. The primary theoretical justification (MMGWT) remains unproven and there has been little evidence to date of a global warming trend that threatens to spiral out of control. Even if the MMGWT were valid, moreover, wind and solar power could not be relied on to meet our energy needs – more reliable energy sources (e.g., natural gas and nuclear) are needed to power the electric grid.

Instead of expecting the government to decide what energy sources to use, we would favor eliminating mandates and subsidies for renewable energy and allowing energy source decisions to be determined by market economics – subject to reasonable regulation of pollutants (
not including CO2, a trace gas essential for life on this planet).

Environmentalists take heart: the volume of carbon emissions in the US has leveled off – albeit accelerating in Asia, Africa and elsewhere – due primarily to market economics, i.e., lower costs for natural gas as a result of the fracking boom, vs. the government’s regulatory schemes.


#I hope California achieves their renewable energy objectives as detailed. That will make them the most competitive land on the planet. And the St Andreas fault might decide it is time for the State to drift away, as well... After that, they and us should all be happier. [Just kidding, of course.] – SAFE member (Delaware)

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