Opinion

The $4.5 Trillion Bridge to Nowhere

What exactly would a Green New Deal cost? It’s an almost unanswerable question, with rhetoric often eclipsing policy details.

However, a new analysis from Wood Mackenzie gives us a sense of just part of the cost. And the sum is telling.

Transitioning to an all renewables grid by 2030 would cost roughly $4.5 trillion, according to Wood Mackenzie. This is the timeline and approach pushed by Green New Dealers and several presidential contenders.

That price tag — estimated at about $35,000 per household — doesn’t account for the costs of prematurely closing hundreds of existing power plants or the inevitable supply chain bottlenecks that would drive up the price of renewable technology. And it doesn’t figure the cost of providing a realistic transition for the millions of Americans either directly employed or supported by the fossil fuel and nuclear industries.

The scope of change envisioned in this all-renewable world is stunning. As Wood Mackenzie notes, there is nothing remotely comparable to a large-scale, 100 percent renewable power grid in existence today. In fact, no large-scale, complex grid in the world operates with an average annual supply of wind and solar power greater than 30 percent. And beyond that point, Wood Mackenzie writes, “operational and cost complexities progressively multiply, in large part due to the intermittent nature of renewables.”

That’s right. The more variable power that is stacked on a grid, the greater the challenge to delivering it reliably. Texas and California already know this firsthand. Germany and its neighbors can also testify.

Even a moderate level of renewable integration can produce excess power that must be curtailed. But it also leaves huge gulfs in generation when the weather doesn’t cooperate. And such shortfalls must be met by backup power or energy storage — battery storage that doesn’t yet exist in any meaningful way.

According to Wood Mackenzie, about 1,600 gigawatts of new wind and solar capacity would be needed to produce enough energy to replace the nation’s existing fossil fuel and nuclear generation. The grid would then need 900 GW of storage to ensure reliable power when consumers need it. To put that number into perspective, there’s currently just 5.5 GW of battery storage in operation or under construction in the entire world.

The battery supply chain needed to produce such a massive buildout does not presently exist, either. And, current lithium-ion technology is ill-suited for the longer duration backup “critical to balancing seasonal swings in wind energy production or extended resource droughts stemming from major weather events.” The best grid-scale batteries can provide power for just four to six hours.

Decommissioning nearly 1,000 GW of existing coal, natural gas and nuclear power capacity — and accounting for those stranded costs — is another colossal math problem in need of solutions. Eliminating millions of jobs supported by these industries and attempting to provide workers, and the regions of the country worst hit by such an effort, with some kind of “just transition” is an equally complex and costly exercise.

The economic demolition imposed by such an effort is mind boggling. Just as difficult to comprehend is what precisely would be achieved.

If somehow, all of these obstacles were overcome, if this green dream were pursued in all the ferocity its supporters want, would the battle to curb global emissions be won? The answer is a resounding “No.”

The largest source of U.S. emissions isn’t even the power sector. It’s transportation, a sector of the economy untouched by this $4.5 trillion effort. Global emissions — despite the American sacrifice — would almost certainly overwhelm U.S. cuts, continuing to grow due to mounting consumption in the industrializing world, and a burgeoning, energy-hungry middle class.

Can we expect Bangladesh, Vietnam or India to replicate our effort? The technical challenges, cost and social disruption alone would almost certainly make it a model no other nation would even consider touching, much less reproducing.

The world needs U.S. energy leadership. This cannot be it.   

 

Conor Bernstein is a spokesperson for the National Mining Association.

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