Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) have just released their Green New Deal resolution, which they hope will “move America to 100 [percent] clean and renewable energy” by 2030.
Given current U.S. energy requirements and the state of renewable energy technology, let’s just say it’s an ambitious goal — actually, an impossible goal.
Since there are no plug-in jet aircraft and battleships and relatively few electric cars, let’s just focus on electricity generation, which at least has the potential to come 100 percent from renewable energy sources.
According the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), U.S. electricity-generation facilities generated about 4,034 billion kilowatthours (kWh) of electricity in 2017.
Of that total, 62.9 percent (2,563 billion kWh) came from fossil fuels, 20 percent from nuclear plants, 17.0 percent from all forms of renewables, and 0.3 percent from “other sources.”
However, 7.4 percentage points of the renewable sources was from hydro (water) power. While clean, hydro power isn’t scalable because we can’t put rivers or dams all over the country.
The two primary renewables for electricity generation are wind turbines and solar power. In 2017 wind produced 254 billion kWh (6.3 percent of total electricity generation) and solar 53 billion kWh (1.3 percent), according to EIA.
However, after billions of taxpayer dollars and eight years of President Obama — the most pro-renewable energy president the country has ever had — combined wind and solar power only increased from about 3 percent of all electricity generation in 2008 to 7.6 percent in 2017.
But let’s game this out a little to see what it would take to replace fossil fuels with wind energy, since it already produces nearly five times more electricity than solar power.
The American Wind Energy Association says there were about 54,000 wind turbines operating in 41 states and two territories in 2017 — several states, especially in the Southeast, have no wind turbines. At 6.3 percent of power generation, they produced one-tenth of the amount of electricity fossil fuels produced.
So, to replace fossil fuels as a source of electricity generation with wind power, we would need to add another 540,000 wind turbines — for a total of about 600,000 when added to existing wind turbines. And that doesn’t include the 17 percent of electricity produced by nuclear power, which most green new dealers, including the resolution introduced by Ocasio-Cortez and Markey, want to replace.
Not only would that many wind turbines take up thousands of square miles, they would be devastating to the bird population.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service addressed the issue of wind turbine-related bird deaths last year. While conceding that the estimates varied widely, the service concluded, “The most comprehensive and statistically sound estimates show that bird deaths from turbine collisions are between 140,000 and 500,000 birds per year.” And it isn’t just sparrows taking the hit. The service adds, “Although fatality for raptors [which includes eagles] may be lower compared to passerines [perching birds], raptors are especially vulnerable to collisions due to their flight behaviors.”
Indeed, on the Obama administration’s way out the door in December 2016, the Fish & Wildlife Service issued a final rule that was proposed in May allowing wind-energy companies to kill up to 4,200 bald eagles a year, nearly four times the previous limit — for the next 30 years. The service estimates that about 545 golden eagles, which are much rarer than bald eagles, are in wind turbine collisions every year.
While the wind-turbine industry is trying to address this problem, it’s safe to predict that bird deaths would increase dramatically with a 10-fold expansion of wind turbines.
Of course, the green new dealers envision the expansion of solar energy also, which could reduce the need for some turbines. At least solar panels can be placed on the roofs of building and homes rather than taking up miles of formerly pristine open space. Some new-generation solar panels even look like normal shingles.
But solar panels only provide a little more than 1 percent of current electricity generation. Significant expansion would take years — and a lot of money.
And no one has yet solved the renewable energy intermittency problem — i.e., that there are times when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. In such cases generators have to fall back of fossil fuels to keep the power on.
Heavy political pressure, hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars in subsidies, and the desire to be seen as environmentally conscious have been slowly pushing the country toward renewable energy. But it will take decades to reach a 100 percent renewable electricity generation, if we ever do. And passing a Green New Deal resolution won’t expedite the process.
Merrill Matthews is a resident scholar with the Institute for Policy Innovation in Dallas, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MerrillMatthews.