A new report, “Mobilizing for a Zero-Carbon America,” by two San Francisco-based energy researchers calls for tripling the size of the electric grid, replacing all fuel-burning machines with electric machines and investing trillions in government funding to tackle climate change—all by 2035—the date by which presumptive Democratic nominee for president Joe Biden wants to decarbonize the U.S. generating sector. Joe Biden is calling for zeroing out the carbon dioxide emissions of the electric grid by 2035, while this report would also eliminate emissions from most of the rest of the economy, including transportation, industry and buildings by the 2035 date. That will require millions of miles of new and upgraded transmission and distribution and the electrification of 250 million vehicles, 130 million households, 6 million trucks, all of the manufacturing and industrial processes, and 5.5 million commercial buildings covering 90 billion square feet. The authors believe it would cost the government $3 trillion over 10 years and that private industry would supply another $17 trillion to $22 trillion over 20 years. The amount of copper necessary would be enormous.
The undertaking is expensive and needless. The United States has a well-functioning electric grid with capacity that could easily last decades, and resources of oil, natural gas, and coal that make the United States the envy of many, particularly China, who needs to import these fuels to supplement its own production. The enormity of the project raises one immediately question: what will be gained, particularly when China will continue to increase its emissions through 2030 according to its commitment to the Paris climate accord. Experts indicate that the United States undertaking unilateral actions would decrease temperatures by just a fraction of a degree. Many American families would most likely end up in fuel poverty. Biden’s plan alone is expected to cost families an additional $2,500 annually.
Issues with the Report
The report is backed by Rewiring America, a new project under the umbrella of the Windward Fund, a nonprofit that supports environmental causes. The major point of Rewiring America’s proposal is to electrify nearly everything by its next generation. The authors assume that when someone’s car reaches retirement age, it is replaced with an electric vehicle. When a natural gas plant is retired, it is replaced with nuclear or renewables. According to one of the authors, the plan needs no new technology breakthroughs, does not require any coal or natural gas plants to retire early, and asks for no changes in consumer behavior.
The authors are clearly missing that coal and natural gas generating plants are capable of running for 50 or 60 years, that many Americans can run their gasoline automobiles for decades and that there is a vibrant second-hand market for used automobiles, which car owners will use when purchasing a new vehicle. Making vehicle owners forfeit a gasoline vehicle that runs when they want to purchase a new vehicle and compelling them to purchase an electric vehicle does constitute a forced behavioral change. Further, charging an electric vehicle is vastly different from filling up at a gasoline station. Having to charge an electric vehicle several times on long trips is another behavioral change, especially for Americans who can travel 12 or 15 hours straight to reach their destinations. Because refueling with electricity can take hours, rather than the minutes to refuel a gasoline vehicle, refueling stations would be required to be enormous to accommodate all the vehicles. This, too, is a huge behavioral change.
The authors believe that the nation’s overall energy demand would be slashed by more than half because electric machines are typically more efficient than those that rely on combustion. They project that overall U.S. energy needs would fall from about 98 quadrillion Btus to about 42 quadrillion Btus, which was the primary energy consumption in the United States in 1958. According to the report, every American household would accrue savings of $1,000 to 2,000 per year due to lower, more predictable energy prices, despite the huge cost of the transition by both the private and government sectors, which normally gets passed onto consumers through electric rates and purchases of commodities.
Industries that cannot be electrified such as long-distance flights and truck freight, mining and construction, steelmaking, farm vehicles, would use hydrogen or other synthetic fuels, according to the report. However, those fuels are not economic today, so this would be another huge cost for consumers and the businesses that rely upon them. If costs are too significant, businesses will simply move their operations to foreign shores, taking jobs with them. The energy to make those fuels would be supplied by solar and wind farms and by the U.S. nuclear fleet, which would double in size from 100 gigawatts to 200 gigawatts, according to the report. The report expects 1,600 gigawatts of new delivered electrical power with nuclear gaining 100 gigawatts, and the other 1,500 gigawatts of renewable capacity—over 5.5 times the renewable capacity the United States has today.
In the last three decades, the only nuclear units to be built in the United States are the Vogtle nuclear plant’s units 3 and 4 in Georgia and they are still under construction because of delays and massive cost overruns. Those units have been under construction for over 7 years, and their on-line dates are now November 2021 for unit 3 and November 2022 for unit 4. The certified construction & capital costs incurred by Georgia Power for these two new units were originally $14 billion, but, by 2018, the costs were estimated to be about $25 billion—a cost overrun of 79 percent.
The capacity of each new Vogtle unit is 1.1 gigawatts. So, the authors believe that in 15 years, the United States will build 98 more nuclear units. With the United States retiring nuclear units instead of building them, it no longer has the trained engineers for such an undertaking nor the personnel in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to monitor their construction, not to mention the regulatory hurdles that would need to be offset to even begin to come close to handling such a feat. And environmentalists have blocked all efforts to handle the nuclear waste from the existing fleet, notwithstanding a 30-year old law requiring the government to take the waste.
Further, the United States has been closing its nuclear plants rather than constructing new ones. In 2019, the United States had 98 gigawatts of nuclear capacity. By 2035, the Energy Information Administration expects 21.5 of those gigawatts to be retired.
Then there is the issue of the electric grid, which would need to be expanded because almost everything would run on electricity. That would mean huge increases in transmission lines, when Americans have been indicating that they do not want those wires in their back yards. Many of the planned lines to move electricity from remote regions where renewable energy is generated to consuming regions have been slowed or stopped by local or national environmental opposition.
The report by these two researchers is just another way to destroy the U.S. energy system that has been operating efficiently and economically. It’s a “rebel without a cause,” an idea whose time has not come. This decarbonization effort would cost the country trillions of dollars that would come from American taxpayers and consumers for a needless undertaking while making everyone poorer and achieving very little in climate benefits.