Presidential candidate Joe Biden’s $2 trillion climate plan is supposed to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions from the electric sector by 2035. In 2019, 62 percent of U.S. electricity generation was produced from natural gas, coal, and petroleum products—the energy sources that will need to be replaced if Biden’s plan goes into effect. Assuming that Biden’s plan allows for nuclear and hydroelectric power to be part of his clean energy standard (something environmentalists have fought against in the past), only 38 percent of current generation would count toward that mandate.
In the 16-year period from 2003 until 2019, the share of electricity from nuclear, hydroelectric and other renewable energy increased by 36 percent. Assuming that electricity demand in 2035 does not increase from the level it reached in 2019, and assuming that the same percentage increase could occur over the next 16 years, the share of generation from those “clean” generating sources would only be 50 percent—just half of what Biden’s mandate is by 2035. That’s a lot of assumptions since nuclear power is being reduced in the United States and currently produces almost twice as much electricity as wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass combined. And, if electricity demand increases, which it is likely to do once the United States recovers from the coronavirus pandemic, the share would be even lower.
The Energy Information Administration, in its Annual Energy Outlook 2020, forecasts that market forces would only get the Biden “clean energy” share to reach 46 percent. All of the increased generation would be from renewable energy, which almost doubles over the 16-year period since new nuclear power is too expensive to compete on a market basis. By 2035, wind generation doubles and solar generation increases by 348 percent assuming the wind production tax credit is phased out next year and the investment tax credit for solar is decreased to 10 percent for commercial, industrial, and utility solar farms in 2022, as current law requires.
Biden’s Daunting and Costly Challenge
In 2019, according to BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy, natural gas-fired generators produced about 1,700 terawatt-hours of electricity (38 percent of U.S. generation) and coal-fired plants produced about 1,050 terawatt-hours, for a total of 2,750 terawatt-hours, which together is about half of the electricity that China produced from coal alone. Three more comparisons are:
- Replacing that quantity of electricity (2,750 terawatt-hours) with non-carbon sources would require as much nuclear capacity as now exists in the world.
- Replacing that 2,750 terawatt-hours of energy per year with solar power would require 25 times as much solar capacity as now exists in the United States or almost four times as much as exists in the world.
- Replacing it with wind would require installing nine times as much wind capacity as now exists in this country or about twice as much as current global capacity.
Under Biden’s plan, this would need to be accomplished in the next 15 years.
The wind production tax credit has been in existence for almost 30 years and has resulted—along with state mandates, which 30 states have endorsed—in 7.3 percent of U.S. generation from wind in 2019. So, Biden is saying in the next 16 years, he needs to get about 9 times that amount of wind, or 25 times as much solar, or a combination of the two, replacing perfectly good generation capacity that the American public has already paid for and which can last 20 to 50 more years, in most cases. If that is not a daunting and expensive task to ask the American public to buy into, it is unclear what would constitute one. This would be profitable for regulated utilities which make their money by capitalizing new equipment of any kind, but terrible for consumers who would have to pay for all this new and unnecessary generating capacity. This is essentially akin to an American family being told to get rid of 62 percent of its possessions that are in perfectly good condition and requiring them to replace them with more expensive objects.
Further, Wood Mackenzie estimates the cost of full decarbonization of the U.S. power grid to be $4.5 trillion, given the current state of technology. That cost would amount to $35,000 per household or about $2,500 per year over the 14 year period that Biden would have to implement the action should he get elected and take office in 2021. Clearly, Biden’s $2 trillion will not go very far, particularly since it is also supposed to fund energy efficiency improvements in buildings, more hybrid and electric vehicles and charging stations, an increase in public transportation including high-speed rail, and research and development in advanced nuclear power and carbon capture and sequestration systems.
Natural gas, wind, and solar are now the most common new generation fuels, but it took decades of renewable energy mandates and government spending on renewables research, tax breaks, and other subsidies to help make those resources plentiful and relatively inexpensive. Even so, capacity factors for wind and solar power are half or less than they are for coal, natural gas, or nuclear power, making the amount of generation from wind and solar capacity less than 10 percent of our generation today. For Biden to change the 62 percent of the generation currently from fossil fuels into renewable energy sources will cost far more than he states he will spend on his “clean energy” standard and other goals in the building and transportation sectors and cost American families thousands of dollars needlessly, if it even can be accomplished.
Serious discussions about energy policy require serious study of the numbers as they are, rather than as you would like them to be. If that is not done, the U.S. economy will never crawl out of the COVID-19 economic crisis it currently faces because it will encounter the headwinds of much steeper electricity bills to pay for this plan.