This is the first in a series of articles offering a (hopefully) constructive critique of some of the technical aspects of Bernie Sanders’ Green New Deal (GND).
While there is tremendous potential for renewables (Hydro, Solar, Wind, Geothermal) as a part of the energy make-up of the US there are equally tremendous technical difficulties involved in attempting to power an entire modern economy off of them. So far the only two countries to succeed at this are Costa Rica and Iceland. Both are small, sparsely populated countries that happen to sit upon massive renewable energy resources. These resources also happen to be hydroelectricity and geothermal energy, both of which are much more consistent than solar or wind. Besides these two, the countries of Denmark and Germany, and the US state of California, have made the most progress in substituting fossil fuels with renewable energy. But Denmark has only been able to make its substantial investments work by exporting large amounts of electricity to other neighboring countries during peak wind production and by maintaining a strong baseload of coal. Germany has seen its use of coal and natural gas increase in order to maintain a stable baseload of electrical production after it shut down its nuclear power plants and invested heavily in wind and solar. Something similar has happened in California as its share of wind and solar increased. All three have seen a noticeable increase in electricity rates as their share of renewable energy increased.
This is due to the convergence of the physics of electrical production and the necessities of running a modern, industrial economy. Most renewable energy sources, and solar & wind in particular, are intermittent producers of electricity. Solar power peaks around noon, is greatly reduced in efficacy on cloudy days, and produces no electricity at night. Wind power varies greatly depending on the time, location, or season. These variations do not necessarily line up with demand for electricity. Demand tends to peak in the afternoon/evening (the exact curve depends on the season and the local climate). In periods where renewable production is high while demand is low there is very little that can be done with the excess electricity other than let it go to waste. Current storage technologies are expensive, inefficient, and are incapable of scaling sufficiently to meet the needs of a large electrical grid. A modern, industrial economy absolutely requires continuous and uninterrupted electricity 24 hours a day. Because of this there has to be a baseload, a certain minimum amount of electricity, constantly being generated 24/7 in order to ensure that no blackouts/brownouts occur. The only resources capable of being exploited for this purpose are coal, natural gas, oil, biomass, and nuclear power. The variability in renewable energy production forces utilities to keep a large amount of electrical capacity (usually fossil fuel based) on standby in order to meet demand when renewable supply is low which raises costs, and thus prices, noticeably.
There is also the problem of renewables’ low energy density. Because a single solar panel/wind turbine doesn’t produce much electricity, and because wind and solar resources are spread out geographically, generating electricity through these methods on any large scale would require building absolutely massive numbers of wind and solar “farms”. The term farm is also rather disingenuous considering that these are effectively solar/wind power plants. Building a solar farm requires clearing the entirety of the ground underneath the panels of any and all plants & animals in much the same way as paving a parking lot or building a coal plant. Because of solar’s low energy density this would require developing hundreds, if not thousands, of square miles of land. Wind turbines also have the unfortunate tendency to slaughter birds and bats on an industrial scale. This is all compounded by the difficulties in transmitting the electricity produced by renewables from the largely rural areas in which it would have to be built to the denser urban/suburban areas where most of the electricity is needed. The longer electricity has to travel from point of production to point of use, the more electricity is lost as heat. This means that even more renewable energy capacity would be needed to make up for the amount lost during transmission. This would be severely disruptive to rural communities and the environment while only providing expensive and inconsistent electricity to the cities.
This all means that renewables are not the climate panaceas that they have been made out to be by their boosters. The U.S. economy cannot be run entirely on renewables. A very large portion of the electrical supply must be derived from a consistent and inexpensive source. Coal, Oil, and Natural Gas are not an option because they are the primary drivers of climate change. Biomass is too inefficient and its long term sustainability is questionable. The only option remaining is Nuclear Power. Nuclear power is safe (despite a few loud but ultimately mostly harmless incidents), reliable, and virtually carbon free. The only developed countries in the world that have effectively decarbonized their electrical production are Sweden and France, both of which produce nearly all of their electricity from Nuclear and Hydro. Both of which also have noticeably cheaper electricity rates than more renewable dependant economies. If we are serious about decarbonizing the American electrical grid we need Nuclear. It is not a “false solution”. It is, without some major technological breakthrough, the only solution.