Environmentalist Shellenberger: We Shouldn’t Be Surprised Renewables Make Energy Expensive Since That’s Always Been The Greens’ Goal
By Michael Shellenberger
The Green Party’s success in last weekend’s European elections will likely result in demands to expand and extend decades-old subsidies to renewables.
Like a lot of people, I used to think that subsidies to promote the switch from fossil fuels to solar and wind would be a one-time thing.
Once a solar or wind farm was built, I thought, it would produce electricity forever, without further subsidy, because sunlight and wind are free.
Renewables would thus allow a “sustainable” and even “circular” economy without waste or mining because everything would be recycled.
But it turns out that only nuclear can produce sufficient clean energy to power a circular economy.
That’s partly because nuclear plants have seen their efficiency increase dramatically. Nuclear plants used to operate for just 50% of the year. Now, thanks to greater experience in operations and maintenance, they operate 93%of the year.
Nuclear plants were expected to run for 40 years, but thanks to greater experience, they’re expected to run for 80. And simple changes to equipment allowed the amount of power produced by existing nuclear plants in the US to increase the equivalent of adding eight full-sized reactors.
As for circularity, solar panels and wind turbines are rarely recycled because the energy and labor required to do so are much more expensive than just buying raw materials.
And that’s just at the level of the solar and wind equipment. At a societal level, the value of energy from solar and wind declines the more of it we add to the electrical grid.
The underlying reason is physical. Solar and wind produce too much energy when we don’t need it and not enough when we do.
In 2013, a German economist predicted that the economic value of solar would drop by a whopping 50% when it became just 15% of electricity and that the value of wind would decline 40% once it rose to 30% of electricity.
Six years later, the evidence that solar and wind are increasing electricity prices in the real world, often without reducing emissions, is piling up.
In 2018, I reported that renewables had contributed to electricity prices rising 50% in Germany and five times more in California than in the rest of the US despite generating just 17% of the state’s electricity.
And in April, a research institute at the University of Chicago led by a former Obama administration economist found solar and wind were making electricity significantly more expensive across the United States.
The cost to consumers of renewables has been staggeringly high.
Two weeks ago, Der Spiegel reported that Germany spent $36 billion per year on renewables over the last five years, and yet only increased the share of electricity from solar and wind by 10 percentage points.
It’s been a similar story in the US. “All in all,” wrote the University of Chicago economists, “consumers in the 29 states had paid $125.2 billion more for electricity than they would have in the absence of the policy.”
Some renewable energy advocates protest that more evidence is needed to prove that it is renewables and not some hidden factor that is making electricity expensive.
But there is a growing consensus among economists and independent analysts that solar and wind are indeed making electricity more expensive for two reasons: they are unreliable, thus requiring 100% back-up, and energy-dilute, thus requiring extensive land, transmission lines, and mining.
After The Los Angeles Times failed to plainly connect the dots between California’s simultaneous rise in electricity prices and renewables, a leading economist with the University of California pointed out the obvious.
“The story of how California’s electric system got to its current state is a long and gory one,” James Bushnell wrote, but “the dominant policy driver in the electricity sector has unquestionably been a focus on developing renewable sources of electricity generation.”
Renewables Are For Degrowth
We shouldn’t be surprised that renewables are making energy expensive. For as long as Greens have been advocating renewables they have viewed their high cost as a feature, not a bug.
Greens viewed energy as the source of humankind’s destruction of the natural world and sought to restrict energy supplies in order to slow and eventually reverse the destruction.
Indeed, the reason environmentalists turned against nuclear energy in the 1960s was that it was cheap and effectively infinite.
In the early 1970s, the Sierra Club’s Executive Director advocated scaring the public about nuclear to increase regulations to make it more expensive. And that’s what his organization, and many others, proceeded to do over the next four decades.
But Greens got the relationship between energy and the environment backward.
As people consume higher levels of energy the overall environmental impact is overwhelmingly positive, not negative. As we consume greater amounts of energy we can live in cities, stop using wood as fuel, and afford to have fewer children.
And as humans use more energy for agriculture in the form of tractors and fertilizers, we are able to grow more food on less land, allowing marginal lands to return to grasslands, forests, and wildlife.
Over time, rising electricity consumption, such as for high-speed trains in population-dense places like Europe and Asia, drives the transition from fossil fuels to zero-emissions nuclear.
Engineers and other critics of renewables often assume Greens are simply misinformed. Many if not most of them are. I certainly was.
Few university environmental studies students today, for example, ever learn of the mostly positive relationship between rising energy consumption and environmental protection.
Fewer learn that the energy density of the fuel, whether wood, coal, sunlight, wind or uranium, determine energy’s environmental impact.
But the ideologically-driven leadership of European Greens and American environmentalists knows renewables make energy expensive and view raising energy prices as a high priority.
In 1994, then-Vice President Al Gore pushed an energy tax as a central plank in the Clinton administration’s environmental agenda, which later evolved into a complicated and corrupt “cap and trade” proposal. Such taxes hurt the poor the most and were wildly unpopular.
As energy taxes failed politically, environmentalists in the US and Greens in Europe focused instead on subsidizing or mandating renewables.
At bottom, renewables make electricity expensive by returning so little energy relative to the energy invested. For instance, solar panels with storage deliver just 1.6 times as much energy as is invested as compared to the 75 times more energy delivered with nuclear.
Greens and environmentalists also seek to make food, another form of energy, more expensive. They do so by making agriculture more labor-intensive, land-intensive, and resource-intensive.
Moving to organics, as Greens demand, and away from synthetic fertilizer to manure, would require doubling the amount of land required for agriculture. Currently, humans use a whopping 38% of the ice-free surface of the earth for agriculture.
Moving to organics would thus decimate the 15% of the ice-free surface of the Earth that humans have to date protected for wildlife conservation, and destroy much beyond that, too.
Making farming more labor-intensive would take humankind back toward an agrarian economy where far more people work in farming, and everybody is much poorer.
Unlike the original New Deal, a Green New Deal would thus result in what Greens call “de-growth,” not growth.
The idea of de-growth came out of efforts by Malthusian Greens in the 1960s and 70s to persuade developing nations to cede control of their natural resources to Earth scientists under the auspices of the United Nations.
Originally the Green Party in Britain advocated “deindustrialization, a return to living in small peasant communities, the sterilization of women and an end to all immigration.”
It was only in the last decade that Greens started insisting that the renewables transition would “create jobs” as part of a Green New Deal.
What they rarely mention is that the jobs are usually low-paying and low-skill, like spreading low-yield solar and wind collectors across landscapes, or collecting and spreading manure at organic farms.
There is a perfect fit between the abstract physical theories, economic predictions, and real-world effects of renewables.
It was predictable that energy-dilute renewable fuels like sunlight and wind would require far more land than either fossil fuels or nuclear, and they do.
It was predictable that renewables with such a low return-on-energy-invested would fail to produce enough energy to make recycling worthwhile, and they have.
And it was predictable that such unreliable technologies would make energy so expensive, and they did.
Consider that while our high-energy economy can produce solar panels and wind turbines, a low-energy economy cannot.
Imagine solar panels powering the mining, trucks, and factories needed to manufacture solar panels. There would hardly be any energy left over for society’s other needs.
In that sense, the renewables-powered economy is circular, but not in a way that produces abundant energy for infinite recycling.
Rather, renewables-powered economies are circular in the sense of spiraling downward, as in a drain, or like a snake eating its tail until there is nothing left.