July 14, 2020
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden unveiled a $2 trillion plan today that would require the electric grid to be relying solely on “clean” electricity by 2035. The plan, which also calls for big investments in energy efficiency and electric vehicles, is the third climate-change proposal put forward by leading Democrats over the past two weeks.
On his website, Biden claims his “Energy Efficiency and Clean Energy Standard” will “cut electricity bills.” But that claim ignores the fact that overhauling the electric grid will drive up the cost of electricity and therefore hurt low- and middle-income consumers. Second, it ignores the raging land-use conflicts in rural America over the siting of renewable-energy projects.
On June 30, the U.S. House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis released the Climate Crisis Action Plan, a 538-page tract that lays out a plan for the US to achieve “net-zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Last week, the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force released a plan which said that Democrats commit to eliminating “carbon pollution from power plants by 2035.” It continues, “Within five years, we will install 500 million solar panels, including eight million solar roofs and community solar energy systems, and 60,000 made-in-America wind turbines.”
To be clear, parts of Biden’s energy plan are sensible. It does not include a ban on hydraulic fracturing, the process used to extract oil and natural gas from dense rock formations. Further, it says that the U.S. should continue to “leverage” existing “sources like nuclear and hydropower.” It also calls for efforts to develop advanced nuclear reactors that are “smaller, safer, and more efficient” than current models. But it’s also clear that a massive increase in renewable energy is a central part of Biden’s plan.
Before going further, let me state the obvious: $2 trillion is a lot of money and Biden plans to spend that sum in just four years. For reference, annual domestic electricity sales total about $400 billion per year. Thus, Biden’s plan calls for expenditures equal to five times the amount that consumers and industry are now spending annually on electricity.
Overhauling the electric grid, which has been called the world’s largest machine, and converting much of it to renewables, is no simple task. That can be seen by looking at California, which has some of the country’s most aggressive decarbonization goals. Over the past decade or so, the state has steadily increased its renewable-electricity mandates. By 2030, the state’s electric utilities must be getting at least 60% of their electricity from renewables and they must be producing 100% “zero-carbon” electricity by 2045.
The imposition of these mandates has coincided with a dramatic increase in electricity prices. Between 2011 and 2017, California’s electricity prices rose five times faster than prices in the rest of the U.S. The state now has some of the highest electricity prices in the country.
California’s electricity prices continue climbing. In April 2020, the average price of electricity in California – across all sectors – jumped by 7.7% over April 2019 numbers. Residential electricity costs jumped even more. In April 2020, residential consumers in California were paying 20.47 cents per kilowatt-hour, an increase of 13.4% over April 2019 prices. Over that same one-year period, the average price of residential electricity in the United States fell slightly from 13.29 cents per kilowatt-hour to 13.28 cents per kilowatt-hour.
California also demonstrates how growing land-use conflicts are slowing, or stopping, the deployment of new renewable capacity. Biden’s decarbonization plan calls for the deployment of “millions of solar panels – including utility-scale, rooftop, and community solar systems – and tens of thousands of wind turbines.”
Siting that much new renewable capacity will require covering vast swaths of land with new infrastructure at the same time that politicians and landowners from California to Vermont are fighting against the encroachment of large-scale renewable energy projects. In 2015, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in favor of an ordinance banning large wind turbines in the county’s unincorporated areas. Last year, San Bernadino County, the largest county in the country, passed an ordinance that prohibits large renewable-energy projects in much of the county. As Sammy Roth of the Los Angeles Times explained it, county officials were “bending to the will of residents who say they don’t want renewable energy projects industrializing their rural desert communities.”
Last December, the Humboldt County Planning Commission rejected a wind project. In March, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors rejected plans that called for 29 wind turbines to be built near the town of Lompoc. All of that opposition has resulted in a virtual standstill in new wind capacity. Between 2013 and 2019, California added less than 200 megawatts of new wind energy capacity.
Similar resistance can be seen in Vermont, Bernie Sanders’s home state. In January, the only remaining wind project in that state was canceled. The backer of the project blamed the end of the project on a political environment that is “hostile to wind energy.” Thus, even though Sanders has been among the biggest promoters of renewable energy in the U.S. Senate and was one of the early backers of the Green New Deal, not a single wind project is now being developed in Vermont.
Meanwhile, in New York, wind energy projects are so unpopular that earlier this year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo included a measure in the state budget that empowers his appointees to ignore local zoning rules and force large-scale renewable projects on rural towns and counties that don’t want those projects.
By my count, since 2015, some 270 government entities in the U.S. have rejected or restricted wind projects. Conflicts are also raging over the high-voltage transmission projects needed to carry solar- and wind-generated electricity from rural areas to customers in big cities. Last month, a federal judge ruled that the US Fish and Wildlife Service hadn’t considered all of the impacts of a 225-mile, 345-kilovolt transmission line designed to go through Nebraska’s Sandhills. The battle over the project, known as the R-Line, has been ongoing for years. Other high-voltage transmission projects have been blocked in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Arkansas.
Biden ended his speech in Wilmington with a dire warning about climate change, saying “science tells us we have nine years before the damage is irreversible” and that his plan will put the US on the path to “net-zero emissions no later than 2050.”
Proposals to address climate change are politically popular. But if Biden wants to appeal to low-income and middle-class voters — as well as voters in rural counties who voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016 — he and his advisors need to consider the impact his energy policies will have on electricity prices and land use.
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