November 9, 2020
As a candidate, Joe Biden pledged to overhaul America’s electric grid so that it relies solely on “clean” electricity by 2035. As president, Biden will find that overhauling our most important and most complex energy network – and doing so in just 15 years — is easier said than done. Decarbonizing our continent-spanning electric grid will require grappling with four big challenges: cost, keeping nuclear plants open, replacing natural gas in the power sector, and the ongoing land-use conflicts over renewables.
The most important issue is cost. Who will pay for all of the needed investment? Biden put the cost of his energy plan at $2 trillion. But last year, the energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie estimated that “full decarbonization of the U.S. power grid” would cost about $4.5 trillion. The firm said that “From a budgetary perspective, the cost is staggering at US$35,000 per household – nearly US$2,000 per year if assuming a 20-year plan.”
For decades, the Democratic Party has identified itself as the champion of the poor and the working class. Completely decarbonizing the electric grid will require spending trillions of dollars and those costs will be passed along to consumers in the form of higher electricity prices and/or higher taxes. If Democrats want to reduce inequality and provide better opportunity for the poor and the middle class, they will have to balance their desire for action on climate change with the real world of electricity rates and grid reliability.
Keeping existing nuclear plants online and generating electricity is perhaps the most pressing challenge. This year, for the first time in 48 years, the Democratic Party endorsed nuclear energy in its platform. But the Democratic leadership must decide if they are going to put their money where their mouth is and provide financial and political support for the nuclear plants that are slated for closure. Earlier this year, one of the two operating reactors at the Indian Point Energy Center in New York was prematurely shuttered. The remaining reactor is slated for closure next April. More plants in Illinois and elsewhere are also slated for premature closure. As more reactors are shuttered, decarbonizing the grid will be even harder than before. If Biden and other Democrats want to keep those plants open, they will have to come up with a viable plan to do so and they need to do it now.
Third, Biden and his team will have to figure out how to replace all of the electricity now being supplied by burning coal and natural gas. Yes, coal is fading from the scene, and fast, as more and more generators are using natural gas instead. That coal-to-gas switching has helped the U.S. slash its greenhouse gas emissions and thanks to the shale revolution and the surge in domestic gas production — as well as our existing network of natural gas pipelines — that switching has been relatively fast and low-cost.
But as I reported in these pages in July, coal and natural gas generation units are now producing about 2,750 terawatt-hours of electricity per year. Replacing that much electricity with nuclear energy would require as much nuclear capacity as now exists on the planet. Prefer solar? Supplanting that 2,750 terawatt-hours with solar would require 25 times as much solar capacity as now exists in the U.S. or nearly four times as much as exists on the planet. Replacing that same energy with wind will require installing nine times as much wind capacity as now exists in this country or roughly twice as much as current global capacity.
The final issue – the one that academics and major media outlets routinely ignore – is the raging land-use conflicts over renewables. Biden said he wants to install half a billion solar panels and 60,000 wind turbines. But from Maine to California, rural landowners and policymakers are rejecting solar and wind projects due to concerns about noise, viewsheds, wildlife, and property values. By my count, since 2015, some 287 government entities have moved to reject or restrict wind projects. Among the latest examples: Christian County, Illinois, which, in September, approved a measure that as a local media outlet explained, effectively ends “any chance of wind turbines being built in Christian County.”
Or look at California, which has built essentially no new wind capacity since 2013. 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.
In short, Biden has pledged to do an extreme makeover of a grid that generates and distributes some $400 billion worth of juice per year. The electric grid is the master network, the system upon which our entire economy depends. Any effort to change how it works will be difficult and expensive.
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