The Paris agreement had no teeth. It was voluntary. Double voluntary, in fact. Nations could choose their reduction levels and there was no enforcement mechanism. Nevertheless, the U.S. withdrawal has prompted warnings of environmental catastrophe, with David Gergen calling it “one of the most shameful acts” in America’s history.
Yet if it’s actions that count, the United States is doing pretty well.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration earlier this year reported that U.S. emissions of CO2 have dropped to the lowest level since 1991. This is almost entirely because utilities are replacing closing coal-fired plants with those that burn far-cleaner, and now cheaper, natural gas.
In a separate report, the Energy Information Administration predicted that carbon emissions for 2016 would hit their lowest level since 1992. That was three years before the United Nations held the first of its 21 global summits on climate change.
Next-generation nuclear, with the first plants expected between 2020-2030, will be emissions-free but considerably cheaper and incapable of experiencing meltdowns. There will be nothing to melt.
Meanwhile China remains a signatory of the Paris accord. But despite Gergen’s assertion that “we’re the largest contributor to carbon dioxide in the world,” China passed the United States in CO2 emissions a decade ago and now pours twice the carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Germany, the green poster child, is also creating vastly more CO2 recently because of its decision to shutter nuclear plants.
Much of the rest of the world continues to shovel in coal, with no intention of abiding by their Paris accord commitments. “Hundreds of Coal Plants Are Still Being Planned Worldwide—Enough To Cook The Planet,” ran the title of an article in the left-wing publication Vox last year. But not in the United States.
To look at news coverage, you’d never know that America is reducing greenhouse gas emissions. You’d also never know that the much-hyped route to salvation— so-called “renewable energy”—is just a garden path.
One indicator that folks are playing politics is that nuclear power often is not considered “renewable” for regulatory purposes. After all, there’s only so much uranium on earth. Never mind that it may be enough to last a millennium, and that one of the fuels that can be used in the next-generation nukes, thorium, is essentially limitless.
So that leaves hydroelectric, biomass, geothermal, wind, and solar. But all the best hydroelectric sites are already being used, so each new one provides diminishing returns. The dams and reservoirs they require can also wreak havoc on the environment. Biomass comprises things that grow, like wood. And as one can imagine, it’s a pollution nightmare that creates more carbon dioxide than coal. And that leaves us with wind and solar.
New growth in “renewables” is to come from wind turbines and solar panels, which—despite the incredible amount of ink (or pixels) they receive—currently contribute a mere 6.5 percent of generated electricity in the United States. But they’re said to be super nifty because the energy they produce is free!
Only it’s not. Wind and solar energy are a scam that wouldn’t exist but for massive subsidies.
Ask perhaps America’s greatest investor in these technologies, Berkshire Hathaway guru Warren Buffett. He’s already sunk at least $15 billion into them with “another $15 billion ready to go.” At a meeting a couple of years ago he admitted that “on wind energy, we get a tax credit if we build a lot of wind farms. That’s the only reason to build them. They don’t make sense without the tax credit.” (Studies consistently show solar farms make even less sense.)
The problems with both wind and solar is that they’re inevitably variable and intermittent. A fossil fuel or nuclear plant can steadily pump out electricity day or night, independent of climate or weather. And what’s called “capacity factor” (maximum output) for American nuclear plants has steadily increased; they’re now operating at close to peak efficiency all the time.
Turbines turn only when the wind blows, and if it blows too hard they have to be governed or shut down to prevent damage. Solar panels are useless at night and in some places almost useless in winter. We’re not just talking the Yukon and Alaska. Despite having the world’s highest capacity to collect solar energy, Germany gets almost no energy from sunshine in the winter.
To keep costs anywhere near competitive, both wind and solar “farms” should, first, be built on land nobody wants to use for anything else, and second, where the sun or wind are most plentiful. Finding land poses a significant problem. The Westinghouse AP1000 WPR small modular reactor—the only type currently being installed in the United States—requires five acres of land. The company calculates that to generate the same amount of energy “average solar” would require 2,400 acres while “average wind” would need 60,000. That’s 500 and 12,000 times the land mass respectively, which makes them cost-prohibitive for built-up areas such as the entire U.S. northeast.
Effective location has also been problematic. While the northeast gets both relatively little sun and wind, the Chicago area gets relatively little sun. Among the largest metropolitan areas, only California ranks fairly favorably on both counts.
This leads to a problem with wind and solar that virtually nobody discusses, even opponents: the cost of transmission from areas of plentiful sun, wind, and land to where the customers are. With every other form of commercial electricity except hydroelectric and geothermal, you put the plant in the customer’s vicinity.
But when you need to generate the electricity where wind and sun are the strongest and land is the cheapest, you’re talking about considerable land costs, transmission line costs, right-of-way expenses and the inevitable “bleeding” of power that increases with every mile of cable. This can double the expense of delivered energy. Everyone ignores this, including the primary source for cost comparisons: the Department of Energy. They just calculate actual generation costs, not what the utility spends to actually get juice to your electricity outlet.
It gets even worse. Naturally, prime areas are getting snatched up first as has been the case with hydroelectric. This is what economists call “the low-hanging fruit.” As U.S. wind and solar providers move beyond the paltry bit of electricity they now deliver, they’ll have to reach farther and farther away from clients and transmission costs will increase. Anything beginning to approach the lauded goal of 100 percent of electricity generated would be crushingly expensive.
That’s just fine for providers. Because, as Buffett admitted, the money is in the subsidies. For that 6.5 percent of electricity, wind and solar grab a stunning 64 percent of federal subsidies, meaning over $10 billion or about $80 per U.S. federal taxpayer annually. If solar and wind were indeed catching up to other forms of electricity generation in price terms, as we’re constantly told, they wouldn’t need those subsidies.
A 41-page report in 2015 from the Institute for Energy Research last year found that new wind generation costs are about three times that of existing coal and over double that of existing conventional combined cycle gas. They conclude, “Most existing coal, natural gas, nuclear, and hydroelectric generation resources could continue producing electricity for decades at a far lower cost than could any potential new generation resources.”
Ultimately, “renewable” is just a feel-good word that doesn’t apply in any realistic sense, given that neither solar panels or wind turbines, the latter of which comprise a huge number of moving parts bearing tremendous amounts of friction, last forever. The turbines need maintenance two or three times each year, and the American Wind Energy Association says not to count on them lasting more than 20 years. Conversely, the oldest U.S. commercial nuclear plant is licensed for 60 years (renewed once and perpetually renewable). With upgrades, nuclear plants, like European cathedrals, last forever.
If the true goal is to actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions, rather than signing a big fat John Hancock on what’s essentially a worthless document, then critics of Trump’s Paris decision should chill.
Michael Fumento is an attorney, author, and journalist who frequently writes on energy and pollution issues.