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A Not Really Green New Deal

image credit: Photos courtesy, https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/11/12 and https://www.freeart.com/artwork/

Alan Rozich's picture
Chief Science Officer Borun

Providing quantitative sustainability insights using sound technical analyses with a management consulting approach to craft strategies that address the mega-trends that are occurring in the...

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Proponents of the "Green New Deal" (GND) which originated in the US House of Representatives are touting a new era of environmental improvement, sustainability, and unrivaled economic prosperity. The GND is championed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC). House Resolution 109 from the first session of the 116th Congress could, however, also be viewed as a potpourri of social agendas that are ensconced within a seemingly contrived national sustainability initiative. The hope is that it puts US societal functionality on a more favorable course from an environmental and climate change perspective.

Unfortunately, the architects of this initiative egregiously failed to adhere to fundamental sustainability maxims which will result in wasting trillions of taxpayers' funds while compromising and hindering the Resolution's intended effort to stimulate the economy and mitigate anthropogenic climate change.

Analyzing this initiative is best achieved by focusing on the sustainability science and engineering considerations, particularly how these features are addressed in both policy and in specific engineered initiatives and projects.

The Current Reality of Societal Functionality

Today, our planet has a population of almost 8 billion people which grew from 1 billion in a little over 200 years. Human acquisition and consumption of resources governs mankind's imprint on the environment. The integrity and stability of the environment has a palpable effect on humanity's capability to produce resources that facilitate the stability of societal functionality. Consequently, as societal functionality and resource demand intensifies concomitant with global increases in population, consumption activities of essentially all homo sapiens become interlinked with all others in some form or fashion.

Societal resource consumption drives everything. From a sustainability perspective, resource consumption per person over time, or resource footprint, governs a specific society's overall requirements for providing energy, water, food, etc. An inviolable tenet of sustainability is resource efficiency which must be a non-negotiable element of any undertaking, particularly with one imbued with such lofty aspirations as the Green New Deal (GND).

Resource Efficiency

Resource efficiency should be a major, paramount component of any sustainability effort. Using renewable systems to produce excessive energy needlessly is not sustainable or prudent. Consider the fact that the US energy footprint is more than double that of the EU (0.28 versus 0.13 Quads/million capita/year).

Matching the US energy footprint to that of Europe reduces US energy consumption by 50 Quads per year. This creates the opportunity to eliminate coal power production as well as significantly cutting energy production using other fossil fuels.

Clearly, these goals and reductions are a starting point and would be gradually implemented.

The important point is that these analyses show what is possible with US resource energy efficiencies while what is economically feasible is subject to more detailed engineering, economic analyses, and programmatic refinement.

Land Use

Land use is central to many of the environmental and socio-economic issues facing society today. Repurposing land for some renewable energy systems with a consequential reduction in biodiversity which is crucial assimilating atmospheric carbon dioxide is counter-productive. The twin challenges of reversing biodiversity declines and mitigating anthropogenic climate change with renewable energy systems must addressed in concert.

Unfortunately, the current preferred renewable energy technologies, solar power and wind, have inordinately large land use requirements per unit of power produced.

A recent article in Powerline compared the land use demands or footprints for various for various renewable and fossil fuel energy technologies.

According to this article, "meeting America’s current electricity needs with wind energy would require a territory more than two times the size of California."

Solar is somewhat less onerous with land use requirements.

However, compared to a technology such as nuclear energy, solar and wind require 200 and 2,000 times more land area than nuclear, respectively.

The land use requirements as they relate to power production for solar and wind were independently checked using data obtained from NREL.

Implications to the Green New Deal

One significant implication is that GND needs to create a totally separate component of the initiative that seeks to articulate, understand, and quantify the specific reasons why US energy footprints are so egregiously higher than those of the EU. This exercise needs to be diagnostic, specific, and quantifiable. The results will yield tangible sustainable targets-of-opportunity for reducing US energy and, for that matter, other strategic, resource footprints. These targets can then be ranked according to potential resource footprint reductions that are possible and then acted upon in kind.  Without such an analysis, the Nation is at risk of expending trillions of dollars, have little to show for the GND effort, and, in a worse case, even exacerbating the current status of US sustainability.

Another significant implication is the urgent need to raise technological and programmatic awareness for the significance of land use in the GND calculus. Wantonly committing land for renewables production unnecessarily is foolhardy at best and negligent at worst.

Because a technology is renewable does not mean it can be blithely applied carte-blanche.

Although the US is blessed with extensive land resources, in this day and age, it is time that the Nation moves past the manifest destiny mindset regarding these precious assets and revere and venerate them as do Native Americans.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on May 3, 2021

Although the US is blessed with extensive land resources, in this day and age, it is time that the Nation moves past the manifest destiny mindset regarding these precious assets and revere and venerate them as do Native Americans.

In many ways, land use is the missing puzzle piece of many aspects of climate policy. You're 100% right that it needs to be factored into any renewable generation calculus, though I don't think doing so spells disaster for all renewable projects-- just that they need to be more mindful of land use, creatively co-exist on spaces in ways with multiple benefits, etc. At the same time, proper use of land for agriculture to be optimized and climate conscious, forests to be preserved, and even rethinking our urban landscape are all critical land use hurdles to incorporate. 

Alan Rozich's picture
Alan Rozich on May 3, 2021

Matt, my follow-up article will show a way forward. The sustainability space is one with surprises, some good and some not. The land use conundrum is likely solvable but not by solely relying on the "usual suspects."

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on May 3, 2021

Thanks for the reply, Alan, and looking forward to more insights in your follow up piece!

orestes macchione's picture
orestes macchione on May 4, 2021

There's always a starting point to reach any objective in which technology and general conditions are not yet there. Something must be done, we cannot wait, climate change is already ongoing! I would encourage to look into the future considering land use for renewables to include offshore windfarms as well. Also the mix must include distributed generation, energy storage, hydrogen, pump hydro, etc. All coupled together with efficient transmission.

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