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The Race is On: Bernie on Energy

image credit: johnlund.com

Like so much going on today, your political identity may determine how you interpret the title of this blog. Is 2020 truly the biggest election year ever, as CNN and Fox News say? Is it really the year that will finally decide the fate of our planet and children? The political debates and dramatic posing are better than much of network television these days (minus the Bachelor). The Democratic party candidates’ proposals to save the planet in the next 12 years have us thinking back to our favorite Marty Huggins quote from the Campaign of the century, “Get your brooms because it’s a mess". My last blog on this topic, Jeopardy: Green New Deal was published a year ago and served as an intro to green energy policy. The reality is, this election race has set up a referendum on energy policy, and the direction in which the parties are running are widely different. Why should we (or you) care? Never has a national energy policy gained so much attention for completely altering the energy grid, as what is being proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders.

The now presumptive front-runner for the Democratic party nomination, Bernie Sanders, has posted a 15,000-word plan on his website spelling out the transition to a 100% carbon free country by 2030. The main points entail:

  • $16,000,000,000,000 (trillion) in grants, subsidies, infrastructure investment and labor wages to transform the energy grid in 10 years.
  • Full decarbonization of the transportation sector, moving all vehicles and long-haul trucks away from oil or natural gas.
  • Full decarbonization of electricity generation, closing Natural Gas and Coal fired power plants.
  • Phasing out Nuclear energy (see my last blog on Nuclear energy here).

In total, Sanders seeks to eliminate 88.5% of the yearly energy sources in the U.S. (equivalent to the energy output of 17.2 billion barrels of oil) according to the 2018 energy consumption chart above. Opposition to the Green New Deal focus on beliefs that:

  • Unrealized costs could push the cost of the plan’s price to $60 trillion.
  • We do not have the technology or physical resources like land, lithium, cobalt, etc. to accomplish the plan.
  • Based on recently deployed green energy, it is estimated that an additional 250,000 – 350,000 square miles of land (the size of the area in green below) would be needed to replace fossil fuels for current electricity levels. Up to 600% more electricity could be needed for transportation.

Discouragement may or may not be the intent of Bernie’s skeptics. Everyone wants the best for society, but the race to save the planet may be more of “a mess” than many believe.

The Presidential race will be settled in November (barring Russian collusion), but the energy debate likely won’t have an agreed upon outcome. For millions of Americans the issue of saving the climate is non-negotiable. The plan that Bernie Sanders has laid out does have detailed descriptions of what money will be spent on, but it still lacks the deep technical knowledge needed to see it through. Will businesses be left on the hook for infrastructure changes, existing natural gas or electricity contract balances, switching to electric vehicles, and all unknown price or tax increases affecting their industries? These concerns are real, and hopefully answers will be given soon.

Chris Amstutz's picture

Thank Chris for the Post!

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 4, 2020 7:07 am GMT

Chris, Bernie is an idiot if he believes Congress will approve a $60 trillion plan to power the U.S. with solar panels, hamster wheels, wind turbines, and other "renewable" sources - when the entire country could be powered for 1/20 that price with carbon free nuclear energy - more efficiently, more sustainably, and with less environmental impact.

What will happen if Bernie is elected: the "Green New Deal", dreamt up by starry-eyed House Democrats, will fall flat on its face - as it should. Then, real solutions to climate change will have to wait another four precious years. And to get a Republican president elected in 2024, all the GOP will have to do is ask experts to weigh in, while Democrats are out in the field chasing butterflies and moonbeams.

Maybe, Republicans will then become the party of environmental responsibility. Unlikely, but it's looking more and more like that might be our only hope.

Chris Amstutz's picture
Chris Amstutz on Mar 4, 2020 3:01 pm GMT

I try to look at it from the side of the average voter, and unfortunately I feel like many (30-40%?) are ready to throw caution to the wind in the name of saving the climate.

I theorize that even though Bernie has never waivered from his narrative of helping the common peeople, he wants to selfishly make climate change the issue he can tie his eternal legacy too. This would mean he has to selfishly act and push an unproven policy now, instead of waiting for technology to evolve through market forces over the next 10+ years. 

I also see a valid point from the left in the tragedy of the commons view point, in that fossil fuel prices may never be high enough in the next 30-50 years to fully financially incentivize new renewable technology. If this is an assumption, and the climate being irrepparable in 12 years is an assumption, then the only solution would be forced government intervention (regardless of cost and potential disruption to status quo along the way)

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Mar 4, 2020 5:14 pm GMT

in that fossil fuel prices may never be high enough in the next 30-50 years to fully financially incentivize new renewable technology. If this is an assumption, and the climate being irrepparable in 12 years is an assumption, then the only solution would be forced government intervention (regardless of cost and potential disruption to status quo along the way)

This logic in itself is enough to create a whole host of young single-issue voters-- but the polling data doesn't show that dedication across anything close to a plurality of the electorate

Chris Amstutz's picture
Chris Amstutz on Mar 4, 2020 8:25 pm GMT

Maybe increased media coverage is giving me the false impression that this issue is much heavier on the mind of voters than 5 years ago? A study on what voters say is important to them vs. what their voting pattern indicates would be interesting (especially given this coming election).

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Mar 4, 2020 10:15 pm GMT

There's definitely an increase in voters who care about climate and are expressing that, especially in the past few years. I definitely don't mean to undermine that. But there are two points-- the first is what you say, how much do voters actually vote like the climate matters. And the second is that while there are voters saying it's important, there are a number of interesting polls that show that it's not really in the top ~3 issues for voters. Here are a few resources:

https://news.gallup.com/poll/276932/several-issues-tie-important-2020-election.aspx

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/cbs-news-poll-climate-change-will-be-an-issue-for-most-voters-in-2020/

https://thehill.com/hilltv/rising/474327-voters-name-health-care-as-top-issue-going-into-2020

For as much as an existential threat as climate poses, I'm just surprised it's not the #1 issue for voters, being talked about by candidates, etc. 

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 5, 2020 5:29 am GMT

"I also see a valid point from the left in the tragedy of the commons view point, in that fossil fuel prices may never be high enough in the next 30-50 years to fully financially incentivize new renewable technology."

Chris, I look at it from a different tragedy-of-the-commons viewpoint - that the demand of many for the right to generate their own power, instead of contributing to an efficient, clean, centralized grid serving everyone, is the epitome of self-interest.

We all rely on a grid powered by regulated utilities for our baseload supply of electricity, and that societal problems like climate change can't be solved by free-market capitalism should be obvious. If not, Exhibit A would be the world's largest corporation, Wal-Mart, which collects nearly one $trillion in revenue each year by offering not the best selection of products or the best value, but every product at the lowest price.

Energy is fundamentally the same. If we allow our energy sources to be determined by market forces, consumers will demand energy at the lowest price - fossil fuel energy - and together, determine our collective fate.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Mar 5, 2020 1:33 pm GMT

If we allow our energy sources to be determined by market forces, consumers will demand energy at the lowest price - fossil fuel energy - and together, determine our collective fate.

Or we could implement policy mechanisms that make it so fossil energy is not the lowest cost to the end user!

Chris Amstutz's picture
Chris Amstutz on Mar 5, 2020 4:01 pm GMT

This is turning in to a theoretical economic argument and there is theory for and against socialized energy and what capitalism can or cannot solve. Personally I feel that the solution has to be market based, exclude any central planning (policy mechanisms), and the future may turn to individual based micro grids.

Central planning is economically notorious for being inneficient and raising prices. When I think of government driven green energy I think of Germany and all of the issues they have had on a much smaller national scale than the US. 

If government force is necessary the debate  becomes "How much will it cost financially for the government to force a giant shift to green energy vs how much will climate change cost the US financially in damage" and I believe people have tried to quantify this.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 5, 2020 6:39 pm GMT

Chris, it's turning into a fundamental argument of values because of the enormous consequences at stake.

In my opinion, valuing 2020 profitability  above environmental changes which will  likely doom one-third of the species on Earth, and last for at least 100,000 years, is obscenely shortsighted and self-serving. Hyperbole? No, this is what leading climatologists say is in store.

Equally self-serving is elevating the financial interests of the U.S. above other nations of the world - particularly since our luxurious standard of living is responsible for most of the excess carbon in the atmosphere today.

Some right-wing demagogues might call it "government force",  others might call it "government support". No government is perfect, but what they do best is meet needs we all have in common. For security, for clean water, for clean air, for shared infrastructure, we're all in it together.

Chris Amstutz's picture
Chris Amstutz on Mar 5, 2020 7:10 pm GMT

So would you say you're pro-Bernie, minus the fact he doesnt want to use Nuclear power to push green shift? 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 6, 2020 9:37 pm GMT

Chris, first and foremost I'm a scientist, and for that reason politics is not that interesting to me. One of the most attractive qualities of science is that it's apolitical. It doesn't make promises, it tries to answer questions. It avoids emotion, and welcomes logic.

Not sure for whom I'll vote in November, but at that point we'll all have to make a choice based on how each candidate's positions reflect our own personal values - including how much priority U.S. policy should assign to climate change.

I don't believe the values of most Americans are as far apart on the basics of climate policy, as pundits would have us believe. A simple allegory I find illustrative: when we stop at a drive-through for something to eat, very few of us, as we're driving away, throw our trash out the window. Why? It would certainly be most  convenient. Maybe some are worried about getting a ticket. But I believe most of us understand our actions can have a negative impact on those who follow - that part of our social contract is responsibility for the effect of our actions on others.

Proponents of the "Green New Deal" overlook the financial impacts of what their actions will have on others. They're perceived by less-entitled Americans as smug or arrogant, and not without some justification. Not a small part of my support for nuclear energy is the fact it generates a lot of energy with very few impacts, either financial or environmental. Unfortunately, too many Americans of all political stripes aren't aware nuclear is, in many respects, the best of both worlds.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 5, 2020 6:48 pm GMT

Exactlly my point, Matt. Those policy mechanisms place the interests of society above self-interest, though. The "gimme mine" crowd has a big problem with that.

Chris Amstutz's picture
Chris Amstutz on Mar 6, 2020 6:29 pm GMT

Unfortunately I believe that many sciences and government have become improperly intertwined, and I have a personal theory that we will look back on this time as one of great anthropocentric arrogance. 

Do you have any pieces on small scale nuclear power technology I could look in to? Thank you for the discussion.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 6, 2020 9:21 pm GMT

Chris, I'd be interested in your personal theory, but I suspect it's that climate scientists have been corrupted by the promise of immense wealth, via research grants, to fabricate the theory of anthropocentric climate change as part of a vast conspiracy.

If so - the money available in research grants, not just to the scientists who study it but all their expenses, is an infinitesimally-small fraction of the money available from the sale of fossil fuel. Global oil, gas, and coal interests reap ~$5 trillion in revenue annually - about 1/30 the combined wealth of everyone in the world - revenue directly threatened by the theory of climate change. It's far more likely (and with evidence in support) that fossil-fuel interests are tirelessly seeking to discredit science in the name of profit.

"Follow the money" - so many consipracy theories can be proven or disproven by accepting that simple adage.

Re: small-scale nuclear, the company with the most promising concept has already received its first order, with several more in the pipeline. More info here:
https://www.nuscalepower.com/

Mark Goldes's picture
Mark Goldes on Mar 6, 2020 10:54 pm GMT

Green Swans - highly improbable innovations with huge impact - can replace fossil fuels much faster at far lower cost. For example, any combustion engine can soon be converted to run on water - taken from the 12 quadrillion gallons in the atmosphere. Conversion of a car will be easy & cheap. Installing a larger alternator will allow vehicles to sell electricity when suitably parked. Utilities can convert piston engines and turbines to run on water taken from the air as well. This opens the way to a fast fade for fossil fuels worldwide. And dramatically lowers the price. Every vehicle owner saving fuel costs and selling power will become an advocate. This is a powerful tool toward tackling global heating which can change the world faster than did hand held devices. See aesopinstitute.org to learn more.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 7, 2020 2:04 am GMT

This is climate change, Mark - we get once chance to get it right.

We should bet the farm on "highly improbable innovations with huge impact," should we? Sounds like a recipe for disaster.

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