The Green New Deal didn’t make sense before the pandemic. It makes even less sense now. What we need is an Old Energy New Deal, focused on making our existing energy infrastructure more efficient, less polluting. It’s not glamorous, but it will bring the most meaningful change.
Of course everybody wants to be “Meeting 100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources.” But the changeover to zero emissions energy won’t be at some arbitrary point in time. It will occur when we have alternative energy generation in sufficient quantity and at comparable prices to fossil energy. Only then will we be able move away from fossil fuels. At the moment, there is no magical, zero emissions way of generating clean energy and even if there were it wouldn’t make sense to scrap our existing power infrastructure. We have 1,700 oil, gas and coal power plants in the United States. That’s trillions of dollars of investment, and much of our infrastructure has decades of usable life left. It just doesn’t make sense to throw out a half a trillion dollars in infrastructure that’s still good.
Like it or not, fossil fuels are going to be powering our country, and much of the world, for many decades to come. The Green New Deal seems to suggest that it would actually be possible to get to zero emission power generation in TEN YEARS, if we really, really tried. Again, it’s just not going to happen. It’s always good to have aspirational goals, but the danger is they take focus away from here and now answers that might make a difference. If we pretend we will be done with fossil energy in ten years, then why try to improve fossil fuel power?
That, really, is what the Green New Deal is – a series of big, aspirational goals, with little connection to where we are right now or how to improve what we have. This, more than anything else, makes it seem like a political stunt. To my perception, the left and right put out these huge, unrealistic goals, generally for the purpose of separating the true believers from everyone else.
The Importance of Energy
We have no choice but to continue to rely on fossil fuels until we have an alternative that can provide both the volume of energy and low cost of fossil fuels. The ability to generate massive amounts of inexpensive energy is a prerequisite of the civilization and the level of freedom we have. Like it or not this is the compromise of a modern industrial world – the tools we need to live the lives we want sometimes do significant damage to the natural world.
After 235 years of amazing advances still the most important invention for humankind was James Watt’s steam engine, the first instance of generated energy. Almost every activity in our economy is dependent upon energy. Without the ability to generate vast amounts of inexpensive energy on demand there would be no high yield agriculture, no manufacturing, no widespread exchange of goods and certainly no consumer economy. For over a hundred years that cheap energy has been from fossil fuels, oil, coal and gas.
We will eventually run out of fossil fuels. Hopefully we will find a better, cheaper, less polluting alternative. Let’s hope we do so before we run out of fossil fuels. A couple of centuries ago the philosopher Malthus predicted that the world’s population would outrun its food supply. The variable which proved Malthus wrong was generated energy and the advances in agricultural productivity this allowed. Without being overly dramatic, if we ever do run out of fossil fuels before we find an alternative, hundreds of millions of people will starve.
We Need to Stop Demonizing the Energy Industry
Surely one of the most frustrating things about the far left (and far right) is that demonization is a part of their political strategy – it’s easier to build support for something if you can make people hate the other side. The proponents of the Green New Deal demonize our existing energy companies, accusing them of either casually or purposely destroying our environment in pursuit of their own greed. I’m sorry, but that’s crazy talk. The energy companies aren’t the enemy, they are on of the reasons we have the largest economies in the world. We wouldn’t be here without our country being blessed with plentiful fossil fuels and companies willing to take the risk of finding and extracting them. Fossil fuels are part of what made this country great. If the energy companies are evil for providing cheap energy, then we are all just as evil for demanding and using cheap energy. And more importantly, the energy companies are the in the business of generating and distributing energy, and make their money from doing so. How could we NOT have them involved in evolving our energy generation? They are the people that know how to get it done.
Let’s Have the Jobs Actually Produce Something of Value
Our energy sector employs 6.7 million people right now. If the Green New Deal increases the number of energy jobs, costs go up. It won’t be a net add of ongoing jobs. Yes, decommissioning trillions of dollars of power plants and then building trillions more of new power plants will create a one time bump in construction and manufacturing jobs. But the construction won’t be creating any new value – it will be spent on just keeping us where we are, and it’s going to cause energy costs to go up. When power companies set rates, they spread the cost of the facility over a 15 year period. If we scrap that power plant ten years in, we still have to pay for the rest of it. And we also have to pay for the new plant. It’s like having a car payment for a car, then halfway in you decide you don’t like the car so you take it to the junk yard to be scrapped, and buy a new car. Now you have two car payments to make and still only one car to drive around in. It’s financially irresponsible. If we are going to spend money on construction, we need to spend it on roads and bridges, things that are decaying and actually need to be replaced.
THE OLD ENERGY NEW DEAL
Continue to Identify ways to reduce emissions on fossil fuels
This, more than anything else, needs to be the key. We will be using fossil fuels for decades to come. To pick just one important example, methane released from oil wells goes straight into the atmosphere. It is a significant contributor to greenhouse gases. Older cars still on the road are a significant part of it. There is one company in American that is allowed to refurbish old diesel engines, another source. This is what we need to do – we need to look incrementally at where the pollution is coming from and find ways to deal with each specific situation. We need to capture methane at the wellhead. We need to get junker cars off the road. We need to no longer allow polluting diesel engines to be refurbished.
Continue to Identify ways to increase efficiency on fossil fuels
We’ve made amazing progress on fuel efficiency, and industrial efficiency. Slowly increasing fuel standards. Eventually adding trucks and busses. There’s nothing glamourous about increasing efficiency, but it has had a material impact on our energy use and hence greenhouse emissions.
Continue to promote conservation and responsible individual use
We have reduced energy use in lots of little ways as well. Reminding people to turn off the lights. To service their HVAC systems. Carpooling. All are small ways that individuals can help reduce use of energy and so both save money and save our environment.
Continue to promote wind and other alternative energy sources with tax and financial incentives
There are two kinds of energy – generated and harnessed. Right now harnessed doesn’t come close to meeting our energy needs, and probably won’t for decades to come. But we need to keep supporting harnessed energy. We need to keep on providing financial subsidies for adding solar energy, water energy, wind energy. It won’t change things overnight, but it will continue to grow and provide, hopefully, an ever larger share of our energy needs. Again, not glamourous to say “slightly expand the existing subsidies”. But it’s a good incremental solution. It’s bringing real change.
Start a MacArthur Foundation-style Challenge
We should put the ingenuity of the private sector to use in addressing a range of issues. The federal government can spur this process by offering the universal motivator, cash, to the process. Pick 10 ideas, $10 million each for the winning design. Once we have a winning design, we can decide how to go from there. One project could be on capturing methane at the wellhead in such a way as to not increase costs. The methane is wasted energy. Can we find a way to not release the gas and make it profitable for oil companies to put in place the technology? Once we can show it can be done on a cost-effective basis, have a reason to possibly mandate it. Another could be exploring thorium nuclear reactor designs.
Keep Doing What We Are Doing
For the most part, all of these are things we are already doing. They aren’t glamorous, but they have been effective. I understand everybody dreams of the magic solution, that amazing new energy source. But it’s unlikely to happen. More likely we will see real change through the cumulative effect of many smaller initiatives. Incrementalism is our best chance of saving our environment.