“I was wrong about renewables,” says former green-energy executive 

A twenty-year veteran of clean tech now says we need to use more, not less, energy, especially natural gas and nuclear

By Brian Gitt, PUblic News, March 24, 2024

Renewables will make electricity so cheap that they’ll pay for themselves, explained the news media to the public over the last decade. Electric cars will replace internal combustion vehicles and drive down oil use. And poor nations will “leapfrog” into being rich with solar panels and batteries.

However, a different picture has emerged over the last three years. Rather than renewables paying for themselves, President Joe Biden and Congress passed legislation in 2022 that could result in an astonishing $1 trillion of taxpayer money for renewables, efficiency, and electric cars.

Despite that investment, the US generated less electricity from renewables in 2023 than it did the year before. Meanwhile, oil consumption continues to rise, the market for electric cars is oversupplied, and automakers have slowed electric vehicle spending as demand has slowed

It’s true that the overall decline in electricity generated from renewables is relatively small at 0.8%, and most of the reduction is due to a decline in power from hydroelectric dams. Electricity from utility-scale solar farms rose 14%. And, the US still reduced carbon emissions in 2023.

However, hydroelectricity wasn’t the only renewable energy source that declined. Wind did as well, by 2%, despite an increase in the number of turbines. 

Hydro and wind power is, simply, unreliable

Hydro and wind problems are fundamentally the same: they depend on the right weather. The sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow. As a result, wind and solar energy rely on backup energy sources like coal and natural gas. 

The yearly unreliability of renewables is matched by their daily unreliability, which raises electricity generation costs and makes electric grids unreliable. Wind and solar advocates claim that sun and wind are free, but they don’t discuss all the infrastructure needed to manage this unreliability. As such, places with solar and wind mandates have higher-than-average electricity costs.

The decline in emissions was due mostly to cleaner natural gas replacing coal. As such, what happened in 2023 debunks the Big Lie that we don’t need fossil fuels, that fossil fuels can’t reduce carbon emissions, and that renewables are always the better option.

The New York Times blames the supposedly unanticipated higher electricity usage from the servers needed for AI, but the fundamental problems with renewables have been known for decades. They simply don’t produce enough cheap and reliable energy.

Reliance on renewables putting national grids at risk

Indeed, electric grids across the Western world are in jeopardy due to the high use of unreliable renewables. In the UK, the Prime Minister has called for emergency natural gas plants to meet rising demand, and many experts believe the same could happen in the US.

The UK plans to spend billions of pounds annually over the next three decades to cut CO2 emissions. But even with all that spending, the UK isn’t on track to hit net-zero goals.

And the UK is a wealthy country. Poorer countries are just trying to survive. They don’t have the luxury of thinking about carbon emissions when low-cost energy is their only hope of improving food production, health care, housing, sanitation, water quality, transportation, and economic opportunity.

I Was Wrong about renewables

I used to think that wind, solar, and electric vehicles were the best ways to protect our environment. I went into the business of renewables and efficiency because I believed that they would result in a better world.

I was wrong. It took twenty years of working in the energy industry promoting these technologies to realize they don’t solve climate problems.

Just look at Germany. Over the past two decades, it poured an estimated $500 billion into wind and solar power, restricted oil and gas development, shut down all its nuclear power plants, and increased its dependence on Russian gas. The results? German households saw their energy bills doublebetween 2010 and 2020.

And that was before Russia invaded Ukraine, and somebody blew up the pipeline that brought natural gas to Germany. Germany is in a rapidly accelerating downward spiral driven by a lack of energy.

Manufacturers of car parts, chemicals, fertilizer, and steel are struggling to survive and have been forced to shut down plants, lay off workers, and even file for bankruptcy. German taxpayers had to fork over another $500 billion in 2022 alone to cushion households and businesses from hard-hitting energy costs and another $230 billion to bail out a giant energy company.

The collapse of German industry has the potential to bring the rest of Europe down with it. Bankruptcies are skyrocketing across the European continent.

Solar and wind can’t take nations out of poverty

In response to the failure of renewable energy, Europe demands that poor and developing nations follow its lead. But no country on earth has ever climbed out of energy poverty using wind and solar. Prosperity and growth depend on energy-intensive industries, and they require reliable, cheap, and reliable 24/7 power. China gets this: its coal industry is growing at about two new coal plants per week.

Europe justifies its demands that poor nations rely on renewables in reference to extreme weather caused by climate change.

It’s true that increasing emissions of greenhouse gases like CO2 likely increase the risk of climate-related floods, droughts, heat waves, hurricanes, and fires—events that could negatively affect people’s lives.

However, the best way to protect people from those events isn’t to promote policies that make energy expensive, crush industry, and make people poorer. Instead, it’s to make reliable, affordable energy available to more people around the world and to continue driving innovation to counteract the effects of climate change.

Deaths from natural disasters declined by over 98% during the last century, even though the global population quadrupled. Why? Because we developed technologies that sheltered people from the effects of natural disasters—early warning systems, heating and air conditioning systems, and more resilient buildings and infrastructures.

In general, economic and technological development has helped shield people from natural disasters while at the same time providing better healthcare, education, and economic opportunity. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects a 434 percentincrease in welfare for the average person by 2100 after accounting for climate-related damages.

Energy poverty causes 10 million premature deaths every year—more than malaria, traffic accidents, and AIDS combined. Forty-seven percent of the world’s population—3.7 billion people—lives in energy poverty. They have no indoor heating, warm showers, computers, internet, or appliances.

And poor countries with limited access to energy pollute more than wealthy countries, and environmental damage increases as the gap between rich and poor countries widens. One reason is that many people in developing countries rely on biofuels like wood for cooking and heating. This everyday need for wood contributes to severe deforestation, which in turn destroys habitats. As a result, poor countries have the highest percentage of endangered and threatened wildlife.

Electric cars aren’t the answer

What about electric cars?

Norway is the poster child for electric cars. Government subsidies pushed EV sales from essentially zero to over 80% of new vehicle sales in less than 15 years. Despite the growth of EVs, oil demand has not decreased.

Oil plays a critical role in fueling 97% of all global transportation: trucks, trains, planes, and ships. It enables modern agriculture practices, from equipment to chemicals. And it’s used to produce clothing, housing, computers, phones, medical equipment, and millions of other products.

People wrongly reason that gasoline is 43% of a barrel of oil, so cutting gas use will cut oil demand by 43%.

But they misunderstand how we get gasoline, asphalt, and other products from that barrel. Each product made from a barrel of oil is separated by heat. Lighter products like gasoline get separated at lower temps. Heavier products like asphalt and diesel get separated at higher temps. You can’t make heavier products without making lighter products like gasoline. Even if the US stops using gasoline, we’ll still need oil to make diesel fuel, jet fuel, and other heavy petroleum products. In fact, we will need more oil, not less.

An electric car requires six times more minerals than a gas car. The more minerals it takes to make a car, the more mining is needed. And the more mining is needed, the more diesel fuel is needed to power the machines that dig, process, and transport the materials. The more diesel fuel we need, the more oil we need.

Can’t we replace diesel fuel, jet fuel, fuel oil, and asphalt with something else? Right now, we don’t have any scalable and economically viable alternatives.  Making petroleum products without gasoline is technically possible, but it won’t happen anytime soon. Right now, refineries are being built to separate out gasoline. Existing refineries would have to be replaced. That’s unlikely to happen in the next 20 years.

In the meantime, what’s the US going to do with the ~135 billion gallons of gasoline it consumes yearly? It will flood the market. The surplus supply will drop the price of gasoline, which means people who couldn’t afford gasoline before will be able to. Surplus gas will be used in the developing world. Most countries in the developing world lack environmental laws to curb emissions, so more gas use in the developing world will mean more emissions.

Up From Austerity

If we want to protect people from poverty and climate change, the answer isn’t less energy consumption but more.

Look at the progress China has made. In 1990, 72 percent of the Chinese population lived in extreme poverty. Today less than 0.1 percent does. How did China do it? Through a combination of fossil fuels, industrialization, and free trade. China uses 500 percent more energy today than in 1990.

Not all poor nations can develop as quickly as China did. But they can still make significant progress by increasing their energy consumption. If we zoom out and look at the world as a whole, increasing worldwide energy consumption 250 percent above today’s levels by 2050 is better for both people and the environment than striving for net-zero carbon emissions.

Increasing it by 250 percent by 2050 would help lift poor nations out of energy poverty. It would also enable the developed world to continue innovating and harnessing new technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics to cure diseases, increase productivity, and streamline industrial processes to give us a cleaner environment.

The 250 by 2050 paradigm has another advantage over renewables: it’s actually achievable. By contrast, not even wealthy countries have enough money to achieve net-zero by 2050.

World nations can’t afford full transition

According to an analysis by the International Energy Agency and International Monetary Fund, total annual new investment needs to increase to $5 trillion by 2030. That’s about 5 percent of global GDP every year. There isn’t enough taxpayer money in the world to fund that transition. Governments will have to depend on the private sector to share the cost, and that means the burden of that cost will ultimately fall on the shoulders of ordinary consumers. 

If we’re going to help both people and the planet—we need better energy policies, not based on carbon emissions but on our goals for humanity.

In the developing world, we need to support economic development by financing power plants, transmission lines, and pipelines. And we need to end financing restrictions on oil, gas, and coal.

In developed countries, regulations need to be reformated to accelerate the transition from coal to cleaner-burning fuels like natural gas and nuclear power.

The latter is so important that I have dedicated my professional life to making cheap and clean nuclear power a reality. I lead business development at a startup developing next-generation nuclear technologies to power data centers, industrial facilities, factories, military bases, and master-planned communities.

 We also need to eliminate renewable-energy subsidies, which parasite the economics of thermal power plants and distort the price of power. The world needs practical energy solutions, not doomed policies like net zero. More energy—250% more by 2050—and better energy—nuclear and natural gas—are better for both people and the planet.

Brian Gist leads business development for a startup developing next-generation nuclear technologies to deliver reliable low-cost clean energy 24/7. He spent over two decades building companies in the clean energy industry.

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