As we all know, making predictions can be difficult, especially about the future. On the other hand, sometimes it’s just a question of distinguishing reality on the ground from pure self-delusion.
At the moment, we have two visions competing to be the reigning official prediction of the future of energy. One of those visions, foreseeing the rapid demise of fossil fuels, is on full display even as we speak in a virtual summit put on by the American Clean Power Association. The summit began today and is running for four days, through Thursday June 10. The speakers are a who’s who of “clean energy” glitterati, starting with essentially all the leading U.S. Democratic pols. OK, President Biden is not speaking; but then, he doesn’t get out much these days in his dotage. But the speaker list includes both Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, as well as all the leading Biden admin “climate” officials (Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, Climate Envoy John Kerry, White House Climate Czar Gina McCarthy} and plenty of representatives of “woke” corporate America (e.g., Andrew Steer of the Bezos Earth Fund, Anne Finucane of Bank of America). And on and on. You get the idea. These people are our betters, and to the extent they are not actually the “experts” themselves, we can be sure that they are tightly tied in to the true experts by direct brain connections.
The other vision of the future of energy can be called the “reality on the ground.” Reality on the ground might not seem like it’s a vision about the future, but then you realize that a major energy project can take many years — often 10 or more — to go from conception to production. If some project is really going to be a meaningful part of the energy future 10 or so years from now, it had better already be well underway.
So let’s look a little at the two visions:
The American Clean Power Vision.
I’m definitely not going to spend my time listening to any of these presentations, but you can get a rather clear idea where they think we are going by looking at the titles of the panels at the virtual meeting. Consider several examples. The big panel today had the title “Path to 100% Clean Power by 2035.” You will likely recognize the benchmark of 100% clean electricity by 2035 as the goal that Biden first set during the campaign, and that he more recently has reaffirmed as President. Obviously, if the President says that this is what we are going to do, and if all of his chief minions in charge of passing out the money are going to be here watching us, then everybody is going to say that of course we are going to achieve this goal.
On Wednesday the main event is a panel called the “U.S. Offshore Wind Developer Interview Series.” This one features some eleven presenters. It appears that all of them are representatives of one or another wind turbine building company looking to rub virtual elbows with the big-time pols who will determine who gets how much subsidies and tax breaks. A good inference of the gist of the panel would be “we can blanket the oceans with these things if only you give us an unlimited gusher of federal money.”
There is also a series of “on-demand” presentations, apparently pre-recorded, that you can watch at any time. A representative example has the title “A Comparative Look At Utility-Scale Wind And Solar Across The U.S.”
And so forth. Basically, it’s a gaggle of subsidy-seekers gathering to tell the pols that if only enough money is handed out, they can deliver all the “clean power” you could ever want. Engineering issues? Feasibility problems? Those will surely not be mentioned.
The Reality On The Ground
Let’s start with the offshore wind situation in the U.S. The New York Times actually has a front-page piece on that today, with the headline “Offshore Wind Farms Show What Biden’s Climate Plan Is Up Against.” To begin, how many offshore wind turbines do you think the U.S. has so far? The answer is in the first paragraph of the article: “The United States has exactly seven.” That’s rather embarrassing. So how are we going to turn this around going forward?
The Biden administration wants up to 2,000 turbines in the water in the next eight and a half years.
Does that sound like a lot? In fact, it’s almost nothing — except to the fisherman and shippers and/or wealthy oceanfront homeowners who are fighting tooth and nail to block it all. At 2 MW capacity per wind turbine (optimistic), 2000 of them could be good for 4000 MW of capacity. With 8760 hours in a year, that means you could get about 35,000 GWH of electricity out of the 2000 turbines if they operated all the time; but of course they don’t — a 40% capacity factor would again be optimistic. That would give you 14,000 GWH of electricity from the 2000 wind turbines (at random times, and requiring full backup, but that’s another issue). According to the EIA, the U.S. uses about 3.8 million GWH of electricity in a year, so these theoretical 2000 offshore wind turbines will with luck generate some 0.36% of our electricity by 2030 — if we started today on a crash program to get them built.
But in fact the expansion of offshore wind facilities in the U.S. is going exactly nowhere at the current moment. The Times piece focuses on one particular bottleneck, which is that installation of these offshore turbines requires specialized gigantic ships, and there aren’t any in the U.S.
The largest U.S.-built ships designed for doing offshore construction work are about 185 feet long and can lift about 500 tons, according to a Government Accountability Office report published in December. That is far too small for the giant components that Mr. Eley’s [offshore wind turbine] team was working with. . . . The U.S. shipping industry has not invested in the vessels needed to carry large wind equipment because there have been so few projects here.
OK, but the Europeans have built thousands of offshore wind turbines, and have lots of these specialized construction ships. Why not just hire them? There’s a simple answer: it is prohibited by something called the Jones Act, a U.S. statute that forbids use of foreign flag ships for any intra-U.S. shipping.
There are plenty of other bottlenecks as well, ranging from environmental reviews to endless litigation, and more. But this one bottleneck alone apparently has offshore wind development in the U.S. completely stymied for the time being. The Times concludes:
These difficult questions can’t simply be solved by federal spending. As a result, it could be difficult or impossible for Mr. Biden to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector by 2035 and reach net-zero emissions across the economy by 2050, as he would like.
So put offshore wind into the category of things that are just not happening in the current reality on the ground. What then is happening in the reality on the ground? In a post just a couple of days ago, I took note of a gigantic new Arctic oil project just getting underway from the Russians. So that’s one thing. How about coal. Yes, plenty of that is also getting developed right now, and by private money and outside the U.S., so there is little or nothing that the Biden Administration or environmental litigants can do to stop it. The Times of India has a piece from June 5 with the headline “India, Australia, China, Russia pushing ‘massive’ coal expansion.” Excerpt:
Coal producers are actively pursuing 2.2 billion tonnes per annum of new mine projects around the world, a growth of 30 per cent from current production levels, a new report from Global Energy Monitor said on Thursday. The first-of-its-kind analysis surveyed 432 proposed coal projects globally and found a handful of provinces and states in China, Russia, India, and Australia are responsible for 77 per cent (1.7 billion tonnes per annum) of new mine activity.
And the move away from petroleum? On the ground, that’s not happening either, except to the extent that the U.S. or European governments intentionally suppress it, in which case other countries are ready to step in. It’s not just Russia, but all the OPEC states as well, that are declining to abandon petroleum and basically mocking the U.S. and Europe for their folly. Bloomberg has a piece on June 3 with the headline “OPEC leaders mock IEA’s ‘la-la land’ 2050 Net Zero roadmap.” Excerpt:
The world’s largest petrostates rejected calls for a rapid shift away from oil and gas, warning that starving the industry of investment would harm the global economy. If the world were to follow the International Energy Agency’s controversial road map, which said investment in new fields would have to stop immediately to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, “the price for oil will go to, what, $200? Gas prices will skyrocket,” said Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak. His warnings were echoed by the energy ministers of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who said they will keep expanding their oil and gas facilities and warned others against the consequences of starving the industry of cash.
In the reality on the ground, thousands of independent actors, both private and governments, are ready and able to fill the demand for fossil fuels and to make lots of money in the process. Meanwhile, the Democratic pols in the U.S. are so arrogant that they think they can push water uphill.