The currently-proclaimed goal of the climate movement is to achieve “Net Zero” economy-wide carbon emissions by 2050, if not sooner. The governments of essentially all the Western countries with the most advanced economies have committed, in one form or another, to achieve this goal. (OK, in the EU there are a few laggards among the former Soviet satellites, but then it is questionable how advanced their economies are.). Many of these countries with Net Zero commitments have even earlier goals, often in the 2030s, for achievement of Net Zero emissions from electricity generation. And the electricity generation sector is clearly the easiest part of an economy to get to Net Zero. Surely, if all of the countries with the best technology and the most sophisticated governments say that this Net Zero thing can be done in short order in the electricity sector, then it can be done and it will be done.
In fact, it will not be done. Not just will Net Zero in electricity generation not be achieved worldwide by 2050 or any time close to that, but it also won’t be achieved in any individual country, no matter how committed to the Net Zero goal that country may currently seem to be. If you have any doubt about that, I suggest looking to some of the following indicators:
There is a total absence in the entire world of any functioning Net Zero demonstration project.
It is truly astounding how many seemingly sophisticated governments have made the Net Zero electricity commitment without there existing anywhere in the world a demonstration project showing how this can be done and at what cost. Historically, major innovations in provision of energy have begun with demonstration projects or prototypes to establish the feasibility and cost of the endeavor, before any attempt at widespread commercialization to a full state or country. Thus in the 1880s, when Thomas Edison wanted to start building central station power plants to supply electricity for his new devices like incandescent lightbulbs, he began by building a prototype facility in London under the Holborn Viaduct, and followed that with a larger demonstration plant on Pearl Street in Lower Manhattan that supplied electricity to only a few square blocks. Only after those had been demonstrated as successful did a larger build-out begin. Similarly, the provision of nuclear power began with small government-funded prototypes in the late 1940s and early 1950s, followed by larger demonstration projects in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Only in the late 1960s, twenty years into the effort and after feasibility and cost had been demonstrated, were the first large-scale commercial nuclear reactors built.
Today there is no such thing anywhere in the world and on any scale, whether large or small, as a functioning wind/solar electricity system that functions free of full fossil fuel backup, or even close to that. The few places that have made attempts at fully wind/solar/storage systems have fallen woefully short, and at this point are not even trying to bridge the remaining gap to get to Net Zero.
Commenters on some of my recent posts have referred to the projects on some small islands like El Hierro (one of Spain’s Canary Islands, population about 10,000) or King Island (off Tasmania in Australia, population about 1500). But those projects only serve to illustrate how far short efforts toward Net Zero have fallen, and how enormous would be the costs to go the remaining distance. I have previously covered the El Hierro project multiple times, for example here and here.
The bottom line for El Hierro is that it has wind turbines with supposed “capacity” of more than double average demand (but which operate at annual capacity factors of under 40%), and also a pumped-storage facility with hydro generators for more than double average demand, and also back-up diesel generators for more than double average demand – three separate and redundant systems, all of which must be paid for. And for all that, they struggle to get half of their electricity from the wind/storage system, averaged over the year. And they must retain the full diesel backup, fully maintained and ready to go, for the regular times, even in the windiest months, when the wind fails to blow.
The operator of the wind/storage system on El Hierro, Gorona del Viento, has a website where data from the island are published (although the most recent data are from September 2021). In 2021, the island got 28% of its electricity from the wind/storage system in January (and the rest from the diesel backup), 36% in February, 48% in March, 21% in April, 77% in May, 72% in June, 81% in July, 59% in August, and 34% in September. The cover page of the Gorona del Viento report brags that the island had 1293 hours in 2020 when it got all of its electricity from the wind/storage system. How embarrassing is that? — there being 8784 hours in a leap year like 2020.
If Net Zero emissions electricity generation could be achieved for a major economy like the U.S. or Germany or the UK or Japan by 2050, or for that matter by 2035, there would be a functioning demonstration project operating today that achieves that goal. In fact, there is nothing that comes close, and nothing on the horizon.
Every wind turbine or solar panel that gets built depends on a government subsidy
The U.S. Congress has just passed its big climate subsidy act (is it still called the Inflation Reduction Act?), containing some $370 billion of subsidies of various sorts for “green” energy projects, predominantly wind and solar generation facilities, but also things like electric cars and electric heat systems for homes. Undoubted, this will get a lot of wind turbines and solar panels built, and electric cars bought and heat pumps installed.
But here’s the rub. Nobody builds any wind turbine or solar panel, or any other element of this new “green” energy utopia, based on the usual capitalist motivations of making a profit by fulfilling organic consumer demand. Crony capitalists will undoubtedly emerge to build something to collect the subsidies, but they have no particular incentive to put together all elements of a system that works. Who does have that incentive? Nobody, except maybe government central planners — a category that has never had a success in the history of the world.
For a few examples of bottlenecks to come, here is a piece in something called The Conversation from August 19, title “Big new incentives for clean energy aren’t enough – the Inflation Reduction Act was just the first step, now the hard work begins,” by Daniel Cohan of Rice University. Cohan points to one missing element after another of the supposedly coming new green energy system, each one of which will require its own new massive government subsidies:
Wind and solar farms won’t be built without enough power lines to connect their electricity to customers. Captured carbon and clean hydrogen won’t get far without pipelines. Too few contractors are trained to install heat pumps. And EV buyers will think twice if there aren’t enough charging stations.
Etc., etc., etc. When gasoline-powered cars became a thing in the early 1900s, thousands of entrepreneurs sprung into action, without government subsidies of any kind, to set up gas stations all across the country to keep the cars running. Now, people are waiting around for the government handouts that may or may not come, or may be insufficient, to set up the charging stations. Supposedly the Congress is going to come through with hundreds of billions more in subsidies just when needed for all of these things (and twenty more such that nobody has thought of yet), along with an all-knowing bureaucracy to coordinate it all. No government has that level of competency, or ever will.
We’re watching Europe hit the green energy wall in real time
The major European countries, like Germany and the UK, are just now coming up on the position that El Hierro has been in since its system opened in 2014. That is, Germany and the UK have plenty of “nameplate” capacity of wind and solar generators to supply all the electricity they need when the wind is blowing and the sun shining, and even excess at times of full wind and sun. But they have no non-fossil-fuel plan for the regularly-occurring times of low wind and sun. This problem cannot be solved by building more wind and solar facilities.
Here’s a report on the latest from the UK from City AM, August 17:
Based on current forecasts, clean energy specialist Squeaky has calculated that UK industry could be hit with £49.2bn bill for wholesale gas and electricity costs combined in 2023. Overall, this is a 260 per cent increase from the industry’s energy bill in 2021.
Price increases to consumers for electricity and gas have been even higher in percentage terms. And here’s the latest from Germany, from something called the Local, August 17:
Coal is experiencing a comeback on several fronts in Europe’s top economy. A looming shortage of Russian gas in the wake of the Ukraine war has reignited enthusiasm for this method of heating private homes despite its sooty residue and heavy carbon footprint.
Nobody in Europe thought to make a plan for the non-fossil fuel backup to get to Net Zero electricity generation.
So if you have a chance to make a bet, you’ll be extremely safe betting against Net Zero generation of electricity any time during your life.