Can the Green New Deal Really Meet America's Energy Needs Without Fossil Fuels?

Anything is possible, if you're willing to pay the price.
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An array of 366 solar tracking devices stand in a field on October 31st, 2014 in South Burlington, Vermont.

We don't yet have the technology to ensure that renewable energy sources like solar can provide the same consistent service people expect today from their electricity providers.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) and Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) on Thursday released their resolution for the Green New Deal, an ambitious climate change and social welfare package. It proposes to make the United States economy 100 percent fossil fuel free in 10 years, and, in doing so, to employ vulnerable Americans and slow global warming. Though Ocasio-Cortez has long listed, on her website, the big goals that the Green New Deal should include, this is the first time she's put together a text that could be introduced in Congress.

Here at Pacific Standard, I've been using research to answer big questions about the Green New Deal. Next up: Is it really possible to meet America's energy demands without fossil fuels?

But before we can answer this question, we need to address a major point of debate among environmentalists: Should the Green New Deal aim merely to ensure America doesn't emit any more greenhouse gases? Or should it shoot for America's energy to come from all renewable sources? The former would mean using a mix of strategies that might include nuclear power and future technology that removes greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, as opposed to powering the country solely through solar and wind energy, biofuels, and hydroelectric dams. Some environmentalists object to nuclear energy and carbon capture technology, but renewables are less controversial.

In its current iteration, the deal seems to aim for the latter. The resolution that NPR published on Thursday says the Green New Deal should meet "100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources."

Onward to the science.

Is It Really Possible to Meet America's Energy Demands Without Fossil Fuels?

"If we were treating this issue as a national emergency and there was total buy-in, there's nothing stopping us," says Noah Kaufman, an economist who worked on de-carbonization studies for the Obama administration and is now a researcher at Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy. "We know how to do it."

Some of the technologies needed to make this palatable don't exist yet. For example, for solar and wind farms to provide the same consistent service that people expect today from their local utility, we'll need better energy storage tech, so people can still get electricity when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing.

The researchers I talked to believe these technology advances are all possible. It's just a question of how much we are willing to pay for this future.

How Much Will It Cost?

In November, the journal Joule published a study that modeled what energy prices in America might be if the economy were run on different combinations of carbon-free power sources. Limiting the country to only solar and wind power could make electricity anywhere from 11 percent to 163 percent more costly than including nuclear power and carbon capture, the study found. But, depending on what the prices of renewable energy are in the future and what part of the country we're talking about, the Green New Deal doesn't necessarily have to make electricity cost more than it does today.

Let's say the Green New Deal allows for nuclear energy and carbon capture. The study finds that electricity then might cost around $100 per megawatt hour, assuming that the prices of solar and wind power and biofuel in the future are lower than they are today but not super cheap. Without nuclear power and carbon capture, that price would be $160 per megawatt hour in Texas, which has abundant sun and wind, and more than $210 per megawatt hour in New England, which doesn't have as much access to renewable energy. Compare that to the prices of electricity that the Energy Information Administration recorded for this past November: $55 per kilowatt hour in Texas and $131 per kilowatt hour in New England.

Of course, there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding these numbers. They guess at people's demands and the prices of the technology of the future. Kaufman, who didn't work on the Joule paper, says it was well done, but, in general, he doesn't like to depend too much on the specific numbers in studies like this. "I find papers like this far more valuable for their general takeaways as opposed to any specific results," he writes in an email.

What's the Takeaway?

For Nestor Sepulveda, a doctoral student in nuclear science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who worked on the study, the main lesson is that the Green New Deal will always be more expensive if it doesn't include nuclear power and capturing emissions from fossil fuel plants. It's up to society to decide whether these climate-fixing strategies are worth their drawbacks: the possibility of a nuclear accident, the problem of nuclear waste, and delaying the move away from fossil fuels altogether. "My personal view is that climate change is a very, very severe and important problem for society nowadays, but it's not the only one," he says. "But if you can put $1 to work in another pressing issue—health care, education—why would you spend more" to prevent climate change, he says.

Kaufman pointed to other factors that will affect the cost of zeroing the entire country's carbon emissions. These include getting everyone to give up their gas-powered cars, trucks, furnaces, and factory machines in short order. It also depends on whether the Green New Deal ultimately levies taxes on carbon emissions. The resolution published Thursday doesn't mention carbon taxes, but economists tend to like them. Revenues from a tax could be used to offset higher renewable energy prices.

*Update—February 8, 2019: This post has been updated to reflect the fact that people would have to give up furnaces to zero the country's carbon emissions.

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