100 percent renewable energy isn't a response to climate change — it's a retreat

100 percent renewable energy isn't a response to climate change — it's a retreat
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Recently, three more states pledged to decarbonize their grid, joining a growing list of cities and states with similar goals. While low-carbon is the right objective, a 100 percent renewables approach for the U.S., proposed by some, isn’t.

Technical hurdles notwithstanding, it is misaligned with the realities of a world where fossil fuel consumption is increasing and energy technology needs in emerging economies are growing. This misalignment has economic and geostrategic implications that warrant the attention of the National Governor's Association.

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The U.S. power sector currently is comprised of a diverse portfolio of natural gas, coal, nuclear, hydro, wind, solar and biomass. However, as energy policy shifts resources, energy technology changes. For 100 percent renewables, that translates largely to hydro, solar, wind, battery storage and efficiency. 

This not only represents a loss of resource diversity, it constitutes a fundamental alteration in the nature of energy storage for an industrial economy as storage shifts from an upstream primary energy property (coal, natural gas and nuclear) to a downstream secondary energy property (batteries). Subtle as it may seem, no modern industrial economy has ever internalized its energy storage dependencies in this manner or to this extent.

Moreover, coal, natural gas and nuclear afford states autonomy as the resources can be transported for power generation within a state’s economy. This autonomy is undermined by 100 percent renewables, which disproportionately favors states having substantial endowments of renewables while forcing other states to outsource their generation. In 2018, nine states accounted for 88.3 percent of solar PV and nine states accounted for 73.8 percent of wind generation.

These are domestic implications — the geostrategic and national security implications are more concerning.

The 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment emphasizes the security risks of Russia and China seeking to “exert influence over the politics and economies of states in all regions of the world”. It further notes “economic competitiveness will increasingly originate outside the U.S., as the overall U.S. lead in science and technology shrinks.” China is currently animating its influence through its Belt and Road Initiative, including coal and nuclear plant finance and construction, while both China and Russia explore the Arctic and South China Sea for additional resources.

Globally, over 200,000 MW of coal capacity is under construction with 340,000 MW announced and permitted, while continued growth is projected for natural gas as new infrastructure connects producing nations with emerging markets. In India, coal is projected to remain the dominant fuel resource beyond 2030.

While U.S. states pledge multi-decade timelines for integrating renewables into a mature economy established on coal, natural gas and nuclear, emerging economies don’t have that luxury — or the time. They not only aren’t pursuing 100 percent renewable energy, they can’t and they won’t because traditional fuels meet their immediate needs.

Consequently, a 100 percent renewable pathway will lock the U.S. onto a trajectory confined to renewable resources and technologies, effectively disengaging America from the expanding global energy and technology supply network, and the influence that goes with it. This will create a technology gap between the U.S. and the world’s fastest-growing energy technology markets as they move along an energy trajectory abandoned by the U.S. The U.S., then, effectively will have checkmated itself on the strategic global chessboard of energy resources and energy technologies, while countries such as China or Russia make strategic moves to take America’s place. Ironically, under this scenario, the U.S. will be more vulnerable to ongoing global climate issues but left with a low-diversity, climate-dependent renewables-only portfolio to stave them off.

The National Governor’s Association should evaluate these economic and geostrategic impacts of a climate-centric 100 percent renewables paradigm, and coalesce initiatives around three energy technologies. These being: 1) advanced nuclear; 2) renewables-plus-storage; and 3) carbon capture and storage (CCS).

States with rich endowments of coal and natural gas have a vested interest in CCS development, states lacking renewables and fossil fuels in the development of advanced nuclear, and states rich in renewables, yet lacking fossil reserves, in the development of renewables-plus-storage. All of which can be marketed domestically and globally.

This achieves three strategic objectives. First, it infuses technology and innovation diversity into America’s energy infrastructure, rather than locking all states into a 100 percent renewable energy silo.

Second, it aligns America’s energy trajectory with the global energy trajectory, allowing states to leverage domestic energy resources and fully engage in global energy technology markets. It also aligns with calls from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency for the development of nuclear, CCS and renewables-plus-storage to ameliorate carbon emissions.

Third, it counters efforts by China and Russia to exert influence over emerging economies via energy technologies.

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Somewhere between the memes of "Keep it in the ground" and "Drill, baby, drill" is a pragmatic center in need of energy policy realists willing to do the hard work of responding to national security and climate issues while maintaining a resilient grid. That work should reside with states, where energy issues are palpable and federal policy is best informed.

However, 100 percent renewable energy policies are a strategic miscalculation that will marginalize, if not isolate, the U.S. from global energy technology markets moving in a direction opposite that of 100 percent renewables, and leave America exposed to climate change and national security risks.

A 100 percent renewable energy policy is not a response to climate change — it’s a U.S. retreat from the global stage and the energy realities of the world as it is.

David Gattie is an associate professor of engineering in the College of Engineering at the University of Georgia, and a Resident Fellow in the University of Georgia’s Center for International Trade and Security. Gattie is an unpaid member of the advocacy council for Nuclear Matters. Prior to UGA, he worked 14 years in private industry as an energy services engineer and an environmental engineer. The opinion expressed here is his own.