US energy policy must comply with the laws of physics
Fundamental law of physics that most of us learn in junior high says that work requires energy. It explains why the number of people employed in the society and the gross domestic product (GDP) they produce, strongly correlate with the rate of the energy consumption. Both numbers — people employed and the energy consumed — drop during a recession but go up during an economic boom.
As we are facing negative consequences of climate change due to carbon emissions, the Biden administration has launched an effort to quickly replace some of the fossil fuel industry that currently provides 80 percent of the U.S. energy supply with renewable energy, such as solar and wind. This effort must be welcome because fossil fuels, besides their effect on climate, are a limited resource that will be exhausted by the end of the century if we keep using it at the current growing rate.
The question is how to align our energy policy with the laws of nature in a manner that reduces human effect on climate, while allowing employment and the GDP to grow. At the minimum it requires the rate of the energy production to keep rising. If it does not, the economy and the level of employment will go down or stagnate. The GDP will stop growing and we will lose to our competitors on the world stage who would continue to grow their economies by increasing their energy production.
This brings us to the recent executive orders signed by President Biden, such as cancellation of the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. It has been speculated that stopping the project will put thousands of construction workers out of work. Though the figures aren’t entirely accurate, the administration made a commitment to find new jobs for those who suffer job losses, which is commendable. However, a bigger picture has escaped public scrutiny.
The pipeline was supposed to deliver 830,000 barrels of oil a day from Alberta, Canada, to Steel City, Neb. Each barrel contains about 1,700 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of energy. This is 1.4 billion kWh a day from the pipeline for our energy industry. On a windy day, the Alta Wind Energy Center (AWEC) in California, the largest wind farm in the U.S., delivers 2.5 percent of that energy. On a sunny day, the Solar Star farm in California, the largest in the U.S., delivers 1 percent of the planned Keystone pipeline energy.
This means that we have to build at least 40 enormous wind farms or 100 enormous solar farms to compensate for the energy lost from the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline. Such construction will take years. Had a viable plan containing a timetable for it been a part of the executive order, it could have dispersed concerns about the future of our energy industry and the future of employment. The absence of it makes one worried about the number of jobs lost that must occur in accordance with the law that less energy means less work.
The same is true about other climate-related executive orders, like the moratorium on new oil and gas leasing on federal land. It promises to “deliver an equitable, clean energy future, and put the United States on a path to achieve net zero emissions, economy-wide, by no later than 2050” but it does not mention any short-term plans of developing energy alternatives that would offset the effect of the cancellation of fossil fuel projects.
Outlining such plans would be especially important due to the urgent need to rebuild the economy that has been decimated by COVID-19 and to return to full employment. If President Trump was able to issue an executive order to build a border wall, why could not Biden order the construction of green power plants on federal land?
One other concern is the absence in the new energy policy of any mention of the investment in the nuclear industry with its zero carbon emissions. Generating electricity with a modern nuclear power plant that incorporates cutting edge achievements of science and technology is the same to a windmill as driving a Tesla is to riding a horse. With an eye on the future, it should absolutely be a part of the climate-friendly energy policy because harvesting wind and solar power requires a lot of land, which is a limited resource
Eugene M. Chudnovsky is a distinguished professor of Physics at the Graduate School and Lehman College of the City University of New York.