A wind and solar electric grid? That's a terrible idea

Renewable energy sources – solar and wind – can’t be the basis for a resilient, reliable and affordable electric system, which is necessary for a modern economy.

Both solar and wind are intermittent. Industries can’t plan production if electric power depends on the weather.

Blackouts are unavoidable with solar and wind because the wind can stop blowing strongly, sometimes for weeks, and the sun sets daily and may be blocked by clouds for many days consecutively. Massive storage to date cannot fill in for more than a few hours at anything like an acceptable cost. Blackouts can cost electric customers their lives. 

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And in just about every case where a large percentage of electricity is generated by solar and wind, the cost of electricity to consumers has risen dramatically, and more and more people struggle to pay their energy bills.

Solar and wind also pose problems for the environment. Wind especially, but also solar, require absurdly large tracts of land, disrupt animal habitats, kill hundreds of thousands of birds and bats, and despoil natural landscapes. Extraction of materials for these technologies has scarred lands around the world. Disposal of toxic solar panels and enormous turbine blades are a growing problem. 

Yet politicians, especially green U.S. politicians, don’t seem to have gotten the message. New York is pressing ahead with a near-term goal of 70 percent renewable electricity by 2030. President BidenJoe BidenUS threatens sweeping export controls against Russian industries Headaches intensify for Democrats in Florida US orders families of embassy staff in Ukraine to leave country MORE, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSunday shows - Russia standoff over Ukraine dominates Sanders says Biden can't count on him to support 'almost any' spending package compromise Sanders says Republicans are 'laughing all the way to Election Day' MORE (I-Vt.) and others seek a similar kind of renewable energy commitment for the nation.

Why risk lives, immiserate the poor, disrupt economic life? There are several reasons, but one seems especially relevant: After almost half a century of government support, there are now too many people and organizations within government, industry and academia invested in solar and wind. That means a great deal of money and influence are at stake, which the current winners would not want to give up without a fight. 

Of course, solar and wind proponents say we need renewables to save the planet from a global catastrophe that could wipe out life on Earth. The goal must be to greatly reduce the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG), especially carbon dioxide, which are released by burning fossil fuels. GHGs are changing the Earth’s climate. 

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Biden calls climate change “an existential threat.” And this catastrophe, it’s alleged, can happen soon. Without a massive switch to renewables now, we have, supposedly, only a few years left to save the planet. 

Though catastrophists say they “believe in science” they seem not to have noticed that most scientists, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), regard such a threat as barely plausible. So that means at least that there’s more time than eight or even 20 years to transition to a system that produces fewer GHGs than we produce today. 

Still, renewable energy proponents have every incentive to push catastrophic scenarios, and that claim has gone on for decades. Lobbying for renewables has had a great deal of success. Solar and wind have had U.S. government support since the 1970s; they have been supported especially vigorously since the early 1990s.

Politicians are constrained from making major changes in policy by an army of lobbying proponents. But they must also face the reality that there are many institutions reflecting longtime policies that make any new initiatives a hard sell.

Social scientist Richard Rose observed years ago that “inherited commitments of past government must be accepted as givens. The legacy that office holders inherit from past policy choices is carried forward by institutional commitments grounded in laws, organizations and budgets.” 

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Inherited policies can structure government itself and the relationships of government to outside entities. “Policies may create incentives that encourage the emergence of elaborate social and economic networks,” political scientist Paul Pierson has argued, “inhibiting exit from a current policy path.”

Once the policy direction has been set, it may remain unchallenged even when shown to be deeply flawed. Often the response to failing policies is to increase funding in the hope that more funding will somehow make them succeed or simply to keep them going to force the hard decisions onto future presidents and congresses.

Then again, a legislative legacy provides cover. Accepting what has been is a lot safer politically than demanding something very different. A member of Congress or president today can hardly be blamed for continuing a policy passed 30 years ago by a different Congress and signed by a different president. That in fact describes the main subsidy program for wind, which was enacted as a temporary measure in 1992, signed by President George H.W. Bush, but has been renewed afterward by presidents and legislators from both parties with no end in sight. 

Yet one question lingers: Assuming we want to reduce GHG emissions, if not wind and solar, what energy technologies will help us achieve that?

First, as the U.S. has shown, replacing coal-fired generation with natural gas reduces emissions significantly. But the next step is clearly nuclear power, the major electric generating technology that is scalable, independent of the weather and GHG-free. The next generation of nukes is likely to power the future (perhaps along with nuclear fusion), but even the current generation should be considered for development. 

And for heaven’s sake, don’t shutter still serviceable nuclear power plants as they’re doing in Germany (and have done in New York State). That’s a way to increase GHG emissions, not reduce them. 

Any transition away from fossil fuels will take generations. It’s a fantasy to think it can be accomplished in a decade or two. But an even greater fantasy is to believe that windmills and solar panels will save the planet. 

Peter Z. Grossman is the author of several books on energy policy including “U.S. Energy Policy and the Pursuit of Failure” (Cambridge 2013).