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A proposal to eliminate fossil fuels in New York state by 2030 [ClearOnMoney]
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A proposal to eliminate fossil fuels in New York state by 2030

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Commentary

A proposal to eliminate fossil fuels in New York state by 2030

25 Mar 2013 by Jim Fickett.

A recent academic article outlines a plan to convert all electric power generation, as well as all powered vehicle transport, in New York state to renewables by the year 2030. The plan is not entirely realistic, and probably does not suggest any immediate changes in one's investing portfolio. However it does provide some useful policy planning input in preparing for a post-fossil-fuel world.

Over the weekend the New York Times published an article entitled Life After Oil and Gas, in which it was stated,

a team of Stanford engineers published a proposal showing how New York State — not windy like the Great Plains, nor sunny like Arizona — could easily produce the power it needs from wind, solar and water power by 2030. In fact there was so much potential power, the researchers found, that renewable power could also fuel our cars.

The Times' description of “easily” greatly overstates what the engineers' proposal claims, and the proposal overstates reality. Still, the study (Examining the feasibility of converting New York State’s all-purpose energy infrastructure to one using wind, water, and sunlight, from the journal “Energy Policy”) is interesting.

The heart of the article is an analysis showing that conversion of the whole power infrastructure to wind, water and sunlight would (1) not require too much land overall and (2) would provide electricity at about the same price as currently.

Although both points are valid to some extent, the data are not altogether what they seem. For one example, in calculating the main land requirement figure for wind farms, only the bases of the wind turbine towers are counted, not the land in between. The authors justify this by saying that the land in between can be used for grazing or other purposes, which is true enough, but the picture is more complex than the main figure quoted suggests. For another example, the cost of generating power for fossil fuels, as calculated in the paper, is about double what users actually pay, because a large social cost for pollution and global warming is added in. Although this, too, is justifiable, it hides the political resistance that is likely to arise if / when electricity bills double.

The study is fairly realistic about the political barriers. A large portion of the state's energy, in the proposed plan, comes from offshore wind farms, for example, but the authors note that not a single offshore wind farm has yet been approved in the US, because all those Prius drivers in solar-heated houses want pristine ocean views.

The most important limitation of the study is that some important points are swept under the rug:

  • Considerable space is devoted to the health and environmental costs of mining fossil fuels, but not a word is written about the health and environmental costs of mining and manufacturing for wind turbines, solar panels, batteries to store power, etc.
  • Natural gas is completely written off, even as a bridge to renewables, on the basis of the global warming harm from methane leakage. Many fairly objective authors are worried about such leakage (as am I), but think that leakage can be brought under control – it is a point that is at least debatable.
  • A primary difficulty for a switch to renewables is that the best sites for wind and solar are usually far from cities, and require new power lines, which presents, in many cases, a nearly insuperable political obstacle. The authors make the claim that this problem can be solved by placing new wind and solar plants on the sites of old fossil fuel plants. No one else in the industry thinks this is realistic.
  • They do not give details of their electricity cost calculations, but all serious calculations I have seen amortize the capital costs over the life of turbines, solar panels, etc. While their estimated electricity costs are thus probably realistic only for a very gradual program of replacing end-of-life fossil fuel plants with new renewable sources, they also propose a crash program that would make the full switch in only 17 years. This shows a lack of business realism.
  • While most people in the energy business, even those strongly in support of renewables, think energy storage (through the night for solar and during calm weather for wind) is a largely unsolved problem, this study states, without much proof, that batteries, gravity storage, and hydrolysis solve the problem. Maybe.

In sum,

  • The storage problem probably presents a greater technical challenge than these authors are letting on.
  • IF the population were really strongly in favor of weaning the nation off of fossil fuels, and IF there were a major political push to overcome the power grid challenges, we could probably switch to renewables much more quickly than is happening today (even if not by 2030). Electricity bills would be higher, but the benefits would be great.
  • The nation badly needs an overall energy strategy, and studies like this one can help get the discussion going.

As a world citizen, I am very concerned about both global warning and possible peak oil, and would very much like to see a national energy policy that heavily favors renewables. As an investor, I still don't see either the popular will or the political will, and will continue to assume business as usual.