The Green New Deal, Part I: The Signal


A few friends and family members have asked what I think about the Green New Deal (GND), recently unveiled by Democratic Senator Ed Markey and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Is it practical? It is technologically feasible Will it cost as much as some people predict?

The Green New Deal logo from Green Party Watch.

The short answer to all of these questions is: it depends. The longer answers are: it is very practical, especially considering that renewable energy is now more cost effective than fossil fuel-based generation; it is feasible if we devote the necessary resources to research and development (R&D) to get it done; we should focus less on how much it will cost in the near-term and more on the value it will create for the American economy in the long term.

That last answer is especially important. Much like the GND itself, long-term thinking is what the United States needs if it is serious about maintaining preeminent status in the world in the 21st century and beyond.

The GND’s most ardent supporters and biggest critics offer their thoughts on the resolution ad nauseum. Put simply, the resolution is meant to be a bold call to action in the fact of global climate change, arguably the greatest threat we face as a civilization. However, the resolution at times reads like a pseudo-manifesto combining climate change-related goals with social and economic concerns. While these issues do intersect, the resolution loses focus when it tries to eliminate carbon emissions from the US economy, reset the country’s industrial and agricultural policy going forward, and secure issues of economic justice all at the same time. Doing so invites exactly the type of sensationalism and hyperbole threatening to reduce the resolution to little more than a rallying cry for both sides that never has a chance of bringing about meaningful solution.

Therefore I am dividing my analysis into two parts:

The Signal (this post): How possible it is to realize the GND’s climate and energy goals and the very real challenges they face.

The Noise (the next post): The political din that has taken over the debate, including the topics in the GND not germane to solving global climate change.

To begin, I think the vision of the GND is bold. I love it. It is exactly the type of big thinking and revolutionary response we need to overcome the enormous reality we face. We need big ideas to meet big challenges. This GND is the lighthouse on the horizon. After all, that is government’s role when it comes to staggering and overwhelming challenges: send the signal that this is where we are going as a nation. There will be many crying out about how a decision like this should be the will of the people and not dictated by government. But those who believe this is the greatest challenge of our time outnumber those who disagree and are voting overwhelmingly to put climate-focused politicians in office.

The good news is the technologies necessary to achieve the GND’s long-term goals and effectively combat global climate change exist today. That means the GND’s goals can – and should – come to fruition. However, these technologies are constantly being improved, and new technological solutions are being deployed almost every day. But if global climate change is the challenge (and it is), and if the GND is supposed to be the solution, the US will have to fundamentally transform its economy to implement it. Doing so will mean a host of legitimate financial, technical, and legal challenges that will significantly inhibit the pace of progress. While some may want to wave these away with a dismissive, “get over it,” or “that’s just too bad,” it does not work like that. There are some very real circles in need of squaring regarding the topics of infrastructure, energy, manufacturing, transportation and agriculture that should be addressed more clearly to better understand the uphill – but winnable – battle the GND faces.

Infrastructure

Tackling greenhouse-gas emissions (GHG) is at the heart of the GND. The resolution rightly highlights the need for sufficient infrastructure investment to meet sustainability needs in the current century. America’s infrastructure – energy, transportation, buildings, roads, etc. – has been responsible for a significant level of GHG emissions. Further, it has been crumbling for some time. We already know the price tag for repairing it is around $1 trillion, which will require a significant amount of materials whose production results in more GHG emissions. While modern production of cement and steel might not be as polluting as it once was, it is not completely emission free. Therefore in order for the GND’s goal of sustainable infrastructure to be realized, it will have to square this circle, most likely though some offset mechanism. In the end, it will drive the final price tag further north than originally anticipated.

Given the out-sized role energy plays in the GND, it is worth examining its infrastructure more in-depth. Transmission and distributions (T&D) systems are, by and large, suited to 20th century energy models. Part of achieving the GND’s goals will mean transforming an antiquated and centralized "dumb" network into a more distributed, flexible, and "smart" mode of operation. This will empower consumers to take control of their electricity usage and encourages their long-term involvement in more effective market-based solutions. However, such a system must be able to absorb, balance, and transport more intermittent sources of electricity. A staggering level of investment will be necessary to achieve that goal and will have to take place alongside existing infrastructure that has not reached the end of its useful life. That is to say, customers are still paying for it, most likely through their utility bill. New infrastructure costs will likely be recovered in the same way, and here is where the GND begins to encounter another snag. The resolution rightly highlights the need to prioritize vulnerable communities, but new infrastructure costs will be passed on to consumers in one form or another, thereby raising costs for everyone, vulnerable communities included.

Emission-Free Energy Generation

The GND calls for quick decarbonization and a transition to emissions-free energy generation in a decade. Renewable energy gets most of the headlines these days regarding carbon emission reduction and is increasing as a percentage of our country's electricity generation matrix. For the last ten years renewable energy project developers have taken advantage of numerous financial mechanisms which have helped drive down costs. Now, unsubsidized renewable energy projects can provide power to the grid for less than large-scale fossil fuel-based projects. As a result, renewable energy comprises around 17 percent of the country's generation fleet. The vast majority of that is large-scale hydropower (eg: The Hoover Dam), and wind power. Solar photovoltaics comprise roughly 1.5 percent. That is a promising start for an industry with less than 20 years of being part of the mainstream energy conversation. However, there are some very real challenges to converting the remaining 83 percent over the next decade.

As I wrote earlier, current technologies are up to the task of meeting the GND’s goals and future breakthroughs will only augment that progress. But that is not the only substantive factor at play regarding our electricity generation and consumption. It will be equally important to adjust energy market structures and increase flexibility through distributed generation and energy storage solutions (think: solar panels and battery sets for every home). Further, pricing structures to encourage more energy efficient consumption habits can speed the adoption of readily available technologies that are becoming more cost competitive by the day. These market changes must take place at the same ate as carbon-free electricity generation installation if we are to achieve the GND’s long-term GHG emission goals.

While the GND promotes renewable energy as the preferred zero-emission form of electricity generation, it fails to adequately acknowledge the role of nuclear power. The resolution does not mention nuclear power by name, but rather nods in its direction. It says the United States should meet 100 percent of its power demand through "clean, renewable, and zero-emissions energy sources." That would include nuclear facilities. In fact the Clean Power Plan enacted by then-President Obama largely assumed that current nuclear power plants would remain in effect through 2030. Even if they last that long, the US nuclear power sector faces some daunting challenges.

To begin, nuclear waste remains a long-standing unresolved issue. Many “greens” see nuclear waste as a non-green aspect to nuclear power and immediately dismiss it. They have a point. The question of spent nuclear rods has baffled us for decades. But if we are bold enough to believe we can replace the entire US electricity generation matrix with renewable sources in ten years, we should be equally bold and determined to resolve this issue with the requisite level of R&D and ingenuity that allowed us to successful control nuclear reactions in the first place.

The second challenge the nuclear power sector faces is the fact that its assets are old and crumbling. We rely on 40-year old technology and processes and the entire fleet is under threat from newly developed and terribly inexpensive natural gas resources. As nuclear assets come offline, fossil fuel-based power is quickly stepping in to meet demand, which brings with it increased carbon emissions. This circle must be squared. Either extend the life of current assets until such time as renewable sources can achieve the GND's goals, invest in new nuclear assets, or be willing to take a step backward while you try to take two steps forward.

The United States is currently the second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide and is the largest by historical measures. (See chart below) Renewable and nuclear energy are the two forms of emission-free electricity generation we have at our disposal, but they are not very compatible. Renewable energy’s intermittency is better matched with a more responsive resource like natural gas. Nuclear power, like coal-fired generation, takes days to ramp up. Some strategy must be determined. Though the GND is a resolution and not a tactical strategy, it would be a much clearer lighthouse on the horizon (to return to the metaphor I used earlier) if it did more to address these shortcomings and prioritize their resolution.

Energy Efficiency

This is where any environmentally friendly (read: green) efforts should focus for the fastest reduction in GHG emissions. Often call "the fifth fuel," (the first four being oil, coal, petroleum, and renewables) energy efficiency has the quickest returns in terms of investment and carbon footprint reduction. The GND states that our power grids should be efficient and that buildings should upgraded to be as efficient as "technologically feasible." Beyond that however, it's is largely silent. I understand it is a broad resolution and not a detailed plan, but it could go much further establishing efficiency-related goals like fuel standards, calling for the eventual replacement of internal combustion engines (ICE) with electric vehicles (EV), and the proliferation of smarter and more efficient household appliances and building monitoring systems.

I suspect this oversight is due to energy efficiency’s lack of sexiness. It’s boring. You cannot see energy efficiency. It's not like you get one of those Publisher's Clearing House-sized checks at your door every year worth the value you saved. Politicians can't cut a ribbon with energy efficiency sitting in the background. I have often said the most important kilowatt-hour is the one you don't have to produce, but how can I show off my non-existent kilowatt-hour as an example of my green virtuosity?

[At 2:30, Sebastian Maniscalco breaks down why energy efficiency is not that exciting.]

The GND is ambitious and lays out the reforms necessary in our economy to address our role in global climate change. But it misses an important opportunity in an area where, traditionally, you get more bang for your buck. A stronger resolution would call for efficiency gains of certain percentage – say 75 percent – over the same 10-year span in which it wants to convert to 100 percent renewable energy. Increasing efficiency can help consumers spend less on energy and have more resources available for other needs. These issues are intertwined and the GND misses an opportunity to leverage them.

Manufacturing, Transportation, and Agriculture

The GND calls for “spurring massive growth in clean manufacturing.” It supports greater US production of clean energy technology, but even this can be a heavily emitting process. The steel necessary to produce the mounting racks for solar PV farms, or for the tower supporting a wind turbine, can be very carbon intensive.

The GND wants to remove GHG from the manufacturing sector by investing in existing manufacturing. Despite the tautological aspect of this goal, we have to assume it means investing in efficiency. Much of US manufacturing is already making energy efficiency investments because it makes economic sense for them. To remain competitive, businesses have to cut cost as much as possible and energy consumption is one of the largest expenses in the manufacturing pace.

On a related note, with this foray into manufacturing prescriptions, the GND begins tinkering with American industrial policy, or at least the idea of that the United States has one. Such a broad stroke should be acknowledged. It helps manage expectations and even helps stress the importance of such a monumental call to action.

In addition to trying to impact US manufacturing policy, the GND also touches on transportation policy. It stresses the need for broader public transportation – a possible effort to reduce personal vehicle use – but this too must be free of GHG emissions. That assumes battery powered bus fleets and rail powered by renewable power sources. That will require a lot from extractive industries known for high levels of GHG emissions. Perhaps this can be offset with carbon credits in some kind of marketplace (what is sometimes referred to as “paying for your sins,”) but again the GND fails to offer a solution to this conundrum.

Further, airline travel is one of the larges sources of GHG emission in the world. The total amount of plane-related GHG emissions is larger than that of most countries. People are not likely to quit flying. And remote states like Hawaii, Alaska (not to mentions America’s far flung territories) rely on plane travel to be a functioning part of the American economy. Therefore a more “moonshot” goal regarding reduction in transportation related GHG emissions would be robust investment in biofuels. A quick scan of the GND reveals biofuels is not mentioned once; a severe oversight for a resolution meant to be comprehensive in its aim of eliminating GHG emissions from the American economy.

Regarding agriculture, the GND hopes to support family farming, generate universal access to healthy food, and improve land use practices. These are all goals worth achieving. However, these practices do not result in a significantly smaller carbon footprint, but it can lead to higher prices. Again, a resolution tailored to helping vulnerable communities may be proposing plans that will adversely impact them.

Research and Development

One of the most important aspects to creating the technologies and solutions that will successfully achieve the GND’s goals is R&D. Indeed, government-supported R&D has given us some of the most essential, life-changing, and game-changing technology we have ever seen. In fact, NASA’s efforts to meet President Kennedy’s moon-landing goal spun off countless technological marvels that might have otherwise gone undiscovered (including the Super Soaker).

Given the importance of R&D to developing the breakthroughs necessary to realize these goals, it’s astounding that R&D only appears once in the entire resolution. To its credit, the resolution notes that he goal of publicly funded R&D is necessary to achieving the goals and mobilization of the GND itself (Batteries, batteries, batteries!). But that is the only mention of it, and this one of the areas in which I think the GND needs vast improvement. For every sector it wishes to touch, it should have some tailored idea of what publicly0funded R&D support looks like. There are many American companies and workers who stand to benefit from realizing the important gorals the resolution puts forward. However, R&D does not look the same across all sectors of the economy. Creating and agriculture solution with zero carbon emission that can feed the masses healthily will require different partners and approaches than those necessary to fully supplant fossil fuel-based electricity or emission-free transport.

The Right Plan At the Right Time, But…

A lot of people in the sustainability space are very enthusiastic about the GND. Despite what might appear as overly critical analysis rooted in too much pragmatism, I am very excited about it as well. Its broad strokes – striving to eliminate US-based GHG emissions, infusing the economy with more sustainable and environmentally-friendly practices, and ensuring the most vulnerable among us are just as protected as the most well off from the ravages of climate change – are badly needed. I want to see it succeed and I believe it can be strengthened in ways that make its goals more possible while resolving the real world obstacles it faces. I think all of it can be accomplished and I look forward to doing my bit to help it succeed. Naysayers should get out of the way. This train is leaving the station and will run over anyone trying to stop it.

However, the way the GND is being presented, the politics of the moment, and the ubiquity of unprincipled actors lead me to think the GND is doomed before it really starts. In my next post I will look at what I am calling the noise: many of the factors that I believe will hinder the GND coming to fruition more than the practical shortcomings I have written about here. As always, I invite you to connect with me via the social media icons below to continue this conversation.

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© 2020 by Mark Konold