TOUGAW: Renewables Don’t Meet America’s Energy Needs — So Why The Taxpayer Subsidies?

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Taylor Tougaw Contributor
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Unsurprisingly, it appears that members of Congress have no idea how they are spending taxpayer dollars. The recently passed “Inflation Reduction Act” includes $369 billion in taxpayer funds for “green” energy technologies which will have little, if any, impact on the expansion of green tech. Despite billions of taxpayer subsidies toward these industries in the last 30 years, their adoption remains stagnant. In fact, only 3 percent of global energy comes from solar and wind combined. To members of Congress, the solution appears to be throwing more money at the issue. Unfortunately, no amount of money can overcome basic science.

Industry experts have long bemoaned the unreliability of renewables like wind and solar. While they are right to do so, let’s try to understand why. The answer has to do with capacity factors, which is a rating that all energy sources have based on how much energy they could produce under perfect circumstances divided by how much energy they actually produce. For example, if a coal plant has the capability of producing 720 MW of energy per year, but only actually produces 432 MW, we would say that the plant is only producing 60 percent of what it could produce under perfect circumstances– a 60 percent capacity factor rating. For comparison, nuclear plants have an astonishing capacity factor of 91 percent, while wind energy provides a dismal 25 percent and solar provides even less at 20 percent. Solar is at its peak only during sunny days and is almost non-existent during inclement weather or at night, which is the peak time for energy demand. The average American household uses roughly 890 kWh of electricity per month, and peak energy usage is roughly 6:00pm, when the sun is beginning to set.

Because solar and wind provide such unreliable energy, they must be backed up with reliable baseload energy, typically in the form of natural gas or coal. This process is called cycling, and cycling fossil fuels is an inefficient process that results in increased fossil fuel emissions. This is occurring in Germany, under Energiewende, where the country was forced to burn high emission lignite coal to meet energy demands that could not be serviced by renewables.

If solar or wind energy could be stored, that would negate the crippling capacity factor problem. However, batteries are incredibly expensive and would cost the U.S. roughly $2.5 trillion dollars to service much of the grid. Even this estimate is low as it assumes battery prices will fall in the future and only accounts for 80 percent of domestic energy consumption. Likewise, batteries are not permanent and require replacement, which can double or triple that cost in a short period of time.

Transferring energy across the country from sunny or windy areas may seem like a viable alternative, but solar and wind infrastructure also have significant problems. Large solar farms, like the Gemini project in Nevada, take up over 7,000 acres of land to produce less than 700 MW of energy. To produce 1,000 MW, a wind farm needs an incredible 23,000 acres. Alternatively, a nuclear power plant requires just 1.3 square miles (832 acres) to produce the same amount of energy. Environmentalists around the country are also now finding out that solar plants and transmission lines are having disastrous effects on wildlife and are thus subject to the same regulations that prohibit coal and gas development.

Lastly, the economic incentive (or lack thereof) of solar generation cannot be ignored. The physical infrastructure of an electric grid cannot accept too much energy at once or it will fry the infrastructure and destroy power lines. Unlike gas and coal, solar energy is provided all at once: when the sun shines. This means that solar companies across any given longitude are getting their power all at the same time. A large supply of energy (when the sun is shining) combined with low demand (when people are typically at work) means prices fall. In fact, because so much solar energy is produced at once, solar companies are forced to pay other utilities to take away their electricity to avoid frying the grid. Negative pricing means solar companies lose money from generating electricity that no one will buy, which makes further investment in the solar sector much riskier.

The evidence against subsidizing green tech is in plain sight, but congressional Democrats don’t care. For weeks, they’ve been championing a study produced by the Rhodium Group, which states that the Inflation Reduction Act alone could reduce emissions by 25 percent to 30 percent by 2030. However, they fail to mention that this same study also states that there is a chance that the Inflation Reduction Act will produce zero tangible change, or that emissions could even be lower without the bill entirely

Democrats claim to be the party of science when it comes to issues of energy and climate. Unfortunately, throwing hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars at unproven green tech won’t overcome the fact that it simply does not work.

Prior to joining Freedomworks, Taylor served as a Legislative Assistant in the House of Representatives covering numerous portfolios including Education and Labor, Energy, Agriculture, and more. Taylor graduated from Colorado State University in 2017 with separate degrees in both history and political science before earning his master’s degree in foreign policy from the University of Newcastle, UK.