Going green will require a lot more energy. Can the U.S. make enough?

·7-min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

In response to a record-setting heat wave that pushed the state’s power grid to the brink last week, California regulators urged residents to limit energy consumption to help prevent blackouts. The topline recommendations of the “Flex Alert” were familiar steps like turning down the air conditioner and avoiding use of heavy appliances, but it also included a more novel request: That electric vehicle owners refrain from charging cars during peak hours.

At the moment, electric vehicles account for only a small percentage of California’s energy consumption. But the situation was viewed by many experts as a small-scale preview of a major challenge facing the Golden State — and the country as a whole — as efforts to combat climate change ramp up. An economy-wide transition away from fossil fuels, which is necessary to reduce carbon emissions, will mean an enormous increase in the number of vehicles, homes and a long list of other items that need electricity to run. Right now, the country simply doesn’t produce enough electricity to meet that potential surge in demand.

Just how much more is needed is a topic of much debate. A Department of Energy study found that the U.S. would need to create about 40 percent more power than it currently does by 2050. Other researchers say we’ll need closer to twice as much or more. All that extra capacity will have to come on top of the massive rollout of zero-emissions energy sources like wind and solar that is needed to replace the coal, oil and gas power plants, which still produce the majority of U.S. energy today. It will also require fortifying, or replacing entirely, the decades-old system of power lines so the electricity can get to where it’s needed.

Why there’s debate

Given the scale of the task, there’s disagreement over whether it’s possible for the U.S. to increase its power capacity enough to support the green transition and, even if it is, whether the country has the capability or political will to make it happen.

Optimists say that process is already underway and will only accelerate thanks to massive investment in renewable energy from both the government and private companies. They’re hopeful that, on top of the rapid increase in the use of current tools like solar panels and wind turbines, the nation’s power grid will be bolstered by a new generation of technologies in the coming years — most importantly powerful batteries that could keep the lights on when renewable energy sources are working below peak capacity.

But others believe that the combined headwinds of political opposition, regulatory roadblocks and consumer skepticism might make it impossible to build up and repair the power grid at the pace that’s needed to meet steadily increasing demand. Those problems could become even more pronounced if a supply shortage leads to regular blackouts or calls to decrease energy usage, they say.

Many conservatives argue that it’s simply not feasible to create a reliable energy grid built exclusively on renewable energy. They argue that there are too many periods when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing for a temporary solution like batteries to fill in the gaps. The shortcomings of solar and wind have fueled ongoing debate about whether the country should also be investing in nuclear power, which doesn’t produce carbon but comes with significant environmental concerns.

What’s next

One factor that could affect the country’s ability to increase its power production is the result of a dispute among Democrats over a proposal from West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin that would streamline the permitting process for energy projects. Manchin and others say it’s necessary to clear red tape that can sometimes grind to a halt green energy investment, but opponents fear it could make it easier for fossil fuel projects to be built too.


Building a new grid will require one of the biggest engineering efforts the U.S. has ever undertaken

“We haven’t built on this scale, in this country, in decades. Decarbonization is a construction project no smaller than electrification or the construction of the interstate highway system. And while there’s both public and private money for it, there’s no integrated approach to planning and executing it.” — Ezra Klein, New York Times

A green energy grid will never meet the country’s power needs

“Americans everywhere will soon be soaked with higher prices for power that is becoming less reliable. … The grid problems that Californians are enduring will grow and spread as supersized green-energy subsidies and mandates spread their harmful incentives throughout the U.S. economy in coming years. The culprit is the left’s climate policies, not climate change.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal

There are simple ways to deal with modest shortfalls in energy supplies

“A shortage of electricity doesn’t work like a shortage of a physical commodity. … Because the electricity system must balance supply and demand at every instant, electricity shortages themselves are very brief.” — Robinson Meyer, The Atlantic

Better batteries may soon solve all renewable energy’s shortcomings

“Before long, energy storage technologies will allow us to produce nearly all the power we need from the sun and wind, store it, and use that clean energy around the clock.” — Mike Ferry, San Diego Union-Tribune

An unreliable grid will make people hesitant to switch to electric products

The government shouldn't be forcing people to purchase—or abstain from purchasing—certain types of vehicles in the first place. But beyond that, signaling to the public that the electricity grid is being overtaxed during the summer does not instill residents with confidence that California is prepared for the transition it's trying to mandate.” — Scott Shackford, Reason

Reliability issues aren’t unique to renewables

“All sources of power will be unavailable sometime or other. Managing a grid has to deal with that reality, just as much as with fluctuating demand. The influx of larger amounts of renewable energy does not change that reality, even if the ways they deal with variability and uncertainty are changing.” — Amory B. Lovins and M. V. Ramana, Yale Environment 360

Local political fights could significantly slow green energy construction

“State and local governments and regional grid operators also play pivotal roles in approving new infrastructure and clean energy projects. They must overcome not-in-my-backyard opposition – some of it from policymakers themselves – to the power lines, pipelines and facilities that will be needed for clean energy, and simplify approval processes for rooftop solar panels.” — Daniel Cohan, The Conversation

Renewable energy makes more financial sense

“Fossil fuels are winning the energy battle this year — but setting themselves up for a far greater loss in the multi-decade war over the energy transition. Electricity consumers are always going to flock to the technology that provides the cheapest electrons. The solar industry is betting that race has already been won.” — David Fickling, Bloomberg

There are many ways to bolster solar and wind with clean energy sources

“Of course, ‘most of the time’ isn’t good enough when it comes to electricity. Reliable electricity requires balancing supply and demand every second of every day. Fortunately, there are lots of options to fill in the gaps left by wind and solar — keeping our existing nuclear plants and hydroelectric dams; adding batteries and other storage; making demand more efficient and flexible; as well as developing new sources of power such as enhanced geothermal technologies.” — Daniel Cohan, The Hill

Our fossil-fuel-heavy energy grid won’t stand up to increasingly extreme weather

“As climate change continues to lead to more extreme weather events and more grid failures, it could be tempting to look at how things used to be and say that since the grid was more stable in the 20th century, we ought to go back to doing things the way we did then. But that would be ignoring the realities of why those grid failures are happening, and it would just make things worse.” — Neel Dhanesha, Vox

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