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Climate Policies Are Creating an Energy Crisis

April 20, 2018

Climate Change Weekly #283

In a recent article in Forbes, Charles McConnell, executive director of Rice University’s Energy and Environment Initiative, says what I and others at The Heartland Institute have long maintained: the United States is setting itself up for an entirely preventable energy disaster.

McConnell says the U.S. electric power grid is being stretched to the brink of failure from a major weather event or terror attack, as anti-climate policies and renewable energy subsidies and mandates force dependable nuclear and coal-fired power plants to close, replacing them with increasing amounts of less secure, less resilient, and less reliable sources of energy, such as wind, solar, or even natural gas.

McConnell’s warning is particularly telling because it comes from a former assistant secretary of energy at the U.S. Energy Department for the Obama administration, the administration whose actions are largely responsible for the energy crisis the country is potentially facing.

McConnell writes, “Coal and nuclear plants are unmatched in their ability to generate reliable energy under all circumstances, but these plants are being retired at an alarming rate because of a combination of punitive regulations, low natural gas prices, and government subsidies and mandates for renewables.” As McConnell notes, coal and nuclear plants in the Midwest and Northeast running at full capacity were critical to keeping people’s lights on and their homes heated during the polar vortex of 2014.

Most Americans take electricity for granted. McConnell calls peoples’ belief the U.S. electric power system can continue to remain reliable and resilient even as climate regulations and renewable energy mandates shut down coal and nuclear plants “magical thinking.”

Electricity cannot be reliably and inexpensively stored. Instead, it must be available whenever users demand it. Wind and solar power, which produce power only when nature cooperates, can’t fit that bill.

I’m a fan of natural gas power. As gas prices have fallen, my electric bills have generally declined. Competition with natural gas plants is the primary reason some coal-fired power plants and nuclear plants have recently closed or are slated for early retirement. On cost alone, however, if one is concerned about price volatility, coal beats natural gas in many cases as a long-term fuel source. Unlike natural gas, the price of coal is less prone to rise or fall in response to weather or surging demand from alternative uses. This fact is reflected in my monthly power bills, where every bump in gas prices can double my monthly gas (winter) and electric (summer) bill.

In addition to price volatility, McConnell notes resilience and reliability during a crisis are a concern:

[N]atural gas is less secure than coal and nuclear power because it relies on pipeline supply of fuel on demand.

A base-load power plant typically stores in excess of a 30-day supply of coal on site, enough to outlast potential disruptions. Natural gas plants require a constant on-demand supply of gas to continue producing electricity [and] a weather shock, pipeline repair, unforeseen human mistake or a terror attack can quickly disrupt operations at those plants.

McConnell’s article is timely, coming as The Heartland Institute has recently released our series of four studies demonstrating the continuing criticality of coal-fired power plants to grid reliability and price stability. These studies examine in detail the myriad regulatory factors and behind-the-scenes political machinations driving the premature retirement of dozens of valuable coal-fired power plants.

Absent federal action to account for the value of coal and nuclear plants’ on-site storage capacity or governments ending their various subsidies for and mandates to use wind and solar power, people are likely to wake up from their fantasy land where electricity magically appears at the flick of a switch, instead finding the world a darker, colder (or hotter) place than they remembered, a world where electric power on demand is a luxury one can’t count on.

Americans should ask the people of Venezuela, where my wife is from, for example, how that is working out.

—H. Sterling Burnett

SOURCES: Forbes; Quanta Technology; The Heartland Institute


IN THIS ISSUE …

Solar road a bustGroundwater discharge contributes to rising seas SEC blocks shareholder resolution


SOLAR ROAD A BUST

Since 2014, a husband-and-wife team has raised nearly $4.5 million for a demonstration project, called “Solar Roadways,” to put solar panels on roads and parking lots. When they first announced the project, climate blogger Anthony Watts listed myriad reasons ir was a foolish idea, not the least of which were the high costs of infrastructure and the fact solar panels were not really suited to carry heavy traffic.

Though Watts didn’t mention it, I will: it also seems to me having cars parked on top of or traveling over the panels, since neither cars nor their occupants are translucent, would defeat the purpose of capturing the sunlight and transforming it into electricity. It’s like putting solar panel on top of a home’s foundation but underneath the home itself, not a lot of light is going to get through.

If this were solely a private project, I would have no objection, and I might even get a good laugh out of it. When people throw away their own money on inane attempts to fight climate change, it is nobody’s business but their own. Unfortunately, there is rarely a foolish climate mitigation plan federal or state governments won’t take hard money from taxpayers to promote, and Solar Roadways is no exception. The project’s developers were able to convince the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to give them more than $2,350,000 of hard-earned taxpayer money in Small Business Innovation Research grants for the project.

The developers had to replace the first two sets of solar panels on the test roadway in Sandpoint, Idaho in short order. “Twenty-five of the first thirty test panels died within the first few weeks,” writes Willie Eschenbach at Watts Up with That. “They were replaced by panels that delaminated. … So the delaminated panels were replaced again. But to be fair, who would have ever guessed that driving loaded semi-trucks over solar panels might do some damage?”

During the solar project’s first 378 days of operation, the system produced about 246 kWh of electricity. Eschenbach calculates, based on the 15 cents per kWh he pays for electricity in California (where, due to climate policies, the cost of electricity is much more than what many people pay around the country; I pay 7.8 cents per kWh, for example), the solar project produced $36.86 worth of electricity at a cost of $4,450,000. What a costly boondoggle.

SOURCE: Watts Up With That


GROUNDWATER DISCHARGE CONTRIBUTES TO RISING SEAS

Jim Steele, author of Landscapes and Cycles, published a new paper on Climate Etc. arguing groundwater discharge into the oceans is contributing to sea level rise. This is a missing factor unaccounted for by climate models. Once properly accounted for, the amount of sea level rise attributable to anthropogenic warming is much less than climate models estimate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) acknowledges it cannot account for as much as 25 percent of the sea level rise. The IPCC’s 2002 report stated, “the historic rise started too early, has too linear a trend, and is too large.”

Groundwater slowly discharges into the oceans over time, with the rate and amount varying dependent on periodic shifts in ocean currents, rainfall amounts, and rates of aquifer recharge, among other factors. Climate models do not take into account groundwater discharge into the world’s oceans, yet the volume of fresh water stored as groundwater is second only to the amount of water frozen in Antarctica’s icy expanse, and it is three to eight times the amount of water contained in Greenland’s glaciers.

On relatively short time scales, during periods of frequent La Niñas, a greater proportion of precipitation falls on the land globally “and when routed through more slowly discharging aquifers, sea level rise decelerates. During periods of more frequent El Niños, more rain falls back onto the oceans, and sea level rise accelerates. In contrast to La Niña induced shallow-aquifer effects, deep aquifers have been filled with meltwater from the last Ice Age, and that water is slowly and steadily seeping back into the oceans today,” writes Steele.

As Steele explains in detail, deep aquifers are constantly discharging water into oceans, and “primarily regulated by geological pore spaces (in addition to pressure heads), the slow and steady discharge of these older waters affects sea level rise on century and millennial timeframes.” This discharge could account for a large portion of, if not all, unaccounted-for sea level rise.

Until climate models account for the volume of water the world’s shallow and deep aquifers discharge into the oceans, the amount of sea level rise they attribute to human causes should be considered inaccurate.

SOURCE: Climate Etc.


SEC BLOCKS SHAREHOLDER RESOLUTION

In an unprecedented decision, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) supported oil producer EOG Resources’ request to be allowed to kill a shareholder resolution on climate change preemptively, without a vote. The SEC’s action could indicate a significant shift in the way it analyzes shareholder resolutions under the administration of President Donald Trump.

On behalf of the Sierra Club Foundation, Trillium Asset Management, the oldest investment management firm pushing social and environmental change through stock ownership, proposed a shareholder resolution calling on EOG to set a target and timetable to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Trillium, founded in 1982, manages approximately $2.5 billion in assets.

In a December 20, 2017 letter to SEC, EOG requested the commission allow it to exclude Trillium’s resolution in the proxy materials it was required to send to shareholders for consideration at its annual meeting, and to preclude it from coming up for a vote at the meeting. Citing SEC rules, EOG stated Trillium’s resolution interfered with matters

so fundamental to management’s ability to run a company on a day-to-day basis that they could not, as a practical matter, be subject to direct shareholder oversight, [and] …the proposal seeks to ‘micro-manage’ the company by probing too deeply into matters of a complex nature upon which shareholders, as a group, would not be in a position to make an informed judgment.

SEC agreed with EOG. In its February 26 letter responding to EOG’s request, SEC said Trillium’s proposal does attempt to “micromanage the Company,” and thus under Commission rules, the agency allowed EOG to exclude the resolution from its annual meeting proxy materials and prevent it from being voted on.

SEC’s decision came after the agency issued new legal guidance in November 2017 broadening the definition of micromanagement as potential grounds to block shareholder proposals. Since 2010, nearly 130 resolutions have been filed asking companies to set timetables and/or standards for reducing greenhouse gas emissions or take other actions to fight climate change. Shareholders have rejected most such resolutions, usually by large margins.

According to The Sustainable Investments Institute, historically SEC has disallowed similar climate shareholder resolutions only based on technical errors, such as filing the resolution late. The EOG case is the first time SEC granted a company’s request to block a climate proposal based on “micromanagement” grounds.

SOURCES: Axios; EOG Resources; SE

Author
H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. is a Heartland senior fellow on environmental policy and the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.
hsburnett@heartland.org