Rapid Shift to Clean Energy Could Save ‘Trillions.’ But Corporate-Backed Groups Are Fighting the Transition in US Budget Bill

Yves here. It is striking to see the degree to which businesses actually give top priority to maintaining their management authority over maximizing profits, despite neoliberal theory saying the opposite. Even though the latest example is the clean energy case presented long-form below, Michal Kalecki explained the basis for this behavior in his 1943 essay on the barriers to achieving full employment. As we are seeing now, a (merely somewhat) tight labor market undermines the power of bosses. From Kalecki:

It should be first stated that, although most economists are now agreed that full employment may be achieved by government spending, this was by no means the case even in the recent past. Among the opposers of this doctrine there were (and still are) prominent so-called ‘economic experts’ closely connected with banking and industry. This suggests that there is a political background in the opposition to the full employment doctrine, even though the arguments advanced are economic. That is not to say that people who advance them do not believe in their economics, poor though this is. But obstinate ignorance is usually a manifestation of underlying political motives.

There are, however, even more direct indications that a first-class political issue is at stake here. In the great depression in the 1930s, big business consistently opposed experiments for increasing employment by government spending in all countries, except Nazi Germany. This was to be clearly seen in the USA (opposition to the New Deal), in France (the Blum experiment), and in Germany before Hitler. The attitude is not easy to explain. Clearly, higher output and employment benefit not only workers but entrepreneurs as well, because the latter’s profits rise. And the policy of full employment outlined above does not encroach upon profits because it does not involve any additional taxation. The entrepreneurs in the slump are longing for a boom; why do they not gladly accept the synthetic boom which the government is able to offer them? It is this difficult and fascinating question with which we intend to deal in this article…

We shall deal first with the reluctance of the ‘captains of industry’ to accept government intervention in the matter of employment. Every widening of state activity is looked upon by business with suspicion, but the creation of employment by government spending has a special aspect which makes the opposition particularly intense. Under a laissez-faire system the level of employment depends to a great extent on the so-called state of confidence. If this deteriorates, private investment declines, which results in a fall of output and employment (both directly and through the secondary effect of the fall in incomes upon consumption and investment). This gives the capitalists a powerful indirect control over government policy: everything which may shake the state of confidence must be carefully avoided because it would cause an economic crisis. But once the government learns the trick of increasing employment by its own purchases, this powerful controlling device loses its effectiveness. Hence budget deficits necessary to carry out government intervention must be regarded as perilous. The social function of the doctrine of ‘sound finance’ is to make the level of employment dependent on the state of confidence….

We have considered the political reasons for the opposition to the policy of creating employment by government spending. But even if this opposition were overcome — as it may well be under the pressure of the masses — the maintenance of full employment would cause social and political changes which would give a new impetus to the opposition of the business leaders. Indeed, under a regime of permanent full employment, the ‘sack’ would cease to play its role as a ‘disciplinary measure. The social position of the boss would be undermined, and the self-assurance and class-consciousness of the working class would grow. Strikes for wage increases and improvements in conditions of work would create political tension. It is true that profits would be higher under a regime of full employment than they are on the average under laissez-faire, and even the rise in wage rates resulting from the stronger bargaining power of the workers is less likely to reduce profits than to increase prices, and thus adversely affects only the rentier interests. But ‘discipline in the factories’ and ‘political stability’ are more appreciated than profits by business leaders. Their class instinct tells them that lasting full employment is unsound from their point of view, and that unemployment is an integral part of the ‘normal’ capitalist system.

If you haven’t yet come across it, I strongly urge you to read this seminal essay.

Now to the climate change version of this behavior. In addition to the usual “don’t tell me what to do” reflex among executives and business owners, we also have intense lobbying by dirty energy interests that stand to lose.

By Nick Cunningham, an independent journalist covering the oil and gas industry, climate change and international politics. He has been featured in Oilprice.com, The Fuse, YaleE360 and NACLA. Originally published at DeSmogBlog

Wind, solar, and batteries are already the cheapest source of electricity and an aggressive shift to clean energy makes more economic sense than a slow one, according to a new study. However, an enormous lobbying effort is underway to block climate policy in the $3.5 trillion budget bill under consideration.

Wind turbines in Oregon. Credit: Nick Cunningham

A slow transition away from fossil fuels would be “more expensive” than a rapid shift to renewable energy, according to a new study, a conclusion that stands in sharp contrast to fossil fuel industry talking points aimed at heading off aggressive climate policy currently being shaped in Congress.

An accelerated clean energy transition would lead to “net savings of many trillions of dollars,” a calculation that does not even take into account the damages from unchecked climate chaos, the recently released study from Oxford University found. On economics alone, the logic of a rapid shift to renewable energy is obvious and necessary.

“The belief that the green energy transition will be expensive has been a major driver of the ineffective response to climate change for the last forty years,” the researchers write. “This pessimism is at odds with past technological cost-improvement trends, and risks locking humanity into an expensive and dangerous energy future.”

The authors note that outdated thinking on renewable energy — that it comes with tradeoffs like higher electricity prices, for instance — has long dominated policy discussions. Echoes of this idea can be found today in mounting attacks by a network of lobbyists and think tanks on the climate provisions in the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package.

But that line of argument has been inaccurate for years, and the Oxford study says it is now decisively wrong. “Our analysis suggests that such trade-offs are unlikely to exist: a greener, healthier and safer global energy system is also likely to be cheaper,” they write [original emphasis].

The U.S. has a chance to solidify an accelerated track towards cleaner energy. The Democrats in Congress are working on legislation that would push the U.S. electricity system to roughly 80 percent carbon-free power by 2030, a definition that includes hydro and nuclear power, up from around 40 percent today.

The so-called Clean Electricity Payment Program (CEPP) is complex, but it essentially rewards utilities that move quickly to add renewable energy to their portfolios with each passing year, while imposing fees on laggards who move slowly.

Industry Ramps Up Misinformation  

Building the more than 600 gigawatts of solar, wind, and batteries needed to get to the 2030 target would put a lot of people to work. One study from the Analysis Group finds that the CEPP would help create an estimated 7.7 million net new jobs over the next decade as the electricity sector moves rapidly to scale up renewables.

But the win-win logic of creating jobs and cleaning up the electricity sector is not the message that industry front groups and their lobbyists are engaging with.

In the past few weeks, a constellation of right-wing think tanks, front groups, and trade associations have mobilized to defeat the CEPP, as well as the broader $3.5 trillion budget package — nicknamed the Build Back Better bill — under consideration by the Democrats in Congress.

Many of the misleading talking points being pushed by these lobbyists take the familiar form of outdated notions that renewable energy is expensive. They also opportunistically try to link the proposed bill to electricity blackouts, which have occurred in various parts of the country this year, including from soaring temperatures in California and extreme winter storms in Texas, while conspicuously ignoring the fact that these disasters are made worse by climate change.

For example, the Institute for Energy Research and its advocacy arm, the American Energy Alliance, warned that the CEPP would lead to “skyrocketing costs and rolling blackouts,” and that it will “kill the U.S. economy.” Both groups have extensive ties to Koch Industries and regularly push pro-fossil fuel rhetoric.

Other groups have sought to revive well-worn arguments about wasteful spending, while adopting a new campaign warning about inflation. Indeed, raising the dangers of inflation has become one of the central attack lines by right-wing groups in recent months as the budget negotiations drag on.

For example, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a group founded by David Koch, has held public events in August and September that put pressure on Congress to “end Washington waste,” and warn about inflation, an echo of the Tea Party events from 2009, which in many ways was an astroturf phenomenon.

In one September 17 post on its website, AFP linked to an analysis by the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF), which recently launched an Inflation Tracker. IWF says the “inflationary” $3.5 trillion plan would “hurt poor, elderly, minorities.” IWF also has extensive Koch ties.

The Wall Street Journal looked at AFP’s recent attempts to drum up anger at federal spending and found that the front group is struggling to break through with conservatives who are more animated by culture war issues related to mask mandates and vaccine requirements. In an effort to appeal to people, AFP has been “name-checking” mask mandates, and then trying to connect them to the dangers of big government in general, and urging people to oppose the budget bill.

In September, the purportedly non-partisan Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) named House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Bernie Sanders as their “Porkers of the Month,” a derisive award it hands out to government officials who “endanger America’s financial stability.” CAGW, which has received funding from tobacco companies, Exxon, and right-wing foundations, uses similar talking points: the budget bill is costly, will push up inflation, and will result in taxes on American families.

Right-wing groups don’t oppose all government spending on energy. The National Taxpayers Union, which claims it fights for free enterprise and against government waste, recently defended oil subsidies while criticizing incentives for renewables.

But these are all small examples of what has become a massive corporate lobbying blitz to kill the budget bill. As the Washington Post reports, the largest corporate entities in the country, including ExxonMobil and Pfizer, and powerful lobbying groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, PhRMA, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Business Roundtable, are pulling out all stops to prevent passage of the budget bill.

As the Post reports, the Chamber is spending heavily on ads targeting the handful of wavering corporate-friendly Democrats, and has vowed to cut off support for any member of Congress that votes in favor.

DeSmog reached out to the Chamber of Commerce, the Institute for Energy Research, the Independent Women’s Forum, Citizens Against Government Waste, the National Taxpayers Union, and Americans for Prosperity. IER responded but did not provide comments in time for publication.

Only AFP answered questions. When DeSmog cited the Oxford study and the cheap cost of renewable energy, Lorenz Isidro, an AFP spokesperson, said: “Top down energy mandates like the Clean Electricity Standard do little if anything to actually improve the environment but would increase energy rates, make everything we buy more expensive, and leave everyone worse off, particularly the least fortunate.”

But as the Oxford study shows, renewable energy is the cheapest source of power generation, and a faster transition results in more economic benefits. The corporate ad and lobbying campaign currently underway is full of misinformation.

“I am not surprised to see the oil & gas industry lobbying to water down efforts to replace their energy product with renewables + storage,” Matthew Ives, one of the authors of the study, wrote in an email. “They have been actively lobbying to reduce investment in renewables for a long time but I don’t think they, even with their wealth and influence, could hold back the tide of technological advance that is happening in these new clean technologies,” he wrote, adding: “I’m afraid the train has left the station.”

Arguments about inflation also appear opportunistic; economists are debating whether inflation is a temporary phenomenon related to the pandemic. In any event, the suite of social and economic programs included in the budget reconciliation bill — paid family and medical leave, universal pre-K, an expansion of Medicare, free community college, to name a few — are aimed at lowering the largest expenses in most people’s lives.

In fact, an analysis from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy finds that most of the benefits of the budget bill are concentrated on the poorest 20 percent of taxpayers, and just about every American would receive a tax cut except for the richest 5 percent.

On top of that, the tax hikes on the rich are intended to offset the cost of the overall package, so claims of enormous deficits are inaccurate. Finally, the spending is spread out over ten years, not all at once.

Whether or not the claims are accurate, Republican politicians and right-wing groups have seized on inflation as an intentional messaging campaign to scare the public away from the budget bill.

Their sky-is-falling rhetoric about renewable energy is part of a longer pattern of behavior of manipulating economic data, says Kathy Mulvey, accountability campaign director for climate and energy at the Union for Concerned Scientists, told DeSmog.

“Fossil fuel companies are not reliable economic messengers,” she said. “They seem to be just all-in on delaying the transition in a way that might protect quarter-to-quarter returns to shareholders, but the evidence is mounting that it could prove financially ruinous for everyone and for the economy.”

All Eyes on Manchin

The language used by corporate lobbying outfits on costly renewables, inflation and debt appear carefully crafted to appeal to one senator in particular: Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), the pivotal vote in the Senate. At times, the language used by corporate lobbyists very closely echoes Sen. Manchin’s own arguments.

In a widely circulated op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in early September, Sen. Manchin expressed his opposition to the budget bill, warning of excessive spending and inflation. He also argued how spending today could leave the country ill-positioned for some future crisis.

Notably, the Chamber of Commerce seemingly adopted Sen. Manchin’s argument as its own, although it repurposed it to warn against the Chamber’s chief concern, the proposed higher corporate tax rates. “[T]ax increases will lessen the resiliency of our economy when crisises [sic] hit, making it more difficult to recover when the next inevitably does come,” the Chamber’s senior economist Curtis Dubay wrote.

Whether they are sharing talking points is unknown, but the Chamber very explicitly says that it is rewarding Sen. Manchin with campaign contributions, along with Democrats wavering on the budget bill.

On September 22, the Chamber launched a six-figure ad campaign targeting a handful of Democrats, urging them to block the entire budget bill, calling it an “existential threat to America’s fragile economic recovery.”

Sen. Manchin holds outsized influence over the final outcome. While he has expressed concerns about the CEPP, what he seems to ignore is the enormous opportunity that his home state of West Virginia could see from the budget bill in general, and the CEPP in particular.

“It gives us an opportunity to jump start clean energy in West Virginia. We’re still 91 percent coal-fired, and our electricity customers have paid massive rate increases over the last 10 to 12 years because we’ve doubled down on coal unlike most other states,” James Van Nostrand, a law professor at West Virginia University and director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development, told DeSmog. “Coal is not a cost-effective way to generate electricity anymore.”

A new study from RMI, a sustainability think tank, finds that compared to other regions in the U.S., Appalachia would see the biggest economic benefit from the growth of renewable energy over the next decade.

Van Nostrand agreed. “West Virginia would benefit disproportionately from all the money that would come out of the Clean Electricity Payment Program,” he said.

Sen. Manchin has repeatedly questioned why there is urgency around the budget bill, an odd claim given the accelerating climate crisis and the policy programs addressing it within the bill. The United Nations said on September 17 that unless the world dramatically accelerates climate policy to speed up the energy transition, the world is on track to warm to a catastrophic 2.7 degrees Celsius (nearly 5 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the “climate alarm bells” are “ringing at fever pitch.” If emissions are not cut drastically, Guterres says the world is in for a “hellscape of temperature rises.”

In early September, a group of 94 organizations, including environmental, faith, justice, and labor groups, sent a letter to Congress, calling on them to stand up to corporate lobbyists and pass the budget bill. “Now is not the time to let deep-pocketed corporate lobbyists stand in the way of vital public investments in an economy that works for all of us,” they wrote.

“Manchin knows better. He clearly knows better. He could deliver such huge benefits for West Virginia … Why would you say no to this? This is a no-brainer,” Van Nostrand told DeSmog.

Recently, the Intercept reported that Sen. Manchin continues to earn more than a half million dollars per year from his personal stake in his coal business. The New York Times pointed out that Sen. Manchin will preside over the Senate Committee in charge of writing the CEPP, while also being the Senator who has received more campaign donations from the oil and gas industry than any of his colleagues last year. Sen. Manchin did not respond to a request for comment.

Van Nostrand hopes that Sen. Manchin will realize the monumental opportunity that he has at the moment. “What is your legacy going to be? What are you going to put on your tombstone?” he said. “You’re the guy who blocked massive amounts of money that could have come to West Virginia because it wasn’t good for the coal industry and your own personal financial interest?”

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  1. drumlin woodchuckles

    Many Anerican states are the size of respectable small countries. Some American states are the size of respectable middle countries. And some of these states are allegedly Blue and a few of them might even be allegedly Green. A very few might be both at once.

    If the DC FedRegime is currently under Class Enemy Occupation and Cultural Enemy Occupation, can some respectable Blue and/or Blue-Green states pursue their own energy system Cleanup-Greenup within their own state borders? If they operate jointly toward the same Cleanup-Greenup goal, can they support eachother in doing it even faster and being even harder to stop by Class and Cultural Enemy action?

    If time and energy spent at the Federal level is simply wasted and thereby lost forever when it could have been better spent at the Inter BlueGreen state level among several willing states acting “alone together”, is there any reason to bother wasting the one time-sensitive shrinking chance we still have left to do something effective and real at the several-respectable-states level?

    And how many cities and towns might be more or less Green-minded? What if these cities and towns were to try acting somewhat like the Greek City States of classical antiquity, creating their own little-green economies for themselves and a micro-hinterland right around themselves which could support and benefit from economic living-earning involvement in separate Cleanup-Greenups in separate “City-States” and “Town-States” which have majorities in favor of Cleanup-Greenups within their own conceptual “City-State” borders?

    Such City-States and Town-States could adopt a term from the US military and think of themselves as Cleanup-Greenup Lily Pads . . . . bases of energy cleaning and energy greening in defiance of the Class Enemy and Culture Enemy and Social Enemy death cultists who rule at the DC FedRegime level.

    Worth a try? Or even a thought?

    1. p. fitzsimon

      I’m not sure about how being a Blue state or community translates to real action to address climate change. I live in an ultra blue state (a hint – the only state that voted for McGovern in 1972). Carbon tax bills have been proposed and sitting in the legislature for years. In fact the state has not been able to raise the gas tax in 30 years even though gas has been as cheap as bottled water. Proponents even tried a referendum to bypass the legislature to raise the gas tax just to fix the roads and bridges and it failed. Thus far it’s been low hanging fruit, solar on rooftops and old land fills, and the occasional wind turbine. The big pay off has been natural gas which has replaced oil and coal for power plants, but that was easy to prove with pure economics. Oh, and home insulation programs with roots in Jimmy Carter and energy independence

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        It hasn’t yet. But let enough catastrophic storms hit the Blue Zone and let the Blue Zonians remember that the Fossil Carbon zone makes a fortune off the Blue Zone’s misfortune by selling the fossil carbon which brings catastrophe to the Blue Zone . . . . and the Blue Zonians might begin thinking and researching deeply and creatively on how to get long term revenge on the Fossil Carbon zone.

        How much pain will Blue Zonians be ready to accept in order to inflict greater pain on the Fossil Carbonians? When they start thinking about the problem THAT way, then they will start getting real.

        ” With a head full of plans and a heart full of hate, we can make things happen.”

      2. drumlin woodchuckles

        I was too young to have voted for McGovern. But if I coulda, I woulda.

        Here is a satirical political slogan from the time.

        “Don’t change dicks in the middle of a screw, Nixon-Agnew in ’72! “

  2. Zamfir

    I am somewhat conflicted about the Oxford study that’s the basis of the main article. I hope other people take a look at it as well.

    Its core argument is that several key technologies will fall massively in cost in the next decades. To 2040, they say that the most likely cost reduction is 3-fold PV, 5-fold for batteries and 8-fold for electrolyzers (with uncertainty around those numbers, both up and down). Additionally, they argue that this cost reduction is mostly related to scale, not time. So the cost will go down faster if we build the faster, and there is little point in waiting until the cost has fallen.

    That’s not unreasonable, in my opinion. After all, it is exactly what happened in the last decades. If you accept that argument, then their conclusion about low costs is hardly surprising. At the same time, I am uncomfortable with such extrapolations. Those costs imply designs and business practices that are not even on drawing tables today. It feels bad to rely on that, even if it is quite possible to happen.

    The Oxford people anticipate that concern. They point out that supposedly “realistic” projections from the past, turned out to be wildly pessimistic in reality. People constantly predict that costs would bottom out, which then did not happen. This study still assumes cost bottoms, but they put those far in the future, when deployment is close to maximum scale.

    1. topcat

      It doesn’t matter- there is no time to debate it any longer, it must simply be done. If we fail we fail, the alternative is definite disaster.

    2. PlutoniumKun

      Its a difficult topic, but as you say, its not unreasonable to extrapolate current trends, and they are often understated. The ‘bible’ around 10 years ago was ‘Renewable Energy: Without Hot Air’, a widely disseminated study, which proved to be far too pessimistic about the drop in price in wind and in particular, solar. With renewable energy, there is always going to be a floor as to how low costs can go once you hit the basic costs of the raw materials. We haven’t hit that yet, but that hardly matters as they are already cheaper than the alternatives. There is still a long way I think with both solar and offshore wind as to how costs can be reduced. CSP has been largely overlooked because of the success of PV batteries, but it also has enormous potential for cost reductions.

      Its much harder to be certain of that case with storage as in many ways its a much more complex area. However, there are at least three technologies now going into full production that do not rely on any particular rare materials or engineering and are highly scalable – liquid air storage (UK technology), thermal storage (Danish) and iron air batteries (US). There is no particular reason to think that the price of these won’t drop dramatically once they are scaled as there are no obvious technological or infrastructural bottlenecks. There is currently a huge amount of investor money going into all three, which strongly suggests that the big players are confident that they can be made very viable.

      Time will tell of course.

      1. Zamfir

        Time will tell, but should we wait? That’s the core question, I think.

        Consider a crude learning-by-doing model: the cost of the next unit is purely a decreasing function of the number of units already produced. In that model there is no point in waiting, if you believe that the final unit cost will be attractive. You have to produce the early expensive units anyway, to get to the cheap units. Doing it slower just delays the cheap future. Bad for climate and bad for wallet. That’s the outcome of that Oxford study.

        Of course, that’s not quite how it works in reality. If you accelerate too much, you get avoidable difficulties, mistakes, bottlenecks, misinvestments, and variations on the nine-mothers-one-month-pregnancy problem.

        But I suspect that we’re often on the other side of that balance. Waiting for costs to go down through development, and not spending enough to bring down costs.

  3. Jtanon

    Don’t get too hung up on policy. It’s a sideshow. As solar/wind/battery (SWB) gets cheaper, which is happening rapidly, business imperatives will prevail.

    I highly recommend the linked report from a set of UK consultants. It’s one of the most mind blowing things I’ve read in recent years. The analysis is apolitical and solely focused on technology and cost.


    Some highlights:

    1) In Texas, which has no green mandates or subsidies, only (SWB) power sources are being constructed. It is out competing nat gas purely in the basis of cost. Policy doesn’t matter.
    2) The authors believe that the US electricity market will be supplied entirely by SWB sources by 2030 except for stranded fossil power assets. This will not replace all fossil fuel uses – there will be specialty cases like air fuel – but it will replace the bulk of them.
    3) They hypothesize a new Green SuperPower, where “conservation” will mean using all the clean energy being generated at zero marginal cost. Maximizing instead of economizing.
    4) Independently, I’ll note that the biggest solar complexes in the world are in India, which as you are aware completely outdoes the US + Europe in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Big news on the climate front. And the other big offender in climate terms is China, with high sunlight desert areas sitting there waiting to be filled with big solar complexes.

    Much more there. Their calculation about capital costs and clean SuperPower is likely controversial, and they don’t disclose the details, but it looks like the rest of their argument is square in the consensus of the engineering community. Press and politician appear to be completely uninformed about what is happening on the technology front.

    Anyway, recommended reading.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      I don’t know the people behind that study and I don’t have time to go through the details or look at their assumptions. Its an interesting contribution – in one respect they are correct – analysts consistently underestimate how rapidly things can change in the energy industry and how so much can happen ‘under the hood’ when a consensus among the money people builds up about the cheapest way forward (this occurred in the 1990’s with the ‘Dash to Gas’, and we are still living with the consequences). I’ve no doubt this is happening with renewable energy as there is an enormous amount of money going into various sectors which will probably bear fruit later in the decade.

      But I would take issue with some of the assumptions in that study. Quite simply, its not so simple to change grids in the time frame they are talking about – there are short cuts (such as using storage to overcome grid weaknesses), but scaling up takes time. Also, there is no way lithium battery production could be increased at the scale they are talking about in those time scales, there are fundamental bottlenecks in materials supply. That said, they seem to be under the impression that lithium batteries are the only storage option. In reality, lithium batteries are used only for one purpose – bridging drop offs in electricity over about a 1-3 hour period. You need other forms of storage for longer term energy storage. Its actually in these areas that the most exciting developments are being made.

  4. Dave in Austin

    “Extrapolate current trends”. That’s always the bet. We see this all the time in the politics and economics of energy and size. Commentators are always willing to make the bet in a rapidly dashed-off opinion piece. But they seem curiously unwilling to bet their 401K retirement account on their own predictions.

    “Extrapolate current trends” is often an exercise in propaganda and wishful thinking.

    In the 1950s GE ran adds for nuclear power based on prototype experiments; electricity would be “To cheap to meter”. At the same time the oil doomsayers were telling us “US oil will run out in 38 years based on present projections”. In the 19th century there were some very funny projections about how much horse manure would fill the streets of London based on “The present growth in the number of horse carriages”.

    This is not to denigrate extrapolation; but in the press it is usually used to create a panic to support some policy goal.

    At the moment wind and solar are cheap on a per-MW basis. But the energy they produce can’t yet be stored in any inexpensive, massive way. The battery storage price curve shows promise and already makes local battery storage for some peak shaving profitable. But so far there is absolutely no experimental breakthrough that makes electrical storage on a massive scale possible. Maybe such a breakthrough will happen; maybe it will not. But policy can’t be based on magical thinking. A very large investment in battery research is worthwhile, as are experiments in fusion and high voltage power transmission that will allow power to be shifted across 3-4 time zones to match wind and solar power production to where the loads are. The Japanese are betting on hydrogen storage based on using wind to disassociate water into hydrogen and oxygen- not an unreasable bet. But so far nature has provided us with only one method of storing energy cheaply- take plants; let them rot; put miles of dirt on them; compress the rotting plants for a few million years into coal, oil and gas; take the stuff out of the ground and burn it. Inconveniently this requires far more air (O2) than the earth has available.

    Potentially our best bets are investments in physics, chemistry and biology. Breakthroughs come from the oddest places- the internal combustion engine; splitting the atom; microelectonics; genetic manipulation; fracking- none were on anybody’s horizon then within 20 years the economics of each led to an energy revolution.

    The US and our editorial writers are not in control of how 19th and 20th century technology will be used by the Third World. If the projections are correct (more extrapolation), in the next 20 years China and India will build enough new coal-fired power plants to produce as much CO-2 at the total present US production. Only massive research- and blind luck- will produce an energy revolution which will make such a course economically unnecessary. I’m personally not betting that research will produce what we need. But I don’t think we have any other horse to bet on.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      We could also bet on a sizable time-buying mule in the meantime. And that would be massive wetland restoration. Wetlands are carbon skydraining sweet spots where the skycarbon sucked down by the plants gets sunk under the semi-anaerobic water and builds up as peat which is phyto-sequestered bio-carbon.

      If the US restored 80 million acres of missing wetlands ( through some program or other), we could suck down a lot of skycarbon. The barriers are social and cultural and political and economic, not biological.

    2. George

      ” But so far there is absolutely no experimental breakthrough that makes electrical storage on a massive scale possible.”

      Not sure if this is a breakthrough only Snohomish County PUD had completed two vanadium flow battery storage units and possibly a third by now. The system is housed in 20 shipping containers, each 20 feet in length, packed with tanks of liquid electrolyte solution.

      Vanadium having infinite recharge cycles.

  5. BeliTsari

    DeSmogBlog included a FrackTracker image from Lycoming Creek: ginormous wind-turbines, flanking what looks like a couple 8-well pads & settling ponds? This is just north of Williamsport, so pretty isolated (unless, you drink water & dairy products, or eat meat?) But, driving to McKeesport a bunch of times, it really seemed stereotypical to risk life and limb, passing 180′ turbine blades, coal-buckets hauling to Keystone & Homer City and pole-trucks schlepping 80′ double-joined 36″ API-5L gas linepipe, ALL heading west, into Cancer Valley, Frackistan (while driving a Korean PHEV, designed by Krauts & robot-built in Slovakia). Greening NYC, involves poisoning folks in PA.

  6. Eric377

    If energy will be cheaper and abundant, then I would like a place such as California to demonstrate that. My uncertainty is whether this study simply means that a faster transition is cheaper, but possibly the final state after the transition the energy market is more expensive and less abundant. I don’t have a real feel for it but know California has had serious energy market issues on both price and availability, and Germany also is pretty stressed on these. If you convince people they can maintain their preferred lifestyle and pay less, or even just not more, I think this would accelerate transition. But 10s of millions struggle to believe this and thinking it is mostly due to brilliant propaganda from the Koch-associated groups is probably wrong. The California high-speed train program definitely influences my thinking of the likelihood that progressive claims about the feasibility of programs they advocate. Maybe there were special circumstances, but the hard truth is California really has nothing worthwhile after spending tens of billions on a program whose advocacy was pretty similar to the Green New Deal.

    1. Zamfir

      The study claims that the final state will be cheaper, much cheaper even. That’s why they conclude that faster is cheaper . It’s simply from having more years in the final cheap state.

      This is based on extrapolation of trends in cost reduction. It is not based on the current costs, so there is serious uncertainty involved.

      They assume that scale is the main driver of cost reductions. So if you expand to large scale faster, you get to the low cost future faster.

      Also, they calculate with levelized cost, with investment cost spread out over the lifetime production of the equipment. It’s a massive, massive investment up front, followed by very low costs afterwards. That investment cost tends to leak into current prices, which can make prices during the transition higher even if the lifetime average is going to be low.

      So even if they are completely right, it can take quite a while before this will be unambiguously clear in the real world.

      1. p fitzsimon

        The storage/inertia problem is solvable. However, there are factors often left out of wind/solar renewable economics. One is land cost which will increase when the cheap spots like rooftops are used up, another is transmission costs since the most affordable and energy efficient locations for renewable sources are remote areas and offshore. The other big one, particularly for solar, is the waste stream. Unless the panels become economically recyclable we’re substituting a limited stream of fossil fuels for another limited and dangerous stream of old panels. Both wind and solar will also require an enormous investment in high power electronics for the converters and inverters required to manage and adapt wind/solar sources with the current electric grids based on synchronous generators.

    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      I wish California would have spent its High Speed Rail money on a deep and broad covers-the-whole-state network of fairly fast passenger rail and the restoration of trolleys, streetcars and subways everywhere techno-socially feasible in California. Instead , they have thrown the money away ( with more to follow) on a high speed high prestige white elephant on rails, ramming its way through and over the best farmland in the state.

      Its almost as if there was a conspiracy to prevent train travel restoration in California by throwing the money and the time away on ” high speed rail”.

  7. Rod

    Thanks Yves for your doggedness on this prime dilemma.

    Well written Expose’ and illustrative of the headwinds being manufactured by the ‘ let’s just wait a minute’ interests allied to preserve the profits of the status quo.

    I agree w DW’s lead here, local and regional collaborations are in a sense ‘eating the elephant bite by bite’ and creating example alliances able to pushback through example.
    An example could be School Board adoption of PV for all District Bldg’s to off set security lighting needs(direct and modest examples).

    The more local and direct application for locally generated energy side steps the ‘Choke Point’ argument of waiting to modernize the whole Grid.

    We all want one big slick fix that we can forget about, kinda like today. Out of sight, out of mind, and definitely beyond your control—but not someone else’s.

    We can’t wait for that.

      1. Sarah Patterson

        I wouldn’t say nobody talks about it but I definitely agree that these are things that need A LOT more air time. And this is precisely what we are up to at Common Earth. We need to identify a new path forward. There is a spot left in one of the three courses that start next week.
        The courses are free and the more of us engaged in these conversations the better so – check it out: https://www.commonearth.com/

      2. drumlin woodchuckles

        There are posts here now and then which offer opportunities for exactly that kind of talk about use-reduction of stuff and energy. People will just have to offer more comments in that vein when appropriate. Perhaps if enough people do so, a threshhold will be broken and even yet more people will start to do so.

      3. p fitzsimon

        Well John Kerry, Biden’s climate czar, has talked about it. He promises we wont have to make any lifestyle changes

        1. Eric377

          That makes sense. Not a good idea to confound this major transition with an idea of decreased prosperity. There will be time and opportunities to change lifestyles, without creating more headwinds now. My view is getting this right is way more important than getting it done by 2035 or whenever. I think it is a major case of drinking your own bathwater to believe there is anything close to a solid consensus in the US that we are at a crisis. Forget the polls: many folks understand what to say to sound socially acceptable to what they believe the poll takers attitudes are.

          1. p Fitzsimons

            The problem is that Republicans and Trumpers are not as dumb as Democrats believe they are, at least not when it comes to the climate crisis. They know that a transition to renewable energy is not a change that will be painless as Democrats like Kerry and AOC advertise. But I agree telling the truth might not help to get it done.

            1. drumlin woodchuckles

              One might refer to these people as climate cynics. They suspect the entire concept of global warming was invented to further The Great Reset or Agenda 21 or some other upper class aggression against the lower class majority.

              If ” do something!” minded people want to even gain a hearing among the global warming cynic community, they are going to have to show themselves living an okay life on an energy permadiet. Anyone can keep their house 55 degrees all winter and 85 degrees all summer to save energy. That requires no intelligence. It also offers no comfort. It is virtue hairshirting and most people won’t adopt it under any circumstances.

              So members of the “do something!” community will have to be able to model themselves in public view as Living Smarter, Not Harder.
              Live Smarter, Not Harder.
              That means . . .
              Live Smarter, Not Colder in the winter and
              Live Smarter, Not Hotter in the summer.
              ( Or at least not too much colder and not too much hotter).

              Is the “do something!” community up to that challenge?

  8. John Steinbach

    No mention of radical conservation measures, nor the rapidly closing time frame for meaningful action.

    There is no doubt about the massive corporate opposition to the CEPP & the BBB bills, but both bills still assume a version of technological “business as usual” that flies in the face of climate and resource depletion reality.

    The time frame for action limits the ability of technology to “solve” the myriad of problems facing humanity. Radical conservation & lifestyle simplification are the future, either by design or by default.

    1. Karl Brantz

      Yes indeed! Like it or not, reality requires modifications that we cannot ignore without peril to our existence. Best to identify, accept, and implement ahead of the inevitable arrival of adverse conditions. Problem is that although humans are quite intelligent, they are not really very smart. Solutions lie with individuals, not governing mandates. Renewable energy and energy conservation is happening, albeit much slower than it should be. All houses should be constructed with or refitted with solar/wind/hydro generation coupled with battery storage wherever possible. Well, we can dream……

  9. Pate

    As I write this all the comments above have focused on energy. For me the more interesting and illuminating part of the post was the idea that big business will sacrifice profits in order to maintain their control of the workforce ie the throat hold that capital has over labor. My first wife always said I was a bit different.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      I will claim that I have said off and on that the Prime Directive of business has been sadistic control and inflicting torture on captive workforces rather than the pursuit of profit. They are often happy to pursue just enough profit in order to stay in the business of mass social sadism and workforce torture.

  10. Bob


    Although the levelized costs of electricity are well established – See EIA and Lazard – https://www.lazard.com/perspective/lcoe2020

    This discussion avoids some facts –

    First the electric utility business springs from nearly a century ago when there were many, many electric generators. In fact it was common for small municipalities, industrial sites, military bases, college campuses, and so on to have a local grid and local generating stations. And this was true of gas systems in which there were local gas plants that created gas from coal and other sources. If one pokes around there are still streets and buildings named after the generating stations and in a few places there are still relics sitting idle in derelict buildings.

    As demands for electric power increased the states in response to customer demand struck a deal with the power companies (investor owned utilities – IOUs) which gave a monopoly to the local (state) IOU in return for providing electric power to all of the far flung localities and even farmsteads. The monopoly included a cost plus contract for the cost of power. And the state provided oversight though a Public
    Utility Commission (PUC) which could have an adversarial relationship with the IOU.

    The important thing is that the IOU’s have a COST PLUS contract. So the greater the cost of generation the greater amount of the profit.

    This means that the IOU’s will fight with everything they have to keep the present fossil fuel fired generating plants. And of course remember that the majority of generating cost is that of the fuel be it coal, natural gas, or nuclear.

    Here’s how the IOUs fight –


    And other IOUs use their expertise to limit PV roll out through interconnection rules and most recently by creating the canard that PV must have battery back up.
    Some IOUs are able to control both the generation AND the natural gas fuel distribution.
    Some IOUs negotiate directly with the state legislature to avoid dealing with the state PUC.

    While in ideal capitalism system it might be expected that the lowest cost generation would win out this ignores the incentives the IOUs have under a cost plus contract.

  11. solarjay

    One of the biggest impediments towards the implantation of renewables is the lack of consistent tax and regulatory rules.
    For the industry to go forward with better speed those must be addressed.
    The technical manufacturing can be overcome, that’s pretty simple. Right now solar has gone up in price, not down. Solar panel prices are about USD $.2-.25 per watt with the cost of poly silicon being the main cost driver, but that $.2 threshold isn’t going down anytime soon if ever. Inverter prices around $.1-.2 watt, and they are not going down anymore. Racking/mounting is what ever steel prices are. Wire, is both copper and aluminum and again based on material prices.

    One advantage that oil has is that its tax breaks are permanent, whereas solar/wind are renewed ever few years, creating a boom and bust cycle. The wind/solar tax credits need to be either permanent or say a 15 year time line. This allows companies and investors to know what they have in the future, and to plan out larger, multiple projects without subject to a timeline.

    Other kinds of things could be done including national simplified solar permitting process, and you can fill in any thing you want, but unlikely to happen.

    One other really big thing the Feds can do is to create low interest loans for solar, both residential and commercial/utility scale. This would mostly, hopefully eliminate the scam of the solar lease companies which we as tax payers end up highly subsidizing and the customer gets basically nothing.

    The feds if they are serious, ( I don’t think they are) wanted to create manufacturing of solar here in the USA, need to do the simple issue of big, multi billon dollar low interest loans to create the scale that will compete with chinas big companies. There is at least one company in china that makes more solar than the US installed last year. The largest US company is First Solar, one most have never heard of, thin film company.

    The markets need tax and regulatory stability to grow if the US is serious about increasing renewables

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      The “markets” also need protection against carbon dumping by our trading enemies. This is where free trade Abolition and Protection Restoration come in.

      Without militant belligerent Protectionism against our trading enemies and their nefarious and insidious carbon dumping exports into our society, we will achieve zero conservation and zero greening.

      But my fellow readers don’t have to believe me. All they have to do is watch the next several years of continuing failure to cleanup and greenup the American economy because of Free Trade.

      ” Watch, and learn.” as Dr. Zoidberg sometimes says on Futurama.

  12. Brooklin Bridge

    A very interesting and informative discussion by the commentariat. If one were to make a consensus out of it, (granted that is just be another way of saying what I take away from it) I suspect it would be that while advances in “green” energy technology will keep making leaps and bounds, and the necessity of energy conservation will become more evident as fundamental, we will nevertheless find ourselves in a lot of trouble within the next generation at most and much much sooner in all probability. The latter is now simply a reality. We are seeing the beginning of it as well as the remarkable human tendency to put it off to another day in favor of dubious motives. The problems are too complex, human nature too myopic in self importance and self interest and the time line is shrinking much faster than discussions on the best approach, technology itself , and adaptation in our given political and ideological reality permit globally.

    As @John Steinbach said above, “Radical conservation & lifestyle simplification are the future, either by design or by default.”

    But while too late to avoid that, it is also utterly amazing what effort IS being put into addressing the issue and somehow there remains real hope that some degree of the calamity ahead can and even will be mitigated.

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