US presidential hopeful Senator Bernie Sanders’ Green New Deal climate and social action plan for “100% renewables” for power and transport by 2030 in the US is pretty breathtaking. It also calls for a fully decarbonized US economy by 2050 at the latest, an even larger challenge. A radical plan, given that, at present, renewables only supply around 18% of US power. Can it be done? And what will it all cost?
The Green New Deal plan says “we will spend $1.52 trillion on renewable energy and $852 billion to build energy storage capacity. We will spend $526 bn on a modern, high-volt, underground, renewable, direct current, smart, electric transmission and distribution grid [to] ensure our transition to 100% sustainable energy is safe and smooth. We will provide $2.18 trillion for sliding-scale grants for low- and moderate-income families and small businesses to invest in weatherizing and retrofitting their homes and businesses. Weatherization will reduce residential energy consumption by 30%.” And it adds, “we will fund a $500 bn effort to research technologies to fully decarbonize industry”. That will certainly be crucial for the longer-term post-2030 phase.
Crucially though, the Sanders plan says that “to get to our goal of 100% sustainable energy, we will not rely on any false solutions like nuclear, geoengineering, carbon capture and sequestration, or trash incinerators”. Specifically, the plan “will stop the building of new nuclear power plants and find a real solution to our existing nuclear waste problem. It will also enact a moratorium on nuclear power plant license renewals in the United States to protect surrounding communities”. Likely to be even more contentious, shale gas fracking would be banned outright, so would offshore drilling, along with the export and import of fossil fuel. A very big shift.
On the transport side, there’s over $3.5 trillion earmarked to support EV take-up in all sectors: domestic ($2 trillion), school buses ($440 billion), and haulage ($200 billion), along with new high-speed rail ($607 bn) and measures to increase public transport usage ($300 bn). The plan also adds that there will be a “$150 billion effort to fully decarbonize aviation and maritime shipping and transportation”.
Can it be done?
What to make of it all? Some of the costs may be underestimated. The smart grid power supply proposals include High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) supergrids — put underground. It’s good to see grid upgrades and balancing being taken seriously, but buried HVDC links will be costly: maybe more than the $526 billion budgeted, if that’s done nationwide. Though that’s tiny compared to the $16.3 trillion in public investment Sanders is proposing in all, as part of the aim to “reduce domestic emissions by at least 71% by 2030 and reduce emissions among less industrialized nations by 36% by 2030 – the total equivalent of reducing our domestic emissions by 161%”.
However, it is claimed that “this plan will pay for itself over 15 years”, with the fossil fuel industry paying for its pollution through “litigation, fees, and taxes, and eliminating federal fossil fuel subsidies”. He envisages the expansion of the existing federal Power Marketing Administration system but while revenues for sales of wholesale power from the regional Power Marketing Authorities will be collected from 2023-2035, “after 2035 electricity will be virtually free, aside from operations and maintenance costs”. That takes some believing.
Can it really all be paid for, even with “scaling back military spending on maintaining global oil dependence” and “collecting new income tax revenue from the 20 million new jobs created by the plan”? Sanders says there is no choice. If no action on climate is taken, the US will lose $34.5 trillion in economic activity by the end of the century. Whereas “by taking bold and decisive action, we will save $2.9 trillion over 10 years, $21 trillion over 30 years, and $70.4 trillion over 80 years”.
Will Sanders win?
It’s clearly an ambitious plan, with some major policy shifts proposed that may be hard to achieve in reality. Will Sanders win the Democratic Party nomination on this basis, and then the Presidency? The other Democratic candidates have put forward their own plans, although they are generally less radical – and some are against Green New Deals.
The political situation in the US is volatile but the Sanders vision on this and other issues seems to be quite widely supported by many young people. We may be seeing a generational political change, with support rising for more radical ideas, though that may also open up some fault lines. The strategy underlying most “green plans” around the world is to switch from centralised power production using fossil and nuclear fuels in large complex plants to smaller-scale decentralised power using renewables. That can make local control and even ownership easier, weakening the power of the big energy companies. To that extent it is also a leftish “red” programme, although there are debates about how much local control, as opposed to state control, is viable/needed, and over the role of markets and competition.
There’s an even bigger debate over growth. Some greens think it must stop, some reds do not. And in the short term there is the issue of jobs. Some US trade unions have objected to earlier versions of the Green New Deal, fearing that their job security would be undermined by a rapid energy transition. The Sanders plan stresses the job creation and “just transition” aspects, looking to create 20 million jobs, with $1.3 trillion allocated “to ensure that workers in the fossil fuel and other carbon intensive industries receive strong benefits, a living wage, training, and job placement”. Specifically, it says “we will guarantee five years of a worker’s current salary, housing assistance, job training, health care, pension support, and priority job placement for any displaced worker, as well as early retirement support for those who choose it or can no longer work”.
Changed politics is clealy a central focus of the plan, globally as well as nationally. Sanders proposes to provide $200 billion to the Green Climate Global Fund, rejoin the Paris Agreement, and reassert US leadership in the global fight against climate change. But it’s the national financial commitment that may worry many people. Big changes have big costs.
Leading consultants Wood Mackenzie had earlier said that “the transition to a 100% renewable US power grid will need investment of up to $4.5 trillion over the next 10 to 20 years, require the installation of 900 GW of energy storage as well as building 1,600 GW of new wind and solar capacity”. However, it added that extending the time horizon to 2040-2050 would make it easier, allowing new technologies to develop and reach commercial scale. And having 20% of the power mix coming from existing natural gas-fired generation would reduce renewable energy costs by roughly 20%, and energy storage costs by at least 60%. So the consultancy suggests going slower. WoodMac’s Wade Schauer said: “Our analysis of the data suggests that reaching 50% of supply from intermittent renewables system wide is relatively straightforward in most of the US”. But he added “above 50%, integration challenges accelerate rapidly. Achieving full decarbonization will require long-duration energy storage, and the electric grid will need to roughly double its capability”.
Nevertheless, a comment on Sanders’ 100% power plan from WoodMac’s Dan Finn-Foley was fairly supportive. Finn-Foley was worried about the ability to scale up storage as fast as would be needed, but said the US had achieved rapid technology expansion programmes before, so it wasn’t impossible. Certainly, the US has been good in the past at major federal energy and transport infrastructure programmes – that is what the original 1930s New Deal was partly about.
Although it will cost, getting to near 100% renewable power by around 2030 may therefore be just about credible for a crash programme, especially if more attention is given to cutting demand: it has been falling and could do more. The Sanders plan could have had more on that, beyond its proposed 30% cut in residential energy use, although big energy – and cost – savings in other sectors should follow on from its other programmes.
What about moving on to net zero emissions by 2050 across the board? There are scenarios suggesting that obtaining 100% of all energy from renewables is possible by 2050 in the US and now, in this plan, we have an attempt to map it out in reality. It seems that it may be technically possible and it is certainly environmental desirable — and actually urgent. But both phases, to 2030 for power and to 2050 for all energy, will be economically challenging and may be politically tough to win support for. Arguably worth a try though, given that, if successful, the programme would phase out the economic, social and environmental costs of using fossil fuels, as well as the costs and risks of nuclear power. However, unsurprisingly, Trump sees Green New Deals as very undesirable.