Why the Debate on the Energy Transition Must Fundamentally Change

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One aspect of the narrative around the “energy transition” that seldom receives much attention is the dollar cost of trying to limit predicted global warming over the rest of this century to 1.5 degrees centigrade. It doesn’t get a lot of attention in part because the numbers are so enormous that an accurate estimate is incredibly difficult to attain.

But the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), an intergovernmental agency whose mission is to support governments in efforts to meet the goals of the transition, recently tried, and came up with a number that far exceeds previous estimates. IRENA said that the total global cost would come to $131 trillion, an increase over a previous estimate of $98 trillion (see the video recently reported at The Wall Street Journal). For context, the world’s entire gross domestic product for 2021 amounted to $85 trillion.

Oh. So, where is all that money that doesn’t actually exist today going to come from? That’s the burning question that no one in the climate alarm movement really wants to discuss. The answer is obvious: That money will have to be printed, and that means inflation and that in turn means higher costs for energy and everything else for everyone.

Towards the end of that video, Francisco La Camera, the Director General of IRENA, states that “the market is already driving us to a new energy system and it will be dominated by renewables. So, the direction of travel is clear.” But is it really?

Where natural gas is concerned, that direction of travel really does not seem to be so clear at all. Natural gas is such an obvious choice for responsible energy usage that even the EU appears likely to adopt a policy that will classify it as “green” for investment purposes. Germany has announced that, in the wake of Russia’s war on Ukraine and the energy crisis Europe has suffered this winter because it was too reliant on wind power and Russian natural gas, it will re-evaluate its entire approach to energy policy. The German government also said it will quickly commission the building of not one, but two facilities to handle the import of liquefied natural gas.

At the same time, though, we still have activists in the climate alarm movement pouring negative misinformation about natural gas into the public space in efforts to disallow its use. Sadly, the White House and U.S. Energy Department often join in those efforts in its feverish promotion of its “Green New Deal.”

One good recent example of this comes in the form of a new study, published in Environmental Science & Technology, which claims to demonstrate that leaks from natural gas stoves in U.S. homes create a major climate impact. The study estimates that these leaks have a climate impact “equivalent to the carbon dioxide emissions from about 500,000 gas-powered cars.”

But does the study really show that? Daniel Tormey, president and technical director at Catalyst Environmental Solutions Corp. in California, doesn’t think so. “If the paper were to draw health concerns from the study results, that would be incorrect. The experimental method is to make a Mylar tent around the stove area to trap and concentrate the emissions, and then measure the concentration,” he said in response to questions from The Center Square. “While this is a novel and interesting method of trying to estimate greenhouse gas emissions, it makes the study results useless for evaluating health based exposures. No one that I know of has a mylar tent over their stove to make sure no vapors escape. Again, the paper doesn’t make health claims for the results, but the press releases do, which is incorrect based on the methods used for the study.”

When one looks into the authors of the study, one finds that the lead author, Eric Lebel, is affiliated with PSE Healthy Energy, a well-known anti-fossil fuel activist group. Another, Robert Jackson, has a long history while at Duke University of publishing questionable studies about natural gas in the U.S. Interestingly, Lebel is a senior scientist at PSEHE, a group founded by notorious anti-natural gas researcher Anthony Ingraffea. Go figure.

So, we have a study created by authors with a pre-set agenda that is based on conditions that do not exist in the real world. It has attracted a great deal of attention, and is being used by activists to try to raise the costs of natural gas appliances dramatically, and to try to convince policymakers to have them banned altogether.

Are studies such as this really a valid basis for helping policymakers make decisions on how to print and spend $131 trillion in the next 20-30 years?

Of course, there is another option, also pushed by a growing segment of the global climate alarm movement, exemplified by this piece published in November at Illuminem. In this piece, the author, Erin Remblance, argues that “We will not stay below 2°C of warming while pursuing economic growth — yet barely anyone talks about it.”

Echoing a study released last summer by researchers at the University of Leeds in England, Ms. Remblance proposes that the best way to fight future temperature growth is to instead destroy economic growth, or, as she puts it, move to what she calls a “degrowth economy.”

“What’s more,” she continues, “GDP has never been and can’t be decoupled from material footprint, including energy. This means we cannot roll out renewable energy fast enough to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement – to keep warming below 2°C – if we continue growing our economy.” Thus, the solution in this line of thought is to reduce carbon emissions by eliminating economic growth, and in fact implementing policies that will shrink the economy.

The world has seen “degrowth economies” many times before. In the U.S., we saw one during the Great Depression, and despite Ms. Remblance’s assurances that her solution would allow for “shorter working weeks” (or no work week at all for the millions who would inevitably join the ranks of the unemployed) that would allow more time for people to engage in the pursuit of happiness, people standing in soup lines really weren’t all that happy at all. More recently, we saw what 70 years of a “degrowth economy” did for the Soviet Union: It’s a big part of why the Soviet Union ceased to exist more than 30 years ago.

At one point, the author notes that “It’s probably tempting to define a degrowth economy as socialism…”. Well yes, yes it is.

At the end of the day, though, these competing ideas – whether to spend many trillions on often-vain efforts to use new technologies to cut carbon or simply do it by destroying economic growth – form the very basis for the current debate around the “energy transition.” It is valid to argue that the rapid rise in costs for all forms of energy we have seen over the last year and the energy crisis facing Europe today provide us with a small preview of what these competing “solutions” will inevitably bring to all of our daily lives in the decades to come.

Indeed, in an article published by Foreign Policy magazine last September, noted climate alarm advocate Jason Bordoff, director of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, admits that such crises will inevitably become a way of life globally due to the impacts of this energy transition.

Here’s an illustrative excerpt from that piece:

…climate policy itself is pushing up European energy prices. Europe has an allowance trading system to put a price on carbon. Recent EU carbon allowance prices have hit record levels, driven by European reforms to reduce the number of permits, and are projected to continue rising for the rest of the year. Higher carbon permit prices pushed up natural gas prices by preventing gas-to-coal switching that would otherwise have occurred. As natural gas prices recently surged, those higher gas prices have incentivized switching to coal, notwithstanding the carbon price. And since coal is more carbon intensive and thus requires more carbon permits, the price of allowances rises as a result, creating a cycle that pushes up electricity prices…

The challenges in anticipating how the transition will unfold extend far beyond Europe. California, for example, is having trouble keeping the lights on as it rapidly scales the use of intermittent solar and wind power. It recently requested an emergency order from the U.S. federal government to maintain system reliability by, among other actions, allowing the state to require certain fossil fuel plants scheduled to retire to stay online and by loosening pollution restrictions. California is also proposing to build several temporary natural gas plants to avoid blackouts, even as the state shuts down the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, which produces more zero-carbon electricity than all the state’s wind turbines combined.

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The reality of this attempted energy transition from energy sources with very high energy density, like oil, natural gas, coal and nuclear, to sources with very low energy density like wind and solar, is that it defies both the laws of physics and thermodynamics. This sort of transition from high density to low density power sources in fact has never been achieved in the course of human history. Noted environmentalist Micheal Shellenberger has written extensively on this topic. So has Copenhagen Consensus Center President Bjorn Lomborg.

At some point, we must hope that the global elites making all of these decisions on behalf of everyone will step back, take a collective breath and consider whether the debate they are having is really the one that needs to be had where energy is concerned. Because the one they are having isn’t solving anything at the moment.

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