By agreeing to support a massive bill to address climate change, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) seems to have fallen into the same Alice in Wonderland-like rabbit hole occupied by the likes of Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY). In this fantasyland, headlines and virtue signaling are the only objectives. Reality is not allowed to intrude. Facts are irrelevant. Mankind's unquenchable thirst for energy to achieve a higher standard of living does not exist. Nor does the aggressive push we need on nuclear energy, despite its criticality.
Considerations of global geopolitics, where energy availability is existential in nature, are also conspicuously absent. Consider, for example, how the conflict in Ukraine has laid bare the worldwide dependence on a robust supply of fossil fuels, which are as essential to national security as military might, economic power, and geography. The dependence on Russian gas and oil by much of Europe is a clear object lesson. Moreover, not only do hydrocarbons provide energy directly, but they are also a component of many of the everyday products on which we depend, including clothes, mobile phones, computers, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.
The new legislation is, of course, the ludicrously named "Inflation Reduction Act of 2022," in spite of a study by economists at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School released on July 29, which concluded, "The impact on inflation is statistically indistinguishable from zero." It contains more subsidies for EVs and renewable energy sources, but only cosmetic and "future" provisions for nuclear and energy storage technologies.
While the U.S. is strangling itself attempting to wean itself from hydrocarbons, green technologies have been oversold and their negative impacts underappreciated. The facts speak for themselves. First, consider the global reality. The top sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are China (28%), the United States (14%), the EU (10%), India (7%), and Russia (5%). Emissions from China, India, and Russia are growing, while those from the U.S. and EU are declining in absolute terms.
Using coal-fired power plants as the bellwether indicator of GHGs, the U.S. operates 240, while China has 1,110 and India 285. We are decommissioning plants while China and India are building them. Regardless of their public pronouncements, they are intent on growing their economies and exploiting the artificial energy shackles the U.S. and other nations have placed on themselves. Believing otherwise is simply delusional.
Our leaders claim there is climate-change salvation in electric vehicles (EVs) – heavily subsidized, of course. Yet again, actual data seem not to matter. Transportation comprises only 14% of global GHGs, including commercial vehicles, according to our own EPA. And the true net GHG reduction possible from EVs is very limited. An EV battery for a small sedan is about 80-100KwH, the production of which produces about 5-15 tons of CO2. A typical gasoline equivalent will emit 4-5 tons of CO2 per year. Therefore, the CO2 "payback time" (the length of time to achieve a net reduction in emissions) is 2-4 years.
However, for longer-range batteries that power trucks, loaded SUVs, and luxury sedans, batteries of 150-200KwH or more will be needed. Emissions from production will increase linearly toward 30 tons of CO2. However, larger gasoline-powered cars and trucks have leveraged technology, producing only 5-7 tons of CO2 per year, meaning the EV payback time could rise to 4-6 years, approaching the life of lithium-ion batteries. And this assumes that electricity for charging is GHG-free. The bottom line is that all the subsidies will achieve is to make a minimal impact on U.S. transportation-only emissions, about 2% of global GHGs.
To make matters worse, there are extensive data on the array of minerals and metals that would be required. For example, a single small sedan EV battery requires on average the mining of about 250 tons of various ores; and the average consumption of 342,200 BTU per ton of metals mined translates to 85.5 million BTU of energy expended per battery. This is the equivalent of 1.5 average person's entire energy use in a year. Bigger batteries will mean even more energy consumption in manufacturing. Selling millions of EVs each year is like adding millions of energy consumers just to mine the minerals for the battery. But none of this is of any concern to Sens. Schumer, Manchin et al. Or to governors like California's Gavin Newsom, for whom transition to EVs has been a virtue-signaling bonanza.
And never mind the financial cost, land use issues, and the pollution (i.e., toxic substances and radioactive residues) from acquiring these materials, all of which are considerable. To boot, many of the minerals and metals are primarily found in unfriendly or unreliable locations like Russia, China, Mongolia, and the Republic of the Congo.
The aversion to fossil fuels also logically calls for battery backup for renewable energy, assuming we want a reliable power grid. The typical 100KwH EV battery costs $13,500. Backing up a single wind turbine for four days of calm requires the equivalent of 250 EV batteries – therefore, costing around $3.5 million per wind turbine, which more than doubles the cost of each turbine. Two winters ago, when the West Texas wind farms were frozen for that duration, the 11,000 wind turbines would have needed battery backup costing upwards of $30 billion, even allowing for scale efficiencies.
Finally, there is the cost in resources to build each wind farm and solar facility. According to physicist and engineer Mark Mills, a modest 100Mw wind farm would need 30,000 tons of iron ore, 50,000 tons of concrete, and 900 tons of nonrecyclable plastics for the huge blades. Solar is even less resource efficient. And once again, that ignores the cost, the extensive land use, and the pollution generated from mining, manufacturing, siting, operating, and decommissioning and disposing of old units.
What's needed is a crash program to produce and commission nuclear plants, similar to WWII's Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb and the Trump Administration's Operation Warp Speed to produce COVID vaccines. But there is no appetite in Washington for such genuine solutions.
The net effect of the legislation would be to promote uneconomic non-solutions to climate change. Manchin and Schumer claim that by 2030 the climate legislation will reduce GHGs by 40%. There's an old saying that politics is the art of the possible. This $369 billion boondoggle proves that sometimes it's only a quixotic quest for the impossible.
Andrew I. Fillat spent his career in technology venture capital and information technology companies. He is also the co-inventor of relational databases. Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, was a Research Associate at NIH and a Consulting Professor at Stanford University's Institute for International Studies. They were undergraduates together at M.I.T.