The "war" on fossil fuels by activists and bureaucrats is much like how people describe an LSD trip: exhilarating, completely unreal, and possibly dangerous. This is evident from a simple analysis of what it would take to satisfy today's demand for electricity in the absence of further electrifying transportation, industry, residences, and everything else.
Current domestic demand is 4 billion megawatt hours (MWh, the consumption of 1,000 watts of power for one hour), or 6.6 million MWh per day. Our generating capacity consists of 38% gas-fired, 22% coal-fired, 19% nuclear, 9.2% wind, 6.3% hydropower, 2.8% solar, and 1.7% other. We would need, therefore, to replace 2.4 billion MWh (gas and coal) with wind or solar.
A typical wind turbine generates two megawatts and occupies nearly two acres, or about one megawatt per acre. Solar is similar at one and one-third megawatt per acre. A megawatt creates 8,750 MWh annually. However, wind and solar are only 40% productive on average (due to calm, clouds, and nights). And wind and solar are both land hogs: Generating 2.4 billion MWh would consume 750,000 acres for either technology. To put that in context, the state of Rhode Island occupies 1 million acres.
We would need about 375,000 new wind turbines (up from 3,000 per year now) at $3 million each, or more than $1 trillion. At $400,000 per acre of solar panels, that cost is about $3 trillion. This doesn't take into account land cost and maintenance or the price escalation for raw materials required for the fabrication of the turbines and solar panels due to increased demand. It also ignores the greenhouse gas emissions from the mining itself.
The killer is backup. With the decommissioning of fossil fuels, the only practical solution for calm, clouds, and nighttime is batteries. But at $151,000 per MWh for utility-scale batteries, the cost to provide only one day (6.6 MwH) of backup is about $1 trillion. The 2021 West Texas wind farm freeze suggests that a reasonable backup capacity is probably four days. And building these batteries would exacerbate raw materials shortages.
Our calculations are for the U.S. alone, and since we account for about 16% of global greenhouse gas emissions and electricity generation is only a quarter of that, the very best case is a 4% reduction in global greenhouse emissions. Meanwhile, China and India have nearly 10 times the number of coal-fired power plants as the U.S. and continue to build while we decommission ours. They will dwarf any emissions reductions we make while growing their economies as we strangle ours with expensive and limited energy.
Moreover, all of this is before the increased demand in power to electrify cars, factories, homes, and businesses further, which in turn will require upgrading the entire electrical grid — trillions of dollars more to upgrade transmission and connection facilities as well as still more wind or solar.
Just a fraction of the money wasted on the current LSD trip would be far better invested in "geoengineering" mitigation of the effects of climate change, which have never proved to be remotely as dire as the prophets of Armageddon have predicted. They might include, for example, projects such as reforestation; the Amazon provides 20% of the world's oxygen while consuming carbon dioxide.
The true insanity, however, is ignoring very real opportunities for small-scale nuclear power. That clean source of energy is on the cusp of a major revolution in availability, cost reduction, and safety, if only we put aside our irrational fears. Our Navy has operated more than 150 nuclear-powered vessels for decades without incident.
Energy policies that would devastate our economy in the pursuit of marginally relevant benefits at monumental cost are truly dangerous to our way of life, global standing, and national security. They should be short-circuited or discharged.
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, is the Glenn Swogger distinguished fellow at the American Council on Science and Health. They were undergraduates together at MIT.