Necessary and Pragmatic: The Shift to Wind Energy by 2030
Wind, now one of the fastest-growing markets in the U.S. economy, has made tremendous strides in recent decades along with other forms of renewable energy such as solar power. With the development of new technology, it is no surprise that wind has become a legitimate competitor in the global community’s energy sector. In 2018, wind energy production prevented 201 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions from entering the atmosphere and was “the largest source of renewable generating capacity in the country,” according to the American Wind Energy Association.
Wind energy is cheap and getting cheaper. The industry has the power to deliver jobs and employs accessible technology that is constantly improving. Making a transition to a wind-dominant energy grid by 2030 is not an outlandish goal, and it pragmatically follows the natural flow of the market. Although it will not be the only source of energy in the future, a majority wind-based energy system is entirely feasible for the U.S. Technology is more advanced than commonly believed, and implementing alternative sources of energy to the fossil fuel ones we use today is completely possible.
The only thing getting in the way of this necessary transformation is a lack of policy advocacy. Wind energy is an investment. However, it is necessary to implement a ten-year transition plan in order to prevent irreversible climate chaos and lead the world in the direction much needed: progressive change. Here is how it will be done.
Climate debt and how to pay for it
The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.) released a report in 2018 concluding that the world had 12 years to immensely reduce greenhouse gas emissions before the effects of climate change would become irreversible. The scientific community disputes this number. As of July 2019, B.B.C. environmental correspondent Matt McGrath places that figure at 18 months. Others, including a science writer at Forbes, have given no specific time budget; however, the point stands that there is very little time to make significant changes.
The timeline for a transition to majority wind is ten years, starting in 2020. This plan follows the most progressive suggestions and pieces of policy from both the I.P.C.C. report and the infamous Green New Deal, and it allows minimal wiggle room for effective implementation. This ten-year plan, admittedly ambitious, is necessary. There is no way to have a booming economy in the midst of a global crisis, which is why this plan must be viewed as an investment. Without this viewpoint, the execution of this transition will fail and the country will suffer greatly.
This plan is largely modeled after the goals of the Green New Deal and the climate plan of former Democratic presidential candidate and current governor of Washington state, Jay Inslee. These are the most complete and comprehensive plans that achieve a non-nuclear renewable energy transition within the aforementioned timeline. Inslee’s plan has the goal of 100 percent carbon-neutral power by 2030, which expands to 100 percent zero-emissions by 2035. This type of policy has already been adopted by many cities and states across America, and having a federal-level goal will only accelerate these smaller plans.
Although Inslee does not specify a preferred renewable energy source, he does not mention nuclear energy once—which is not a bad thing. There is no future with nuclear power plants, because they take too long to build, according to a document released by the office of Green New Deal originator Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
To accompany this transition policy, there must be a carbon tax. There are many forms of economic techniques to mitigate the effects of climate change, the primary two being a carbon tax or a cap and trade system. Cap and trade policies tend to be difficult to comprehend, which makes them less efficient at doing their job: reducing the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere. In fact, these policies have started to mimic carbon tax plans, just under the name “cap and trade” because people do not like the word “tax.” While a cap and trade system has been proven to be somewhat successful, it does not get to the root of the problem: large, rich corporations as the primary polluters, by far. These companies and conglomerates can buy pollutant allowances and subsidies to make up for their emissions, and cap and trade systems do not require any change in the means of production. The sole incentive for lowering carbon emissions is financial. A carbon tax policy addresses this lack of change because it holds big polluters accountable.
One major hiccup with a carbon tax is that it is, incredibly enough, a tax. People and companies do not like taxes. This aversion is a common problem seen by proponents of this policy. However, there are a few things to consider.
First, most of those who would be paying this carbon tax are the energy production companies themselves. Individuals and small businesses will not be the ones paying extra for their carbon emissions. This is important to note because individuals cannot control what sources of energy power their houses use, nor can they control whether or not they can afford an electric vehicle powered by those energy sources.
A common rebuttal is that individuals pay through the increased cost of items. This brings us to the second consideration: taxes bring in revenue, which can then be given to citizens to compensate for a slight price increase of certain items. This money can also be used for clean power and investments. In a way, a carbon tax becomes a positive feedback loop in which the big polluters pay, the individual gets money to afford any increase in goods, and more money is available for investments in infrastructure to optimize this proposed transition.
The starting point of a carbon tax is difficult to pinpoint. In The Climate Casino, famed economist William Nordhaus writes that a carbon tax is “firmly based in economic theory and history.” He demonstrates the need for financial involvement, using the Yale D.I.C.E. model to show that even with full participation and progressive policy from all parts of the globe, it will be incredibly difficult to stay below a global temperature increase of two degrees Celsius.
According to Nordhaus and several of his models published in 2013, the price of carbon should have started at $25 per metric ton of carbon dioxide in 2015 and increased about five percent per year. He estimates that it should then reach $93 per metric ton of carbon dioxide to keep below a two-and-a-half-degree Celsius increase above pre-industrial levels, commonly referring to the global average temperature between 1850 and 1900. Based on this trajectory, Nordhaus stipulates that in 2015, the United States would have made $147 billion in 2005 dollars (over $195 billion in today’s dollars) from the revenue of a $25 tax per metric ton of carbon dioxide. Carbon taxes have been shown to raise money and are a simple solution to getting big polluters to reduce their emissions. A carbon tax would be the best option to accompany a wind transition because it is the fastest and simplest way to get to the root of the problem and assist people in the economy today.
Wind energy has been on the rise longer than just the past few years. Environmental affairs lawyer and activist James Gustave Speth, in his book Red Sky At Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment, tells his reader that from 1990 to 1998, when coal was at a standstill and oil and natural gas use was rising at two percent, wind energy use was soaring at 22 percent. Moreover, at the time of its publication, Germany was supplying 3.5 percent of its energy with wind. As of March 2019, wind is responsible for almost 50 of the 65 percent of German power coming from renewable sources.
The current job market loves renewable energy. Especially, wind and solar. As of 2018, the renewable energy sector had 777,000 employees. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the number of wind turbine technicians to grow 57 percent from the current level, which is remarkably fast. It is important to note, however, that when it comes to renewable energy jobs, it goes far beyond just the technicians who install and maintain the graceful machines. A majority of jobs that fall under clean energy are specialized in energy efficiency, currently employing 2.2 million. Energy storage and research employs 150,000 individuals, and there are even more working towards improving and innovating the technology. Considering these numbers are just under current market trends, the possibilities under strong, federal incentives can reach further than one can imagine.
Reliability and Batteries
Of course, no energy system is 100 percent reliable. That is just a fact. If today’s current energy system were 100 percent reliable, then there would be no blackouts and no need for backup generators. Technology for reliability and battery storage is more advanced than most people tend to see or believe. The problem comes from a lack of support, both political and financial, to implement the necessary infrastructure that would make a transition to wind and other non-nuclear renewables possible.
Vox journalist David Roberts reports that “with cheap-enough storage, we can add a ton of [renewable energy] to the grid and absorb just about any fluctuations.” Roberts makes clear that the market is already on the way to making renewable energy battery storage possible under a $150 per kilowatt-hour, 95 percent reliability target. The International Renewable Energy Agency predicts that lithium-ion batteries are on track to drop to $145 per kilowatt-hour (“depending on battery chemistry”). Another type of battery, flow batteries, could come down as low as $108 per kilowatt-hour. Roberts also discusses many different start-up companies dedicated to increasing the efficiency of battery storage. “Providing all of US power, all day every day, will require over-sizing renewables and installing an enormous amount of storage, but if they get cheap enough, that’s what we’ll do.”
A large concern people have with the construction of wind turbines is the interference with wildlife, most significantly birds and migratory animals. This concern is reasonable; there are plenty of birds that are killed by wind turbines. However, they are not as dangerous to the bird population as one may think. The highest of estimates say that wind turbines are responsible for the deaths of about 328,000 birds in the continental United States. Plenty of estimates, however, say wind turbines kill around 40,000 birds on average, which is the commonly accepted amount used in comparisons. Compared to previous estimates that ranged from 10,000 to almost 600,000, these estimates are much more reliable and accurate. To clarify, these deaths are numerous and there should be a consideration as to where to install wind turbines with specific attention to migration patterns. However, wind turbines are not the only instance of man-made structure killing wildlife.
Truth be told, everything man-made is capable of killing wildlife. Julia Layton explores this topic and shows that birds are harmed on a much larger scale by plenty of other objects. Lighted communication towers are estimated to kill about 40 to 50 million globally per year, power lines 174 million, and feral and domestic cats “hundreds of millions," according to the American Wind Energy Association. The Smithsonian estimates through extrapolation that windows and skyscrapers kill between 365 million and one billion birds annually in the United States alone. These are concerning statistics and demonstrate how much harm humans inflict on the natural world.
When comparing these numbers with current trends, wind will actually help save wildlife. Should there be no transition, birds face a much more dangerous future under the regime of fossil fuels and climate change. Nuclear power plants were estimated to have killed 460,000 birds in 2009 and fossil fuel power plants about 24 million the same year. Moreover, oil pits kill up to 1 million birds a year, and the impact of particulate matter released into the air from the burning of fossil fuels is literally impossible to measure. This habitat degradation displaces and kills not just birds but all living creatures.
The data is clear that fossil fuel extraction and waste pose a far larger threat to wildlife than wind turbines do. Of course, migration and habitat are considered in turbine placement, but the amount of damage they do is remarkably small when considering the entirety of harm from man-made structures and fossil fuels.
Transportation is an important concern that must be addressed with a preface. This transition plan does not affect cars or the transportation sector directly. As stated previously, individuals will not pay a carbon tax, nor will a carbon tax impact their transportation. With this proposed policy, there is a more exclusive focus on transitioning from fossil fuels to wind energy. However, it is believed that with this policy, there will be a natural movement to cleaner forms of transportation in the economy. That supposition is fueled by the encouragement of new technologies through federal funding and tax incentives for electrification. With the expansion of these technologies, it is extremely likely that the costs of electric vehicles will drop drastically to follow the demand of the market, and electric vehicles will be accessible to communities that will largely benefit from them.
Beyond this change in the market, there is a change in the conversation regarding climate change as a whole. Wind energy is an investment and needs to be viewed as such. Without this viewpoint, the transition is impossible. If it is done on the federal level, it is extremely likely that smaller governments will take up this mindset and will adjust their local climate plans as well. One of the main ways they can do so is via (public) transportation.
Another reason, beyond the complexity of arranging an all-encompassing plan, is the rural community. Because rural communities tend to lack access to new technologies or effective public transportation, this plan recognizes the struggles and complications these communities may face should they be forced to get rid of their gas or fossil fuel-based vehicles. Even with the urgency of climate change, it is unfair to these groups to enforce such a rule. The market should move, eventually, to a point where rural community members can afford to make investments in electrification and make these choices on their own accord. Rural communities make up a small percentage of the United States population, but it is essential to consider these communities in major policy reform in order to receive support for such a vital plan.
It is no secret that climate change has been a large expense to the U.S. economy due to the increase in intense hurricanes, wildfires, and cold fronts. Combined, these disasters cost an estimated $240 billion per year for the past decade (almost $2.5 trillion total) and will most likely increase to $360 billion per year for the upcoming decade (a grand total of $6 trillion just for the United States). This money could be spent on healthcare or investment in renewable energy, but instead we have been watching it burn (almost literally) and will continue to do so until a change is made. Transitioning to a majority wind-based energy system is expensive; however, it is much more expensive to pay for increased protection from natural disasters.
Tackling climate change means completely altering the world and how it works. Modern society was built on burning oil and coal for electricity. Since climate change’s introduction into the politics of the Western world in the 1980s, inaction has turned what could have been a slow and calm transition into a race against death—with ecosystems, the economy, and human health requiring sacrifice to beat it. Truth be told, this type of policy is the only option that is still somewhat feasible and takes scientific suggestions into account as much as possible. Anything slower and death will win for a majority of humans and life as we know it. It sounds dramatic; however, it is the truth. Today, action must make up and sacrifices, specifically to the economy, must be made in order to account for the lack of action for 40 years. To most scientists, there are only 11 years to prevent irreversible change. To other scientists, there are fewer. There is no choice but profound and dramatic action.
Larissa Breit-Nicholson is a third-year Political Science major in the School of Public Affairs. She is a guest writer for the Agora.
Image courtesy Teerasak Anantanon, Creative Commons