By Angela Yarbrough
Yarbrough describes herself as “an active citizen and volunteer.” She lives in Roanoke.
Mr. Bernstein of the National Mining Association (“Don’t overlook the challenges of integrating wind and solar power,” Aug. 21 commentary) does well in his recent commentary to remind us not to overlook the challenges of transitioning to renewable energy. There are numerous obstacles on the road to reducing our carbon emissions to safe levels, and we ignore them at our peril. He is right; simplistic thinking (such as focusing on the falling costs of wind and solar generation while ignoring the costs of storage and transmission) won’t get us there; what will is meeting these challenges with ingenuity and determination, qualities for which, fortunately, our country is well-known.
Unfortunately, Bernstein misrepresents the situation in important ways. For one, he gives the impression that the Green New Deal would require the U.S. to produce 100% of its electricity from wind and solar. But the GND does not call for even 100% renewable energy, let alone 100% wind and solar. Here is exactly what it does call for: By 2035, “all electricity consumed in America must be generated by renewable sources, including solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, sustainable biomass, and renewable natural gas, as well as clean sources such as nuclear and remaining fossil fuel with carbon capture.” Currently, nuclear and hydro power plants produce 26% of electricity generated in the U.S. They would continue to be part of the picture under the Green New Deal, with an increase in all of the above sources and technologies to get us to zero carbon electricity production.
The Wood Mackenzie report, from which Bernstein pulls his $4.5 trillion price tag, in the end recommends just this approach to lower that figure: aim for 100% zero carbon, not 100% renewable. It also suggests a timeline of 2040 or 2050, noting that “with time, human ingenuity and technology advancements, [integrating renewable energy] may end up costing much less.” As our lawmakers hammer out the details of a smart, effective climate policy, they should consider these factors.
Although integrating wind and solar to the extent necessary will certainly be significantly less expensive than Bernstein indicates, the total cost of doing our part to stop climate change likely will be in the trillions, because it will include transforming our transportation, agriculture, and other sectors in addition to the power grid. Since humans are notoriously bad at comprehending such large numbers, let’s take that $4.5 trillion as an example, and try to get a better grasp on it.
The authors of the report note that $4.5 trillion is “nearly as much as what the country has spent, since 2001, on the war on terror. From a budgetary perspective, the cost is staggering at “$35,000 per household – nearly $2,000 per year if assuming a 20-year plan.” If, as Bernstein suggests, that cost ends up on Americans’ electric bills, that’s $167 a month few of us could afford to pay.
But wait, who is proposing that lower and middle class Americans foot the bill for modernizing our power grid? And while we were focusing on the specter of sky-rocketing electric bills, did we miss the fact that, over the past 18 years, our country spent more than $4.5 trillion fighting terrorism? Faced with a threat to our peace and security, America rose to meet the challenge, and found a way to pay for it, without placing an impossible burden on the backs of working families.
Or consider another war, where there is perhaps more agreement on the wisdom, courage, and necessity of our actions as a nation. According to the Congressional Research Service, World War II cost the U.S. $4.1 trillion in today’s dollars. Of course, the financial cost of defeating fascism did not fall evenly onto every American. Struggling families were not billed thousands of dollars a year for tanks and bombs. Instead, the federal government raised taxes on those making (in today’s dollars) more than $2.8 million a year. In 1944 and 1945, the marginal tax rate on these wealthy families was 94%, the highest in history.
As we recognize the growing threat of climate change, as the early effects already begin to wreak devastation in the form of record-strength hurricanes, deadly heat waves, and catastrophic wildfires, will our country remain idle, daunted by the costs, and let the destruction happen? Or will we summon the moral courage and political will, as we have in the past, to do what it takes to protect ourselves, our children, our grandchildren, and the world?