Biden’s ‘100% Clean Energy Economy’ Will Require Huge Trade-Offs
One of the Biden administration’s key pledges is to have a “100 percent clean energy economy” and reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. A study released by Princeton researchers last week analyzed several scenarios detailing the herculean efforts required to achieve that goal.
A prominent takeaway is the massive amount of land it would take to reimagine energy production and distribution nationally, including figuring out where to site a multitude of new solar arrays and wind turbines and constructing thousands of miles of transmission lines. “The current power grid took 150 years to build,” one of the study researchers said. “Now, to get to net-zero emissions by 2050, we have to build that amount of transmission again in the next 15 years and then build that much more again in the 15 years after that. It’s a huge amount of change.”
The study underscores the environmental tradeoffs that are not always obvious in campaign promises about green energy. For one thing, achieving President-elect Joe Biden’s vision would mean choosing between being beholden to China for most of the minerals necessary to make technologies like solar panels and rechargeable batteries or mining the raw materials ourselves. For another, huge photovoltaic installations and wind farms have direct impacts that, while different from those made by fossil fuel development, have their own environmental consequences. The public appetite for such infrastructure can change dramatically when the calculus changes from the abstract “renewables for the nation” to the tangible “wind turbines or solar farms in view of my backyard.”
Policy makers should be upfront about these costs of transitioning from oil and gas to modern renewables, both for the country and individual American households.
Solar and wind energy may be renewable, but manufacturing a solar panel or wind turbine requires resources just as finite as those needed to operate a smokestack. “Minerals are the fundamental building blocks for any modern technology, but they don’t just appear out of thin air,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R–Alaska), noting that renewables rely on extracting minerals from the earth. “Batteries don’t work without lithium, graphite, cobalt and nickel; solar panels require silver gallium, indium, tellurium; and wind turbines are not just built from steel, but also aluminum, copper, and rare earth elements.” She has introduced legislation aimed at boosting domestic mining, fearing reliance on a handful of nations (mainly China) for supply of such minerals. The Department of Defense has also recently awarded several grants and contracts aimed at securing mineral supplies at home.
Biden’s climate plan describes how he wants to hold China accountable for its carbon emissions. But China dominates the global supply of minerals critical to making many electronics after years of buying up mining rights and stakes in Africa, South America, and elsewhere. It also owns most of the capacity and prowess to process them. For instance, the U.S. relies on China for 80 percent of rare earths—17 elements used in making electronics from smartphones to electricity grid storage infrastructure. Only one rare earths mine operates in the U.S., and what it extracts is sent to be processed in China, which slapped a 25 percent tariff on those imports during trade disputes with the Trump administration.
Trade is by definition mutually beneficial, but it’s not
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