Efforts to reduce carbon emissions 80% by 2050 are nothing but hot air
In their zeal to address climate change, New York and 19 other states, plus the District of Columbia, have established long-term greenhouse gas reduction mandates. Most of them, including New York's and California's, require 80% reductions below 2005 emissions levels by 2050. But these so-called “80x50” mandates are much more than requirements to supply consumers with electricity from renewable resources like wind and solar generation.
In fact, they will require virtually complete electrification of these states’ economies to eliminate almost all fossil fuel consumption, not just the small percentage of fossil fuels devoted to generating electricity. The costs to consumers and taxpayers will be trillions of dollars, with virtually no benefits. Indeed, as I show in a recent report for the Manhattan Institute, the numbers behind these 80-by-50 mandates just don’t add up.
Consider New York. In 2009, Gov. Andrew Cuomo established the state’s mandate by executive order. In 2016, it was folded into New York’s comprehensive Clean Energy Standard, which also established interim goals for renewable generation by 2030, including development of 2,400 megawatts of offshore wind generation and more than 6,000 megawatts of solar photovoltaic generation. The state is also requiring huge investments in energy efficiency in buildings by 2030 to save the equivalent of the electricity generated by 10 Indian Point nuclear plants.
But electricity accounts for only about one-fourth of the energy New Yorkers use. The 80-by-50 scheme will require electrifying nearly all transportation, which accounts for nearly 40% of the state’s energy consumption. Ten million cars and hundreds of thousands of trucks will have to be replaced. Millions of oil- and gas-burning furnaces and water heaters will need to be replaced with electric ones. Manufacturers that burn oil and natural gas will have to switch to electricity.
Replacing all of that fossil-fuel consumption with electricity from low-emission sources will require more renewable generation. A lot more. Even in the best-case scenario for energy efficiency, to achieve 80 by 50, New York would need to build at least 100,000 megawatts of offshore wind generation covering 6,000 square miles, an area larger than Connecticut.
America’s only operating offshore wind facility is a five-turbine, 30-megawatt facility off the Rhode Island coast. The first offshore wind facility proposed for New York, the 90-megawatt South Fork project, near Montauk, is not scheduled to be in service until 2022 at the earliest. It faces intense opposition from local fishermen and fishmongers, who also have filed a federal lawsuit to block the development of another proposed offshore wind project that could be built atop some of the best scallop and squid fisheries on the Eastern Seaboard.
Achieving the 80 by 50 target with onshore wind would require erecting 150,000 megawatts of wind turbines, covering some 20,000 square miles of the state. But according to the New York Department of Public Service, the state only has enough suitable land for 15,000 megawatts of wind turbines, one-tenth of what would be needed.
Achieving the mandate with solar power would require installing some 300,000 megawatts, or 9,000 every year between now and 2050. In 2016, just over 11,000 megawatts of solar PV was installed in the entire U.S., much of it solely because the 30% federal investment tax credit.
All of that intermittent wind and solar generation would require back-up storage, primarily batteries. Just to provide 8 hours of back-up power on a cloudy, windless day would require at least 200,000 megawatts of battery storage. That’s equivalent to 57 million Tesla Powerwall units, or seven in each and every home and apartment in the state.
And if all of that wind and solar generation could somehow be built, New Yorkers could easily find themselves paying over $1 trillion (that’s not a misprint) more for their electricity between now and 2050, or an additional $30 billion every year. The necessary battery storage would add $150 billion to the price tag, even if current storage costs drop by half. New high-voltage transmission lines to deliver far-flung wind and solar power, whether from upstate or offshore, would cost still more billions of dollars.
Any cost-benefit study must, by definition, look at both costs and benefits. But New York’s 80-by-50 mandate, whether by itself or combined with all of the other states’ greenhouse gas mandates, will have no measurable impacts on world climate. Nor will similar mandates in other states. No measurable climate impacts means no actual benefits.
Environmental activists love long-term mandates like 80 by 50. They can be imposed by ambitious, math-challenged politicians with little pushback from voters. But by imposing staggering costs on residents and businesses with no offsetting benefits, such mandates are destructive exercises in symbolic environmentalism and political grandstanding.
Jonathan Lesser is the president of Continental Economics and the author of the forthcoming report “New York’s Clean Energy Programs: The High Cost of Symbolic Environmentalism,” published by the Manhattan Institute.