The Physical Impossibilities of the Green New Deal

cost of renewables - Tom ShepstoneTom Shepstone
Natural Gas NOW


Testimony given in Congress the other day addressed the impossible expectations of new technology behind the Green New Deal. It won’t work; it can’t work.

Mark Mills is a Faculty Fellow at the McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University. He’s also a Senior Fellow with the Manhattan Institute and recently testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Energy (part of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee). He has written an article for Forbes summarizing his testimony that may be found here, but his full testimony is worth reading. It destroys the fundamental premise of the Green New Deal; that it can be done at all.

Green New Deal

The impossible Green New Deal – no amount of running, subsidies or dreaming of making the impossible possible will allow it to catch up with the physics.

You can watch the Mills testimony here starting 41:50, but the main points that caught my attention are as follows (emphasis added):

As is well known by this Committee, roughly 85% of global energy comes from oil, coal and natural gas. Traditional metrics are inadequate to visualize the magnitude of hydrocarbons our digitally infused industrial society requires. But, for context on the scale challenge, consider that if global hydrocarbons were all produced as oil and stacked up in a row of barrels, that row would stretch from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles, and would grow in height by a Washington monument every single week.

That’s today’s state of affairs, and that challenge is expanding. When, not if, the world’s poorest four billion people increase their energy use to a mere 15% of the per capita level of developed economies, global energy use will rise by an amount equal to adding an entire U.S.A.’s worth of demand. Meanwhile, in the developed nations, we can illuminate the scale challenge looking at just two fast-growing sectors: every $1 billion of commercial airlines put into service leads to some $2 billion in aviation fuel consumed over one decade. Similarly, every $1 billion spent building data-centers leads to $2 billion in electricity use over a decade. The world is buying both at a rate north of $50 billion a year.

We already know how challenging it is to find any means, never mind practical ones, for making “transformational” changes at these scales. Over the past two decades, the world has spent more than $2 trillion on non-hydrocarbon energy alternatives; meanwhile hydrocarbon use has risen nearly 1.5-fold and hydrocarbon’s share of global energy supply has decreased by only a few percentage points.

These realities are what likely motivated Bill Gates – who has given serious thought and significant capital to energy innovation — to recently state that “there is no [energy] substitute for how the industrial economy runs today.”

The scale challenge commonly elicits the proposition that a solution can be found by embracing the spirit of the Apollo program: “If we can put a man on the moon, surely we can [and we can fill in the blank with any aspirational goal].” This popular rhetorical analogy is in fact a profound category error. Transforming the energy economy is not like putting a dozen people on the moon a handful of times. It is like putting all of humanity on the moon —permanently. To do the latter would require science and engineering that doesn’t exist today.

But in the decades since Apollo, we’ve seen another, far bigger engineering revolution that has also inspired a similar trope. This is of course the computing-communications revolution – often short-formed as simply, Moore’s Law.

It has become a cliché to observe that smartphones are not just far cheaper but also far more powerful than a room-sized IBM mainframe from 30 years ago. Invoking the Moore’s Law analogy, the International Monetary Fund, to name only one example, asserts in it’s “Riding the Energy Transition” manifesto: “Smartphone substitution seemed no more imminent in the early 2000s than large-scale energy substitution seems today.”

But this analogy is also based on a category error. A similar transformation in how energy is produced or stored isn’t just unlikely, it can’t happen with the physics we know today. In the world of people, cars, planes, and large-scale industrial systems, increasing speed or carrying capacity causes hardware to expand, not shrink. The energy needed to move a ton of people, heat a ton of steel or silicon, or grow a ton of food is determined by properties of nature whose boundaries are set by laws of gravity, inertia, friction, mass, and thermodynamics.

In order to illustrate how far from reality this kind of thinking is, consider that if combustion engines, for example, could achieve Moore’s Law scaling, a car engine would generate a thousand-fold more horsepower and shrink to the size of an ant. With such an engine, a car could actually fly, very fast.

Or, if photovoltaics scaled that way, a single ant-sized solar array would power an entire office building. Similarly, if batteries scaled like computing, a battery the size of a book, costing less than a dime, could power an A380 to Asia.

But, only in comic books, does the physics of energy production work like that. In our universe, power scales the other way. The challenge in storing and processing information using the smallest possible amount of energy is distinct from the challenge of producing energy, or moving or reshaping physical objects. The two domains entail different laws of physics.

Of course wind turbines, solar cells, and batteries will yet see useful improvements in cost and performance; so too will drilling rigs and combustion engines. And of course Silicon Valley information technology will bring important, even dramatic efficiency gains in the production and management of energy and physical goods. But the outcomes won’t be as miraculous as the invention of the integrated circuit, nor the discovery of petroleum or nuclear fission.

The point of all this is [that] an “out-of-the-box” energy revolution can only come from discovering new “transformational” science, new phenomenologies that then lead, eventually, to radically new technologies. That can only come from basic research. It won’t come from deploying R&D funds to improve – or subsidize — yesterdays’ technologies. The Internet didn’t emerge from improving the rotary phone, nor the transistor from subsidizing vacuum tubes, nor the automobile from subsidizing railroads. Policies in pursuit of an energy revolution require a focus entirely on basic scientific research.

To be blunt: there is simply no possibility that more federal funding for wind turbines, silicon solar cells or lithium batteries will lead to a “disruptive” 10-fold gain. All those technologies are approaching physics limits, just as aviation engines have. And while one cannot, by definition, predict what kind of entirely new phenomenologies have yet to be discovered, we do know from history that such discoveries do happen. But history also shows that they rarely if ever emerge from directed goal-specific funding.

The Green New Deal, in other words, is impossible as structured. That isn’t to say there won’t be great new technological innovations that change everything, but those aren’t going to happen as a result of massive subsidization of solar and wind energy. No amount of subsidies or corporatism, which is what the Green New Deal is really all about, are going to change the physics. And, there’s this:

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15 thoughts on “The Physical Impossibilities of the Green New Deal

  1. Yes, we need great, new technological innovations ..
    They are coming and being researched and innovated and produced now all over the world ..

    More will be made public soon to radically change the face of energy..

    • Yet conventional fuels are still needed within the supply chain to produce, construct and maintain such “innovations”. Nobody is disputing the fact that efficiency should be a common goal. However, to try and remove it altogether as per the GND, is like trying to build a two legged stool and to expect it to work as intended.

  2. Vera, I hope you are right; but even if a giant leap in energy technology is made, it will take many years for it to be implemented, assuming it is economically affordable by the masses of humanity.

  3. First, thanks for this article, Tom. Next, I hate to burst Ms Scroggins’ bubble but “new” energy solutions are not in our foreseeable future. It seems she did not get the gist of Mr Mills’ testamony. Micro circuit technology is not translatable to energy production, probably not to any other science. The wind turbines and solar panels are so flawed that it would be laughable if it were not for the amount of money that has already been wasted on them. And the waste continues and will probably grow larger in the next few years. I am an engineer, I am also an old man. I have seen much innovation in my life, I have gone from the horse and buggy days to the space age. Through my lifetime hydrocarbons have furnished the vast majority of earth’s energy. The rest of the energy required hydrocarbons to get it “off the ground”. The problem that must be solved is the exploding human population. No one has a solution to that problem, China tried, but it backfired on them. Complex world, no easy answers to any problem.

    • Glenn, I agree with you completely, but it is your last three sentences that speak volumes. We would not be debating what to do about energy growth, climate change, or most of our other most pressing challenges if the population was half of what it is right now. The advances in medicine, agriculture, and transportation have taken away the only controls nature has to keep the planet in ecological balance – disease and starvation. I fear that even if energy was free and limitless tomorrow, it would actually increase the scale of the problem.

      • Population growth is what creates wealth, through the division of labor. There’s nothing more wrong than Malthusianism. Even Malthus eventually rejected his own theory.

        • The only natural thing on earth that grows without natural controls is cancer, whose only control is death of the system which gave it life. It’s not just about food, it is about all natural resources. If we don’t do something to control our population growth nature will eventually do it for us. The longer we kick this can down the street, the more harshly we will feel the control. That is how the Black Death worked when we finally created cities that lasted. Nature will find a way to decimate our population or worse, and may take the young and old first, or like Spanish influenza they take the healthiest first. Either way the human suffering will be incomprehensible to this spoiled and coddled population and its economy. Economic growth is the world’s oldest ponzu scheme, because outputs cannot exceed inputs over the long term.

          • So you prefer the Dark Ages I guess and you won’t discuss Malthus or the fact he himself came to understand he was wrong.

          • Xenomun, actually as mankind has expanded over the earth, advanced in intelligence, developed more technology, it finds more ways to find and utilize resources.

            You might remember the “Peak Oil” hypothesis/theory that predicted the earths oil resources/production would peak around 1975 and then go into terminal decline. This theory was based upon the known technology at the time it was advanced. As technology improved and the price of oil went up due to demand and supply issues, greater efforts went into exploration and production, leading to reversing the declining production and resources.

            Just a few years ago, this peak oil thing reared its head again. Oil demand was high, supply was constrained, prices skyrocketed. There were people predicting “oil wars” due to severe shortages.

            So what happened? The high price of oil stimulated more exploration and development. High prices made it economical to produce resources that would otherwise not be developed.

            The world is still has many areas that have not been prospected or explored for resources. As long as there are problems to solve and demand for a product or service, science and technology will continue to find a way forward.

            This does not mean that we should be wasteful of our resources and reckless in the use of such. When I look around at all the consumer products on the market, it is astounding at the totally useless and unnecessary items flooding the market. I’m sure we are all guilty of over consumption and wastefulness, regardless of our philosophy and/or political views.

            Regarding population control, where do you start? The birth rates in developed countries tends to decrease, with the increase coming mostly in the underdeveloped countries. The developed nations have to have emigrants to maintain the population and economy. So do you want to force population control on those undeveloped nations? Maybe just eradicate them in the way that the Nazis tried to do to the “sub-humans” in Europe?

          • Let me also point out the greatest problem facing the world now is declining fertility rates. There will be no economies, no social welfare programs, no one to protect the environment and no one to care for us as we age, if this problem is not addressed. The only resource that matters is us, because more of us means greater division of labor, higher productivity and more wealth to share.

        • Tom & Ken;

          I realize that we live on a tiny skin of earth compared to everything beneath our feet. Also that the resources underneath the ground and in the oceans are for all intents and purposes inexhaustible (Peak oil fallacy). Neither of those things keep humans from becoming so numerous we overwhelm the ecosystem of the earth. Environmental encroachment is threatening what is left of the available farmland (I see this every day where I live in the Mid-Atlantic of the US), and the climate calming forests of our earth. We are witnessing accelerating extinction of flora and fauna not adapted to us in our petrochemical stained, man-made heat island – water flooding cities, our hatred of darkness, and addiction to convenience. In the wake of the waves of plague in the middle ages we saw an increase in the value of people, and the rise of the guilds which balanced the power of tyrants with the power of labor. Like everything else in this world, things lose value when they become too numerous. In previous ages, when the climate changed, as it is always doing, people had enough room to move to higher ground, away from deserts, to more fertile areas, or less populated regions. That is all but impossible today, so the effect of natural disasters is magnified. As to what to do about it, we don’t need one-child laws or euthanasia. We can incentivize quality rather than quantity of life expectancy, and eliminate both welfare payments and tax exemptions for more than two children. When my mother was a child, her relatives sent an unplanned child to my grandparents house to raise because they didn’t have the resources, and everybody understood the situation. We can also take responsibility for the impact of immigration on our environment. Today Japan, Singapore, and Switzerland are excellent examples of countries that decide as a nation the carrying capacity of their land and only allow immigration to maintain efficient utilization of resources. The Japanese even control the homogeneity of their society to maintain their ancient culture and high life expectancy. Countries that are able to export their overwhelming population have no incentive to work on reducing the growth of their populations. Singapore even uses financial incentives to spur growth when necessary and removes them when the population gets too close to carrying capacity. Compare that to the uncontrolled growth of Hong Kong, where the cost of living continues to rise as the average quality of life is decreasing. The reduction in fertility rates Ken mentioned may in fact be the answer to reducing the population. We are not gods, and nature will not lose this fight. The longer we put it off controlling our growth, the worse the correction will be. It will be a long time before humans are able to live anywhere else but Earth, and the problem will not wait until we start leaving in droves.

  4. Hi Tom it’s me again Smera’
    We don’t need fossil fuels anymore and we can still keep our SUVs How you might ask, well the solution is hemp! We can make fuel out of it and it only takes about 500 gallons of water per gallon of Diesal. Hemp is the answer, and If we run put of fuel we can smoke it and eat potato chips. Then use the oil from the chips to run our pickups. I just want you to know Tom that I stand with Alexandria Cortez and the big green deal because I live off the taxpayer and don’t pay taxes so money is no object. So let’s fire up a big blunt and let the government have full control

  5. Tom, You assume that we “the people” are important. I often think the radical environmentalists think the earth would be a better place without people. After all, with no people, who would be around to observe or care about natural disasters? Prior mass extinctions happened when no one was around to observe them, so who cared? Each of those events led to the rise of other creatures, such as humans. Was the earth’s small and technologically limited population concerned with climate change as the last ice age ended and sea levels rose (as they are continuing to rise today)?

  6. Pingback: Energy & Environmental Newsletter: March 25, 2019 - Master Resource

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