Expanding RPS will cost Delaware (Whipple)

Delaware political leaders generally claim to support a healthy state economy, one that creates or supports good paying jobs not to mention supporting healthy tax revenues without the need to raise rates. They often support special interest legislation, however, which will have the opposite effect.

As a case in point, let’s consider a statement that was made this year – without supporting discussion – in Governor John Carney’s State of the State Address. Transcript as prepared for delivery,

Delaware has made great strides over the last decade to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, and we should continue to be a leader on this issue. We plan to work with my friend Sen. McDowell to set a new Renewable Portfolio Standard. By 2035, we want 40 percent of Delaware’s energy to come from renewable sources.

Delaware’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) was initially established by legislation enacted in 2005, starting with a 1% renewable energy target in 2010 and increasing it to 20% by 2019. Subsequent legislation modestly adjusted the RPS phase-in schedule, but extended it to a 25% target by 2025.

The basic rationale for the RPS is provided by the manmade global warming (aka climate change) theory, hereinafter referred to as the MMGWT, which attributes generally rising global temperatures over the past couple of centuries to the burning of fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a greenhouse gas and CO2 levels have been increasing, so what other explanation could there be?

Note, however, that (a) global temperatures have fluctuated throughout the Earth’s history, driven by natural causes such as fluctuations in the level of solar activity, (b) the predominant greenhouse gas is water vapor (average of 2-3% of the atmosphere), and (c) although CO2 levels have risen, this gas still constitutes less than .05% of the atmosphere. Ergo, there’s no apparent proof that manmade carbon emissions have become the primary driver of global temperatures and threaten catastrophic consequences. Scientific investigation of this issue is far from complete, and global temperature forecasts remain basically a matter of guesswork.

Advocates of “renewable energy” (commonly understood to include wind & solar power, but not nuclear power) contend, however, that even if the MMGWT turns out to be invalid the state will still benefit from the RPS. First, wind and solar power can be produced very inexpensively because no fuel is required. Second, the operation and perfection of these facilities will support a lot of good-paying “green” jobs.

OK, creating a special “renewable energy” category for Bloom Energy fuel cells (which are being powered by the chemical oxidation of natural gas) was a bad idea – Delmarva Power ratepayers have been charged some $240 million for the “Qualified Fuel Cells Provider” tariff for excess power costs already and the cumulative total will keep rising until 2033 – but that one-time mistake has nothing to do with current proposals to expand the RPS for wind and solar power.

If wind and solar power facilities really could be produced more inexpensively than fossil fuel power plants, however, why would government intervention be required to persuade electric power producers to build and operate them? Unless they aren’t interested in maximizing their profits for some reason, other considerations must be involved.

One key point is that wind and solar power are intermittent, meaning they can’t reliably drive the electric power grid and must be backed up by dispatchable power sources (fossil fuel or nuclear power) or expensive electric power storage facilities. If wind and solar power are used when available, with dispatchable power sources being turned off, this will raise the cost of the dispatchable power and negate the supposed cost savings.

Also, both wind and solar power have environmental drawbacks that are often overlooked. A great deal of space is taken up that could be used for other purposes, e.g., farming or recreation – millions of birds and bats are killed by spinning wind turbines – specialized materials are required, e.g., rare earth minerals, which can’t be produced without creating environmental hazards somewhere in the world – wind turbine blades or solar cells must be replaced - the facilities (often in remote areas) must eventually be decommissioned.

Even if the MMGWT were assumed to be fully valid, meaning that fossil fuel power had to go – not just in the Delaware and the rest of the United States but also in every other country on Earth – it would still be necessary to consider whether nuclear power (which has a far smaller environmental footprint and is highly reliable) might represent the logical replacement versus wind and solar power.

Not only were the foregoing points not addressed in the governor’s State of the State address, but we have also noted on other occasions that support for the RPS is commonly expressed as though the matter was self-evident and required no explanation. Here are three examples:

(1) Public meeting on expanding the RPS conducted at Legislative Hall on 5/10/19 with Sen. Harris McDowell presiding – The chair asserted without evidence that the RPS had been a big success, and the only questions were said to be how much the renewable energy target should be raised, and over what time period;

(2) Conversation with climate scientist Michael Mann at the UD Star Center on 10/21/19 - Dr. Mann spent most of the time complaining about the tactics used by MMGWT skeptics versus discussing scientific findings supporting the theory;

(3) Talk by DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin to engineering students at the UD on 10/28/19 – Mr. Garvin mentioned the proposal to expand the RPS to 40% by 2035 without explaining how the new target had been arrived at, estimating the cost, or stating how the cost would be covered.

In short, it appears that MMGWT fans want to adopt policies based on it without really thinking them through – which given the stakes involved seems like a really bad idea. Is there some constructive way to straighten this out?

A recent book (
The Power of Bad, Roy Baumeister & John Tierney) confirms the perceived issue by noting that warnings of impending crises have often served to promote ideological or political ends. Here are some examples: (a) mass starvation (excessive population growth will outstrip food supplies), (b) peak oil (unsustainable consumption will exhaust global petroleum reserves), (c) manmade global warming (rising use of fossil fuels will result in excessive carbon emissions).

The authors also suggest a possible solution, namely appointing panels to study particularly knotty problems rather than opting for immediate action based on obviously incomplete information. And instead of stacking the panels “with the usual experts from the crisis industry,” set up a competitive dynamic as has been done for a variety of other purposes, e.g., to devise and test military strategies. Here’s how it would work.

A “blue team” analyzes the problem (in this case what, if anything, should be done about the MMGWT at the Delaware level) and develops a proposed solution, which is then critiqued by a “red team” that’s looking for flaws. A panel of referees moderates the back-and-forth debate and eventually produces a well-scrutinized proposal for dealing with the crisis – assuming that by then anyone still cares about the problem.

Hmm, sounds like a better approach than politics as usual – and I have some friends who would love to be on the red team. What have we got to lose?
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