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A Carbon-Powered Shot

The rapid development of the Covid vaccine is a reminder that abundant and affordable energy makes modern life possible. December 29, 2020
Covid-19
Infrastructure and energy

Global jubilation greeted images of a United Airlines jumbo jet being loaded for the first flights carrying the Covid-19 vaccine for distribution. Much will be written about the unprecedented efforts in developing the vaccines so rapidly.

One of the least noted aspects of that story is the carbon footprint associated with the vaccination ecosystem. This isn’t surprising, as it’s just one illustration of an unremarkable fact: everything in modern society uses energy, and that energy gets delivered wherever and whenever needed, without fuss and at costs so low as to be an irrelevant consideration.

In this context, we may want to consider the implications of the incoming Biden administration’s pledge to remake America’s energy infrastructure. Developing, fabricating, and distributing vaccines epitomizes the nature of all manufacturing and services. Getting vaccines to everyone entails more than thousands of oil-burning jumbo jet flights to deliver what brilliant scientists invented—it also takes a sprawling ecosystem of electron-gobbling supercomputers put to work by those scientists, energy-intensive manufacturing plants, football-field-sized “freezer farms” for warehousing vaccines, and kilotons of dry ice for “cold-chain” shipping.

Some irony resides in the fact that dry ice is solidified carbon dioxide. Megawatt-hours of energy are needed to solidify all that CO2, which is then used to keep certain things (especially temperature-sensitive vaccines) chilled at minus 78o F. All dry ice ends up as CO2 gas in our atmosphere because it inevitably sublimates. There isn’t a good alternative for chilling-in-transit. Indeed, the century-old cold-chain industry has become a critical part of the enormous infrastructure required for food and medical deliveries.

Consider also the energy appetite of modern computing. Immediately after sequencing the gene of the novel coronavirus, scientists started running computer programs and simulations to target vaccine designs. Records were set in establishing free access to massive, cloud-based “data lakes” and computing resources. Venerable IBM coordinated global access to dozens of the world’s prized supercomputers. The top ten of those powerful machines boast a collective energy appetite equaling 2 million Teslas, and a significant share of all that algorithmic horsepower was put to work by the armies of medical researchers.

On average, pharma manufacturing is at least ten times more energy-intensive than other manufacturing. Consequently, America’s pharmaceutical sector, not counting hospitals and related infrastructures, uses more energy than the nation’s semiconductor industry. Even as Covid lockdowns boosted demand for products and services from all those sectors, there wasn’t any handwringing over the carbon footprint. Nor are energy-demand implications a factor in bipartisan calls to reshore more manufacturing, both in the pharma supply chain and elsewhere. The health and safety values of medicines, health care, and silicon-centric telemedicine supersede other considerations. And we have only just begun to put computing and advanced fabrication to work in the service of health care.

All this says nothing about the energy implications of a world in pursuit of healthier home and work environments—never mind while traveling—that will entail more square feet per person, more air ventilation, and the proliferation of pathogen-zapping technologies in air systems. In an increasingly electrified world, both the cost and reliability of kilowatt-hours will matter more.

The Biden version of a Green New Deal proposes to “decarbonize” America’s electric grid by 2035. This is an elliptical way of saying that the nation will need to stop using the natural gas and coal that now provide 65 percent of all America’s electricity. This simply won’t happen by 2035, nor soon after.

Building, by 2035, the necessary quantity of wind and solar power plants would entail a continuous construction program at least 600 percent faster than any single peak year for utility construction that has occurred in the U.S., China, or Germany over the past half-century. It’s an industrial program that would require a World War II-level of mobilization, which many green advocates acknowledge. Yet more construction would be required if a significant share of cars were to be fueled using the grid instead of gasoline. Right now, that share is under 0.5 percent.

Whatever one thinks about the imperatives of climate action, it is fair to say that the political landscape isn’t ready for a wartime mobilization. In fact, the necessary level of effort isn’t even visible in the budget proposals, as gargantuan as those already are. The Biden plan proposes spending $2 trillion on “accelerated investment” across seven enormous domains, only one of which is the power sector. The others include comparably ambitious endeavors in infrastructure, mass transit, buildings, housing, the auto industry, agriculture, and “innovation.” But the power sector alone would require spending at least $5 trillion to $6 trillion on wind and solar power generation and battery-storage systems to achieve “decarbonization.”

Even a full decarbonization of America’s electric grid would reduce global carbon-dioxide emissions by a mere 6 percent. Nonetheless, to achieve such an outcome, some in the climate lobby are calling for the Biden administration to declare a climate emergency, invoking emergency-powers authority to bypass Congress and implement a crash Green New Deal construction program.

It’s true, as green advocates claim, that such a national mobilization would create jobs. But that’s the upside-down logic of creating work by “giving them shovels instead of backhoes.” All the extra labor, materials, and capital used to replace hydrocarbon power plants would result in the production of the same quantity of the same product (kilowatt-hours). This is the opposite outcome of increasing productivity to create more output using fewer inputs. Rising productivity has been the central force in economic growth everywhere, throughout history.

Wind, solar, and battery machines all entail a dramatic—on average tenfold—increase in the quantities of materials extracted from the Earth to deliver the same unit of energy supplied by hydrocarbons. Some minerals—copper, nickel, neodymium, lithium, cobalt—would see a 200 percent to 8,000 percent increase in demand if the developed world builds all the green machines now proposed. These plans would still not come close to “decarbonizing” the world.

For the United States, both the need for green materials as well as the finished hardware will continue to be met almost entirely with imports. China, it bears noting, is in many cases the world’s dominant supplier of both green-energy machines and green-energy minerals. Neither the Biden proposals nor those promoted by green lobbyists propose expanding America’s mining sector. Instead, the Biden GND plan would yield a complete reversal in the last decade’s decrease in hydrocarbon energy imports, and instead lead to an historic and massive rise in energy material and hardware imports.

Nonetheless, it’s a safe bet that federal (and many state) policies will accelerate spending on non-hydrocarbon preferences. In Germany, an epic number of wind and solar farms last year supplied one-third of that nation’s electricity. (The U.S. share from wind and solar together is 10 percent.) To achieve that, Germany essentially doubled the size of its electric-supply system, while also retaining most of the “old” grid in order to keep computers and factories running when the wind and sun aren’t available. The result was a doubling in German’s electricity costs. Odds are that such an outcome in America won’t be welcomed by most politicians’ constituents, never mind electric-car users.

Meantime, China accounts for 30 percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions, twice the U.S. share. In fact, while publicly embracing green plans, China has recently brought online more new coal power plants than the rest of the world combined. Beijing, this year, approved plans to build twice as many more yet.

As for the rest of the world, all the signatories to the vaunted Paris Accord have, de facto, withdrawn from it, by virtue of their deeds, not their words. According to the IEA, only two nations have met their Paris commitments: Gambia and Morocco. The latest IEA forecasts show that, based on what nations are planning to build, global carbon-dioxide emissions will keep rising. Still, there will be more EVs and far more wind and solar farms in the future. Subsidies and rhetoric aside, those technologies are cheaper and better than they used to be and are useful in many niches, so more will be built.

But more hydrocarbons will be used, too.

The fundamental lesson in all this is the same one that lies at the heart of the near-magical development of a Covid-19 vaccine: energy is used in service of everything else, fueling not only the “essentials” of human safety and survival but also all those other features essential to a pleasant modern life, not least comforts and conveniences. A monomaniacal pursuit to restructure our energy infrastructure reverses that dynamic, putting the “everything else” in service of energy.

Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images

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