Vermont is one of the nation’s most environmentally friendly states. But two years ago, the backers of a local wind-energy farm shelved the project after intense public opposition. An initiative supporter noted how the controversy reflected rising hostility to wind power. Whereas a decade ago, ambitious developers had planned a dozen renewable-energy projects in Vermont, by 2020, most had either folded or failed to win regulatory approval. “This is truly a sad state of affairs for Vermont,” the CEO of a green-energy firm said, while pointing out that the state has mandated that 75 percent of its power should come from renewable energy within a decade.
Vermont isn’t alone. Dozens of states have enacted renewable-energy standards, with some seeking to run completely on such fuel—a category encompassing hydroelectric-, solar-, and wind-generated power—within a few decades, despite the massive technological and infrastructure challenges that presents. Many ambitious mandates passed with only muted objections, partly because their consequences seem so far-off. When citizens have looked at the scale and type of projects necessary to retrofit the American power grid, though, resistance has exploded. Public campaigns have now held up hundreds of green projects around the country. In some states, the pushback is so fierce that legislatures are enacting laws that make it easier for communities to opt out of the projects. Combined with other obstacles, including lumbering state and federal regulatory bureaucracies and global supply-chain disruptions, the shifting political situation has slowed America’s energy transition to a crawl.
Even as these delays worsen, the energy plants that supply America with most of its current power—especially fossil fuel and nuclear generators—are closing faster than anticipated. As states passed green-energy mandates, utilities moved rapidly to shut some traditional plants because of perceived regulatory hostility. Energy firms feared that the long-term investment needed to maintain generators would mean big losses if regulators forced their closure before the costs could be recouped.
This rapid decommissioning, together with a strain on worldwide energy supplies from the Ukraine war, is already hurting American consumers. Last summer, utilities in two dozen western, southern, and midwestern states warned of possible rolling blackouts and power failures, similar to those that California and Texas have had in recent years because of their weakening power grids. Meantime, energy prices have shot up, straining family budgets. Even so, some states keep rushing toward decarbonization, and green groups have fought any slowing of the grid’s transformation.
Today, climate radicals publish kids’ books depicting an apocalyptic future if humanity doesn’t decarbonize rapidly, but consumers face a more imminent crisis. The power grid is one of humanity’s greatest achievements, helping to boost prosperity and cut mortality rates. Now, those benefits are at risk. Already in Europe, countries faced with the end of Russian energy imports because of the Ukraine war are imposing strict limits on energy use. In America—a nation sitting on hundreds of billions of barrels of untapped oil—power failures and the fading resilience of the energy grid are providing a reminder of what life would be like without abundant energy. “Climate change is real and we should seek to reduce carbon emissions,” the environmentalist Michael Shellenberger told a congressional committee recently. But, he added: “There is no scientific scenario for mass death from climate change. A far more immediate and dangerous threat is insufficient energy supplies due to U.S. government policies and actions aimed at reducing oil and gas production.”
The typical resident served by America’s 4 trillion-kilowatt power grid probably rarely, if ever, thinks about how few people in history have enjoyed the benefits of so miraculous an invention, sometimes described as “the world’s largest machine.” Our modern way of life, with electricity crucial to so much of what we do, dates only from the late nineteenth century. For decades, the grid’s benefits were available just to a wealthy few. As electrification spread, however, it supercharged the Industrial Revolution, massively boosting output and wealth in the United States. From the 1930s, when electrification projects expanded dramatically, through the 1980s, inflation-adjusted family income in America tripled.
The comforts that the power grid brought, including protection from the cold and relief from extreme heat, unleashed growth in areas of the country that had been nearly uninhabitable, such as the American Southwest. Electrification also spurred the rise of innovative technologies in medical and pharmaceutical research, driving huge gains in health and life spans. From the mid-1920s until the turn of the twentieth century, life expectancy in the U.S. increased by nearly one-third, to 76.5 years, thanks partly to the role that electrical power plays in human development.
Even today, most Americans may be unaware that some 1.5 billion people globally go without electricity entirely, and another 2.5 billion have very limited access. The absence of a power grid makes it extremely difficult for people in dozens of countries to raise their economic output, extend their lives, and escape poverty. Consider the United Nations Human Development Index, which tracks energy use. All the high-ranking places, including the United States, Germany, and Japan, have sophisticated energy grids. Places where energy availability is limited, including Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Nigeria, are among those with the lowest levels of human development.
Yet one can also grasp the key role of electricity in our lives by looking at the way misguided energy policies have put well-being and wealth at risk in fully industrial countries, or in rich states like California and Texas. Germany faces a particularly acute crisis because it has bet heavily on renewable energy, despite local challenges to projects similar to those found in the United States. As it began shifting to renewables, the country decommissioned most of its nuclear plants, forcing it to rely extensively on Russian natural gas to power its formidable industrial economy. As the Ukraine war disrupted supply, natural-gas prices have spiked more than tenfold over the last year. A summer survey found that 16 percent of industrial firms in Germany were reducing or suspending production because of the high prices. In August, one of the nation’s biggest manufacturers, BASF, said that it was cutting back production of ammonia—a crucial ingredient in products like fertilizer and plastics—because of energy costs. As the country scrambled to fill gas reserves to meet winter demand, Germans began stockpiling firewood.
The European Union has urged its members to slash energy consumption 15 percent to get through winter, and some have responded with tough sanctions. Spain ordained last summer that office-building energy systems should be set no lower than 81 degrees Fahrenheit for cooling and, for winter, no higher than 66 degrees for heating. France decreed that stores must keep their doors closed to retain air-conditioning or heat, and the government dimmed the lights on the Eiffel Tower and other monuments in what officials call “energy sobriety.” Even with such policies, along with government subsidies, consumers are suffering. Energy costs for the average U.K. household, for example, have doubled, to about £2,000 a year.
American states should be in a far better position than Western Europe to weather such disruptions. The reason: fracking, which has unlocked vast stores of oil and gas. The U.S. is now the world’s largest natural-gas producer, extracting nearly one-third more than the next most productive country—Russia. America also leads in oil production, pumping about 1 million barrels a day more than second-place Russia. Thus, despite inflated worldwide energy prices, the price tag for natural gas—a crucial component in the cost of electricity in many places—remains far more affordable in the United States. On average, during heat waves last summer, gas hit $55 per million thermal units in Europe; in the U.S., the cost was just $6 for the same amount—a ninefold difference. America’s new stores of energy have also helped the country significantly lower its greenhouse gas emissions, as power provision shifts from coal to cleaner natural gas. Since a 2007 peak, greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. have dropped by roughly 20 percent. American emissions today are back to 1985 levels, though the country now uses about 42 percent more energy annually.
Even so, the energy bill varies widely in the U.S. by state, as does the mix of what sources utilities use to charge the grid. In 2021, for instance, residential energy prices ranged from about 10.5 cents per kilowatt hour in Kentucky and Utah to about 20 cents per kilowatt hour in California and Massachusetts. Some differences have to do with geographical factors, but state regulatory policies also play a part. California is particularly noteworthy. The Golden State has the fifth-largest oil reserves in the country, but its production has fallen by 25 percent in less than ten years, as officials moved to ban fracking and import energy from elsewhere. A law signed by Governor Gavin Newsom in 2022 goes further, prohibiting oil rigs within 3,600 feet of homes, hospitals, and other institutions. Environmentalists call the measure a necessary protection from toxic chemicals, but the oil industry brands it “a blatant attempt by the governor to shut down the oil and gas industry in California.”
Green-energy mandates affect the cost and, in some places, the very availability of energy. Iowa was the first state to create a renewables mandate, back in 1985, with a humble aim of generating 105 megawatts of electricity via these energy sources—a goal that it hit in 1999. Many subsequent mandates have been similarly modest: Wisconsin has aimed to generate 15 percent of its energy from renewable sources, while Michigan, Montana, and Missouri have targeted 15 percent, and Pennsylvania 18 percent. But over the last half-decade, states have pushed more ambitious goals, which require subsidized construction projects. Today, eight states, including California, Nevada, Oregon, and Virginia, have a 100 percent renewables target, which they hope to hit between 2040 and 2050. The path will be easier in some locations, thanks to natural resources. Maine, for instance, already derives 79 percent of its energy from renewables because one-third of its power is hydroelectric. Even so, the way forward for the Pine State remains complicated, after 60 percent of voters in a recent ballot initiative gave thumbs down to a $1 billion hydroelectric project.
Grand projects in states lacking Maine’s natural resources are even more doubtful, requiring big investments in solar and wind power. A recent Breakthrough Institute study estimated that it would cost some $1.5 trillion to get the entire country to the point where it uses renewables for 70 percent of its energy. Replacing the current fossil-fuel- and nuclear-based energy grid would require building massive new transmission, distribution, and storage systems in every state.
Both the expense and the intrusiveness of such projects make the task formidable. Public pushback can be intense. The Renewable Rejection Database, compiled by energy researcher Robert Bryce, lists more than 300 projects in the U.S. since 2015 spiked by public opposition. Among the 42 solar projects rejected since 2017 are a 700-acre solar farm in rural Virginia, large-scale solar facilities in Kittitas County, Washington, and a 10-megawatt solar project in Niagara County, New York. In Missouri, a judge halted tax breaks for a 100-megawatt solar farm vigorously fought by residents. Transmission lines, like those for the defeated Maine hydroelectric project, are also becoming tougher to build. A federal judge blocked a Nebraska transmission project in 2020 on environmental grounds, and in Wisconsin, local political leaders and environmentalists have sued to stop a 100-mile transmission line designed to carry wind energy from rural renewable sites to cities. A transmission line that crosses state borders, meantime, can take more than a decade to win federal regulatory approval.
The irony of environmentalists fighting wind and solar projects highlights the disconnect between the desire for a carbon-free future and the reality of trying to build such a system. That disconnect has helped give us the absurd trend of state and local governments with renewables mandates nixing new energy projects. Iowa, for example, has forbidden the use of eminent domain to acquire land for building transmission lines. Since the Ohio legislature passed a measure, in late 2021, giving local governments the right to ban commercial wind and solar projects, ten counties have done so. Though California has among the boldest green-energy mandates, its local governments have increasingly said: no electricity generation in our backyard. In 2019, San Bernardino banned projects if they export more than 50 percent of their energy out of the county, effectively making most of spacious San Bernardino County off-limits for California’s renewables drive. Local hostility in New York has been so strong that the state recently passed a controversial law removing the ability of local residents to vote down energy projects that affect their communities. Few other state legislatures, though, have been willing to anger local voters with similar measures.
These obstacles have arisen even as mandates hasten plant closures—mostly coal plants. While that’s a sensible long-term move, especially with the country’s resources of cleaner natural gas, the shutdowns have taken place so fast that they have strained state energy systems. In the last two years alone, utilities have shut 54 coal-fired plants generating 18.7 gigawatts of power. An additional 92 coal-fired plants are scheduled to close in the next five years. And 125 more plants have closing dates from 2028 to 2045.
While some of these plants became commercially uncompetitive because of the availability of cheaper natural gas, regulations have also spurred earlier-than-expected shutterings. A 2015 edict, issued by the Obama-era Environmental Protection Agency, put tough new standards on coal plants that prompted some utilities to close them faster than planned, rather than spend money upgrading them. The Trump administration softened the rule, but one study estimated that the edict reduced the life of U.S. coal plants in the aggregate by 1,175 years.
States might have absorbed these closings better if nuclear plants hadn’t also been going out of business. Politicians and environmentalists have continued to target nuclear plants, though they produce lots of power with no greenhouse gas emissions. Over the last decade, 12 plants, representing about 9.4 gigawatts of generating power, have closed. Another seven plants, with 7.1 gigawatts of power, are scheduled to enter decommissioning by 2025, though the 2022 energy crisis has led California to explore ways to keep its Diablo Canyon plant open for several more years, and Illinois has provided subsidies to keep its Byron and Dresden plants operating for five more years. The Golden State, one of the earliest adopters of nuclear energy, began moving away from it after Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island accident in 1979. It has shuttered four plants since 1989, including two in 2013 that produced more than 2 gigawatts of power and would have helped the state reduce carbon emissions.
Natural-gas plants in some states—demonized, along with coal, under the broader rubric of fossil fuel—have been closing, too, and utilities are finding it hard to gain approvals for new stations. Natural-gas facilities producing 3.7 gigawatts of power are set to close in California in the next few years, for example. Meanwhile, Glendale, California, has proposed building four new natural-gas facilities to replace an aging plant. Yet it has faced ferocious resistance from environmentalists and residents, even though there’s no easy way for renewables to replace the power about to be lost. “Building any kind of new fossil fuel infrastructure at this late hour of the climate crisis is not OK,” one uncompromising critic of the project noted.
Resistance in New York State killed two proposed natural-gas plants in late 2021. The plants would have helped to ensure that the grid has sufficient peak-time capacity. Capacity is a worsening problem. New York’s grid operator warned last summer that the state’s energy network had reached a “tipping point,” when electricity generation becomes insufficient to meet demand. Opposition to peak-generation plants—often used to back up renewables like wind and solar—has eroded power-grid resilience in many states. That has led to rolling brownouts and, under the worst conditions, widespread outages, as California and Texas recently endured. “It’s clear the risks are spreading,” an executive at the North American Electric Reliability Corporation warned last spring. The failure to renew the energy grid is “out of sync with the underlying realities and the physics of the system,” he added.
Indeed, an energy grid based entirely on renewable power is virtually a scientific impossibility. To account for the intermittent nature of wind and solar energy, with power generation depending on weather conditions, green-energy advocates bank on utilities building massive storage facilities, deploying huge numbers of lithium-ion batteries. The obstacles to this are extraordinary. An influential 2018 MIT Technology Review article observes that a national grid relying on 80 percent renewable power would necessitate a country-wide high-speed transmission system and battery-storage facilities, with a combined price tag of $2.5 trillion. Manhattan Institute senior fellow Mark Mills calculates that the cost to provide just 12 hours of battery storage for the entire country would be $1.5 trillion—if the crucial materials were even available. “Ambitious climate action will bring significant demand for minerals,” the World Bank has said, including a 4,200 percent increase in mankind’s mining and use of lithium, a 2,500 percent boost in graphite, and a 1,900 percent increase in nickel. By contrast, backing up green energy with fuels like natural gas would require an investment of about $100 billion, and keep the lights on for weeks at a time when renewables fail, Mills estimates.
States have proceeded with their energy grid transformations, despite the alarming consequences. California experienced another in a series of energy crises in the summer of 2020, with utilities cutting off power to millions of residents in rolling blackouts. Subsequent reports suggested a shockingly cavalier attitude by state energy regulators toward grid resilience. Among other things, California was relying on significant energy supply from plants that had already closed or whose capacity was far below state estimates. Officials also wildly overestimated the amount of available hydroelectric power, a key renewable in California, because water levels had dropped. At least one of the external plants that was supposed to be supplying Californians with electricity was delivering its power elsewhere during the 2020 crisis.
Tellingly, the system failed, though temperatures that summer did not reach a record high and energy demands ran below previous periods. These missteps were disturbing in something as crucial as the power grid. “This is like brain surgery,” Robert McCullough, a utility industry consultant, told the press. “You don’t make mistakes. People actually die when you mess it up.”
The resilience of power supply has weakened in Texas, too. In winter 2021, natural-gas plants that hadn’t been winterized and wind turbines (which supply the state with more than one-fifth of its power) froze during severe storms. The result: widespread blackouts that left some 4.5 million homes and businesses lacking power amid freezing cold and contributed to the deaths of some 246 people. The grid came dangerously close to complete failure. The state also suffered because its transmission lines, which deliver power from distant rural wind farms to urban areas, were overwhelmed.
These kinds of woes now risk becoming more common elsewhere. In mid-2022, power suppliers and energy-grid regulators from nearly two dozen states—ranging from Oregon, Washington, and Arizona in the West to Arkansas in the South and Illinois and Indiana in the Midwest—warned of the growing likelihood of rolling blackouts. The Midcontinent Independent System Operator, which administers the grid for that part of North America, attributed the imminent crisis partly to the closing of generating plants, which has cut margins of error during peak energy use in many places. More recently, ISO New England, which controls the grid in America’s Northeast, warned of risks of rolling winter blackouts because of shortages of gas supplies and declining grid reliability. At the same time, heating-oil wholesalers in the Northeast began rationing supplies to customers because of fears of panic buying, amid reported shortages.
“Colorado residents who had installed the power company’s ‘smart’ thermostats found that it had locked the devices.”
Power companies have urged customers to reduce energy usage—and sometimes done more than urge. Utility customers in Colorado who had installed the power company’s “smart” thermostats found last summer that they couldn’t crank up their homes’ air-conditioning as the temperature rose: the firm had locked the devices. During an August heat wave, California utilities asked electric-car owners not to recharge their vehicles during peak hours—a week after state lawmakers voted to require that all new cars sold in the state be electric by 2035. California utilities started sending out energy bills marked with frowny faces for customers consuming more power on average than their neighbors, blaming them for problems actually caused by policymakers. As Bloomberg noted: “California has aggressively closed natural-gas power plants in recent years, leaving the state increasingly dependent on solar farms that go dark late in the day just as electricity demand peaks.”
The warnings have led to some second thoughts. Along with California agreeing to keep the Diablo Canyon plant running for several more years, New Mexico regulators have heeded its major utility’s cautions about impending shortages and let several natural-gas plants scheduled for closure remain open temporarily. The Biden administration has also provided federal funds to help keep nuclear plants operating.
But it hasn’t been enough, as states keep racing headlong into the energy future by shutting fossil-fuel plants, and environmentalists keep battling nuclear power. And state and federal regulatory bureaucracies are still holding up major renewable-energy projects. More than four in ten projects backlogged for federal regulatory approval by the National Environmental Policy Act are renewable-energy ventures. The Biden administration and congressional Democrats have sent mixed messages, approving ever-growing subsidies for green-energy projects but refusing to endorse changes that would simplify the federal permitting process, after Biden overturned streamlining reforms that the Trump administration had introduced. The Biden administration has worked to stymie fossil-fuel projects and slow the leasing of federal lands for gas and oil exploration.
Back in 2007, the National Energy Technology Laboratory of the Department of Energy published a study warning that America’s energy grid, once the marvel of the world, was deteriorating, causing inefficiencies in the system that would raise prices and degrade reliability. Unless governments and utilities upgraded the grid, the report predicted, “cascading power outages” would ensue. Since then, states have embarked on a massive transformation of the country’s energy system, driven by renewables mandates that have accomplished the precise opposite of the upgrades that the report was urging, leading to reduced reliability at higher prices to the public. It’s hard to imagine a bigger policy failure on something so essential to modern life. Unfortunately, without a quick shift in priorities, the worst is yet to come.
Top Photo: Texas’s grid came dangerously close to complete failure during severe storms in winter 2021, with widespread blackouts that left some 4.5 million homes and businesses lacking power and contributing to the deaths of nearly 250 people. (NITASHIA JOHNSON/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX)