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Bernie Sanders' Green New Deal

As you've probably heard, Sanders has released his climate change plan. As I did with Biden's, I'm going to read through it and provide commentary and context as it occurs to me. This is going to be a long post, so you might want to grab some snacks and a comfy pair of jeans before we start.

Also, full disclosure: I'm not a very big fan of Bernie Sanders. I generally like his political principles, but I don't like his personality. I'll do my best to be fair and impartial, but I'm not going to pull any punches. If you have a hard time listening to criticism of Bernie, you'll probably be happier if you just skip this post and move on.

Let's get started.

"Reaching 100 percent renewable energy for electricity and transportation by no later than 2030 and complete decarbonization by at least 2050 – consistent with the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change goals"

This is a pretty terrible way to start, because it's such a grievous misrepresentation of the IPCC's goals that it borders on being dishonest. The IPCC does not say that we need to get to 100% renewable energy by 2030, 2050, 2100, or any other date. It says we need to cut emissions roughly in half by 2030 and get to net zero around 2050. It specifically rejects pathways that use 100% renewables as being based on implausible assumptions. Instead, it sees us getting the majority of our energy from renewables, with natural gas and nuclear providing reliability to the energy system.

"by expanding the existing federal Power Marketing Administrations"

Cool, this is a good idea.

"to build new solar, wind, and geothermal energy sources."

I'm not sure which is more interesting here, exclusion of hydro or the inclusion of geothermal. The original paper that got everyone talking about 100% renewables (which was written by Mark Jacobson) was rejected by the IPCC (and most other scientists) for absurdly overestimating new hydro. Now it looks like Bernie is doubling down on that paper's claims, but rejecting new hydro entirely. Presumably the difference will be made up using mako reactors or something.

Geothermal, meanwhile, is an interesting way to balance the grid. It can currently only be built in areas with favorable geology, but new enhanced geothermal techniques may allow us to build geothermal plants anywhere we want. This would effectively involve fracking, but I'm not sure if Sanders knows that. In any case, it's still very new technology, and probably won't be ready for widespread use on any sort of useful timeframe.

"Directly invest an historic $16.3 trillion public investment toward these efforts"

That is an absolutely titanic amount of money, equivalent to almost 1/10 of our entire GDP over that time period. I'm not sure which is the greater mystery: How he manages to spend that much, how he plans to pay for it, or how he plans to get it through Congress.

"We will provide five years of unemployment insurance, a wage guarantee, housing assistance, job training, health care, pension support, and priority job placement for any displaced worker, as well as early retirement support for those who choose it or can no longer work."

That last one is especially important. There will be a lot of people for who job training simply doesn't make any sense, because they're already close to the end of their careers. Early retirement will be a much more sensible option. Kudos to Sanders for pointing out a challenge with just transitions that doesn't come up very often.

"We will reduce domestic emissions by at least 71 percent by 2030 and reduce emissions among less industrialized nations by 36 percent by 2030 — the total equivalent of reducing our domestic emissions by 161 percent."

This level of emissions reductions is more ambitious than even the LED scenario in the IPCC report (which reduces emissions by 58% by 2030). It's hard to imagine how you would go about such extraordinarily steep reductions without things like mandatory universal CCS, extraordinary breakthroughs in atmospheric carbon dioxide removal, mandatory blackouts from 4pm to 8pm each day, and the relocation of most of the population of the Southwest to cooler areas. I don't think Sanders is going to endorse any of those things. Instead, I think it's more likely that he came up with a number that sounded ambitious,

"We will invest in public research to drastically reduce the cost of energy storage, electric vehicles, and make our plastic more sustainable through advanced chemistry."

These are worthy goals. Unfortunately, you don't do science by throwing money at scientists. Scientists need time to develop things. Once they've developed them, project managers and whatnot need time to build manufacturing lines and supply chains. For energy storage in particular, it's hard to think of any technology that could be made viable via the expenditure of huge sums of money in time to decarbonize the grid by 2030. I guess Lofstrom loops might work, but if Sanders proposes actually doing that, I'll eat my hat.

"This plan will pay for itself over 15 years. Experts have scored the plan and its economic effects."

Yeah, he's gonna have to cite sources for this. I have this sneaking suspicion that the experts in question were the staffers who drafted the plan.

"Making the fossil fuel industry pay for their pollution, through litigation, fees, and taxes, and eliminating federal fossil fuel subsidies."

Was this a low-key endorsement of a carbon tax? That would be exciting, if true, and a decent funding source (though not nearly enough to cover $16 trillion).

I'm much more skeptical of the claim that it will be funded by litigation. I'm not sure Sanders understands how much money $16 trillion is, or how long litigation takes. If he's lucky, the government might settle with the fossil fuel companies for $100 billion sometime in the late 2020's, after most of the expenditures have been incurred.

"Generating revenue from the wholesale of energy produced by the regional Power Marketing Authorities. Revenues will be collected from 2023-2035, and after 2035 electricity will be virtually free, aside from operations and maintenance costs."

This is one of the stupidest things I've ever heard, though it does at least help explain how he came up with such a titanic price tag. Ordinarily, upfront capital expenditures are capitalized over the life of the asset, resulting in nice small expenses each year. Sanders' proposal is to capitalize everything over the first 15 years, thereby dramatically increasing the initial costs. This gives him a nice big number to trumpet, but it's also financial malfeasance and would constitute gross mismanagement of public funds.

"Scaling back military spending on maintaining global oil dependence."

This is the main area that has the potential to generate the titanic revenues that Sanders is talking about, but it would require us to dismantle pretty much the entire military. There is no way that Congress is ever going to vote in favor of cutting our military budget by 99%. Even a 1% cut would give them ulcers and make their hair fall out, and they'd still be complaining about it decades later.

So yeah, not the most plausible of funding sources.

"Reduced need for federal and state safety net spending due to the creation of millions of good-paying, unionized jobs."

This sounds like Reagan claiming that increased revenue from economic growth would pay for his tax cuts.

My big takeaway from all of this is that Bernie has no earthly idea how to pay for his proposal. And then he decided to make it even more difficult to pay for by inadequately capitalizing the expenses. I assume that this is why his wife does his taxes for him.

"Bernie promises to go further than any other presidential candidate in history to end the fossil fuel industry’s greed, including by making the industry pay for its pollution"

Yes! It is a carbon tax! Or cap and trade, or whatever. This is still way more than I was expecting.

"There is no reason the United States, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, cannot transform our energy system away from fossil fuels to 100 percent renewable energy, like wind, solar, and geothermal."

Actually, there are many, many, many reasons, which basically boil down to "it's hella expensive and there just isn't enough time". Some good papers on this are Clack 2017, Sepulveda 2018, and, you know, the 2018 IPCC report.

Ignoring science does not make it go away. It just makes it so that you make poor decisions based on ignorance, rather than good decisions based on facts.

"We can sure as hell transform our energy system away from fossil fuels to 100 percent renewables today and create millions of jobs in the process."

Well, now that you've said you're sure as hell, I've been convinced. Maybe science and math aren't real after all.

"We will spend $1.52 trillion on renewable energy and $852 billion to build energy storage capacity."

$852 billion on energy storage?!?! That's absolutely bananas. Remember those posts I did a while back talking about the finances of energy storage, and how the costs skyrocket as market penetration increases? This is what that looks like. I'm guessing that the $1.52 trillion on renewables also represents a bit of an overbuild, though I'm honestly surprised the price tag there is so low. That's more the level of spending on renewables that I would expect from a $5 trillion plan that uses diversified energy sources, not a $16 trillion dollar plan that doubles down on just a few. I suspect the actual costs of going to 100% renewables would be much higher than that. Likewise, the cost of energy storage would also probably end up being higher, since I doubt they factored global cobalt shortages into their calculations.

"The renewable energy generated by the Green New Deal will be publicly owned"

OK, I'm all in favor of this.

"We will spend $526 billion on a modern, high-volt, underground, renewable, direct current, smart, electric transmission and distribution grid"

This is also fantastic, and will help a lot with bringing stability to the grid.

"We will provide $2.18 trillion for sliding-scale grants for low- and moderate-income families and small businesses to invest in weatherizing and retrofitting their homes and businesses. Weatherization will reduce residential energy consumption by 30 percent."

This is EXTREMELY important. If we don't improve our energy efficiency, then we have no hope of staying within our carbon budget.

"we plan to replace all mobile homes with zero-energy modular homes"

I get where they're coming from with this, but I think they'll run into some practical problems. Where will people live while they new homes are being installed? I know they're modular, but it's still not instant. And what if they don't want their homes to be demolished and replaced? I imagine that a line of government bulldozers rampaging through an Appalachian trailer park would do a lot to mobilize the Republican base.

"Electrify homes and businesses. One of the best ways to ensure that everyone is comfortable in their homes on the hottest days of summer and the coldest days of winter is to bring all non-electric uses of energy onto the electric grid. For example, so many of our homes still use dirty oil, propane, and fracked natural gas for heating and cooling. We plan to provide $964 billion for sliding-scale grants for low- and moderate-income families and small businesses to invest in cheaper electricity for these needs."

This is good, and important, but I can't help but feel like there's a typo in it somewhere. How is investing in cheaper electricity relevant to electrifying home heating? Surely the grants would be used to pay for electric heating systems?

"This plan will stop the building of new nuclear power plants and find a real solution to our existing nuclear waste problem. It will also enact a moratorium on nuclear power plant license renewals in the United States to protect surrounding communities."

This makes it (even more) impossible to achieve the kind of emissions reduction goals Sanders envisions. We need to build enough clean energy capacity to meet our energy needs. If you decommission existing sources of clean energy, that reduces the amount of clean energy you have available. It's kind of like how, in a race, you want to run towards the finish line. If you turn around and start running away from the finish line, it's going to take you longer to get there.

I'm also irritated by the cowardice implicit in the wording here. If a nuclear plant's license doesn't get renewed, the plant shuts down. That's not a moratorium. It's permanent. Sanders' proposal is to decommission all nuclear power plants regardless of the effect it has on emissions. Some people will like that, others will hate it, but he should at least have the balls to say it.

"We know that the toxic waste byproducts of nuclear plants are not worth the risks of the technology’s benefit, especially in light of lessons learned from the Fukushima meltdown and the Chernobyl disaster."

Really? Because I thought that he said that climate change was our number one priority. Nuclear power has never killed anyone in the United States. Nuclear waste has never killed anyone in the world. Climate change will kill millions upon millions. I have to question his moral calculus here.

Also, for the record, neither Fukushima nor Chernobyl had anything to do with nuclear waste. Chernobyl was a steam explosion that happened because the plant was designed by preschoolers. Fukushima stopped working and turned into a very expensive cleanup site because it was hit by a tsunami and they hadn't bothered to upgrade the safety equipment. Fukushima resulted in zero deaths from radiation, and one death from panic during the ill-advised evacuation.

"we will not rely on any false solutions like nuclear, geoengineering, carbon capture and sequestration, or trash incinerators."

France and Sweden both (mostly) decarbonized their electrical systems using nuclear power back in the 70's. It's not a false solution. We currently get most of our zero-emission electricity from nuclear power. That isn't false, either. They're real plants that already exist and are already producing far more electricity than all of the country's renewables combined. This doesn't mean that nuclear is perfect - I don't see it playing more than a minor role in decarbonization in even the best scenarios - but the issues Sanders is pointing to are not the actual issues facing nuclear power.

When it comes to geoengineering and carbon capture and sequestration, it is certainly true that those technologies are still in development, just like the energy storage solutions Sanders wants to rely on are still in development. CCS is almost certainly going to be available for deep decarbonization long before energy storage is. I guess Sanders is fine with accepting some fairy tales, but not others.

Nobody cares about trash incinerators.

"In order to ensure we reach our carbon pollution emissions goals, the EPA will, under the Clean Air Act, regulate carbon dioxide, methane, and hydrofluorocarbons."

Good. It would have been nice to see a reference to the Kigali Amendment here, but you can't have everything.

"Provide $2.09 trillion in grants to low- and moderate-income families and small businesses to trade in their fossil fuel-dependent vehicles for new electric vehicles."

"Provide $681 billion for low- and moderate- income families and small businesses for a trade-in program to get old cars off the road."

I'm a little vague as to what the difference between these is, but they both sound good. It would be nice to see some thought given to how we're going to actually produce all those cars, especially with his $800 billion investment in energy storage driving up the cobalt prices.

"That means we must spend $216 billion to replace all diesel tractor trailer trucks with fast-charging and long-range electric trucks."

This technology is still very young, but we will have to do something like this during the next decade or two.

"A $607 billion investment in a regional high-speed rail system would complete the vision of the Obama administration to develop high-speed intercity rail in the United States."

Awesome. It will be difficult and time consuming, but still a great investment.

"In 2014, an average of one oil train derailed every five days. The Federal Railroad Administration will adopt new rules requiring companies to retrofit the coal and oil bomb trains to prevent explosions, derailments, and spills. We will take similar action to protect communities’ well pads, substations, compressor stations, and pipelines as we remove fossil fuels to better protect communities that never asked to be cited in their footprint."

Nice to see some thought given to the fact that fossil fuels will continue to be used during the transition period. It's a pity that he still wants them to be belching out emissions during that period rather than requiring carbon capture. Maybe he''s concerned that the added expense would be onerous to the poor impoverished fossil fuel companies.

"Dramatically decrease the cost of energy storage.... We will invest $30 billion for a StorageShot initiative to meet those goals."

Again, research doesn't happen by throwing money at scientists. StorageShot is a great proposal for a program, but let's not kid ourselves into thinking that $30 billion in research money will cause energy storage prices to suddenly plummet so we can phase out fossil fuels and nuclear within the next decade.

"The StorageShot program will have a goal of commercializing technologies that can provide energy lasting 24 hours to multiple days at a capital cost lower than $1,000 a kilowatt hour"

That's... that's it? That's the ambitious proposal? $1,000/kwh might be enough to make overnight storage work, but there's no way you're going to be able to handle seasonal variation that way. I was expecting him to propose capital costs that were more like a tenth of that.

Again, this problem could be solved using Lofstrom's loops, but alas, the universe hates fun and doesn't want to give that to me.

"We must be extremely careful to ensure that as we do this, we make sure that domestic manufacturing and clean economy industries thrive."

This sentence is at odds with literally the entire rest of the proposal.

"We will fund a $500 billion effort to research technologies to fully decarbonize industry, and a $150 billion effort to fully decarbonize aviation and maritime shipping and transportation. "

These feel like placeholder numbers that were put in because he has no idea how to actually do these things.

Long story short, most of what's in here seems reasonably solid, except the parts on electricity, which sound like Marianne Williamson on acid, and the parts on finance, which make me sound like HP Lovecraft on PCP. Not an especially impressive proposal.

I may read through the rest later, but I have a meeting until late tonight, and then a birthday dinner tomorrow, and then I'm going to watch chihuahuas in dinosaur costumes racing each other the day after, so I make no promises.

Commenting on this Story will be automatically closed on October 22, 2019.