Moore’s Law and The Future of Renewable Energy: Part 4

Jason Harrow

This is the fourth post in a multi-part series. In Part 1, I described Moore’s Law, which states that computer technology gets twice as good, for the same price, every two years.  In Part 2, I argued that President Obama’s clean energy goals are overly optimistic because energy technologies do not obey Moore’s Law. In Part 3, I gave two other reasons why energy technology cannot be adopted as quickly as computer technology. In this Part, I discuss policy implications. Feedback is welcome to

4. Looking Forward

Before turning to how policymakers should act given what we can expect of renewable technology for the next few decades, let me first summarize the upshot of my first three posts. As Freeman Dyson recently wrote in the New York Review of Books, since 1965, the price of electronic computer equipment “has decreased and the numbers have increased by a factor of a billion, nine powers of ten.” In 1965, practically no one had computers. Now, most people encounter dozens of things with computer chips every single day. That’s because “nine powers of ten are enough to turn a trickle into a flood.”

But the astonishing speed of adoption in the computer industry cannot be replicated in the renewable energy field. It is unlikely that the current trickle of renewables will turn into a flood by 2035. To be sure, it will be a larger trickle, and maybe there will be a major breakthrough. The good money says that the trickle won’t turn into a flood, though.

Few policymakers want to admit this, because it would make life much easier if a bunch of smart engineers could solve the nasty little problem of climate change. And so the President has offered a goal of getting to 80% “clean” energy by 2035. Yet that goal is likely unattainable, and even if we do get there, we’ll be relying more on natural gas and less on renewables than the President cared to admit publicly. That’s because renewables probably will not be cheap enough in 10 or 20 years for universal deployment by 2035 in America, let alone the developing world. If that’s the case, then we need to seriously rethink what our policy should look like.

I want to argue in this post something that most liberals won’t like to hear: we should do nothing about climate change in the short term. Squadoosh. Zero. We should pretend the problem doesn’t exist. Honestly.

A quick disclaimer: I think the problem of climate change is exceedingly serious. I agree with leading climate scientists, like Dan Shrag, who think that the situation is “dire” and that, in fact, “our predictions may be conservative.” I believe that the climate will drastically change in ways that will have major effects on human society in the span of a few decades. As Cal Tech’s Nate Lewis says, “this is not changing a few lightbulbs in Fresno.” This is upending our entire energy infrastructure, and soon — because real disaster looms.

We have to start admitting to ourselves, though, that we can’t stave off disaster by reducing carbon emissions over the next several decades. It won’t happen because of politics, so technology is our only hope. I’ve argued over the last several weeks that this last hope is unlikely to bear fruit in the next few decades, though. Ultimately, we are too far down the line, and we can’t throw a switch and turn off the carbon emissions any time soon.

We have to think about the problem of stopping climate change as akin to trying to stop a runaway train: once you’ve passed the critical distance needed to break the train, it’s just over. You can’t stop the train in time any more — you just try to contain the damage. You can cross your fingers that it’ll stop, and you can pretend like there’s still hope because a crash hasn’t happened yet (any maybe, just maybe, Denzel Washington will be on board). But if the train is 50 feet away from the wall and it takes 100 feet to break, it’s a matter of if, not when. That hope is false hope.

Likewise, the state of renewable technology means we just can’t get to a level of carbon in the atmosphere that will stop major climate changes from occurring this century. We emitted too much carbon before we knew that doing so would cause a problem, and renewable technologies won’t be good enough in the near future to put the genie back in the bottle.

Unfortunately, if technology won’t do the job, then the next best solution is politically impossible. We need a really high price on carbon, and we need it yesterday — that’s the only way to flip the carbon emissions switch from on to off. But much less drastic measures have failed to attain sufficient poliitcal support.  The failed Waxman-Markey Bill would have required electricity providers to satisfy 20% of demand “from a combination of electricity savings and renewable electricity” in 2039. I’m sorry, but as far as the climate’s concerned, that’s closer to turning off a lightbulb in Fresno than turning off every coal plant in America, let alone all the new ones that China builds every year. And even that bill couldn’t pass.

Actually, both Waxman-Markey and the President’s 80% clean energy goal are the equivalents of throwing a small glass of water on a five-alarm blaze (especially once you realize that the “clean energy” goal is really a “natural gas” goal plus a blind wish that renewables will somehow start getting a lot cheaper a lot faster than they are). We need the fire department, not a glass of water. Sadly, the Fire Department doesn’t seem to be forthcoming.

Some readers may agree with that proposition, but I think most would then say “but something must be better than nothing.” I don’t think that’s true. Rather, doing basically nothing — for now — is preferable to the ineffectual and unrealistic proposals that represent the only steps that could be politically feasible. How could this be?

The main reason is that there will almost certainly be fewer American jobs and lower economic growth in the near and medium term if we have some middling green energy policy than with no green energy policy. That’s because there’s no such thing as “green jobs” — there are only “jobs” and “unemployment.” Given that, why must it be the case that a country powered by wind and solar — especially when those technologies are more expensive than the alternatives — would have more jobs in it than a country powered by gas and coal?

In fact, as reported recently in Slate, an important new study on this topic concluded that “the number of jobs that these policies create is likely to be offset — or worse — by the number of jobs that they destroy.” Worse, even the jobs that are created will not necessarily be American jobs, because “China tops the world in solar panel manufacturing.” Moreover, our cost of electricity would be higher if we had a policy that artificially incented companies to build solar facilities, and those higher prices simply have to slow short-term economic growth. Such costs in terms of lost jobs, higher energy prices, and slower growth could be worth it if we were making any headway on the climate change problem with these policies. We’re not.

Second, a middling policy will let us pretend that we are doing something about the problem. This possibility looms large because the climate change problem is not like traditional governmental problems that operate on individuals. Consider that for problems like providing healthcare or eliminating segregation or alleviating poverty, the government might be validly criticized from the left for not doing “enough.” But everyone would concede that for the people helped by the government program, “something” is better than “nothing.” For instance, I wish more children participated in Head Start, but surely a program that includes some children is better than not having the program at all.

Climate change is not like that. It’s much more like an on-off switch: either we do something major, from a global perspective, or we’re cooked. It’s not the case that “every little bit helps” — actually, only really big changes help. Pretending we’re doing something may stop us from thinking bigger sometime down the line when the p0litical winds have changed.

I think we should therefore free ourselves from the strictures of thinking about climate change when we design energy policy this decade. We should recognize that down the line we will need to mitigate the problem and likely even engage in geoengineering to cool the planet. That is scary but inevitable, and we should get used to it. But we don’t have to do it today or tomorrow, and we can’t do much about it now anyway.

So let’s make good energy policy based on other factors in the short and medium term instead of pursuing the ineffectual and incoherent course we are now pursuing. Some of that may of course mean renewable energy sources, because there are other good reasons to pursue them — reducing dependence on oil for national security reasons first among them. But, if it’s inevitable that we’re not going to make a dent in carbon emissions this decade by radically altering our energy sources, let’s at least not artificially slow economic growth while we’re at it. One mistake is more than enough.

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