Mark P. Mills is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a faculty fellow at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, where he co-directs an Institute on Manufacturing Science and Innovation. He recently spoke with City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly about the Biden agenda on energy and the environment.
What impact will Biden’s energy policies have on global climate?
The short answer: none. The key issue is unrelated to anyone’s opinion about global warming. What matters is whether the kinds of efforts proposed can arithmetically make any meaningful difference in world energy use. I emphasize “world.” Cancelling the Keystone Pipeline, for example, didn’t eliminate oil use. It just shifted where it’s shipped to, and how it’s shipped—somewhere else, and more expensively. And even if efforts to strangle Keystone’s output were successful, eliminating that much oil use wouldn’t change anything in the global context. For example, China plans to build more coal power plants that will, in carbon terms, equal about 20 Keystone Pipelines. And about one-third of those new coal plants are already under construction. That’s just China. Similar plans for more coal, and more oil, and more natural gas use are afoot in South Asia and the rest of the world.
The administration has proposed spending $2 trillion on its climate programs. Does this represent the true cost of “decarbonizing” energy production in the U.S.?
That’s not even close to the true cost, either directly or indirectly in terms of overall economic consequences. Looking just at the electric grid, which accounts for about one-third of America’s energy use, it would cost at least $5 trillion to build enough wind, solar, and battery systems to replace all the power plants that currently burn natural gas and coal. And, in broad economic terms, all that money will have been spent to produce the same quantity of the same product—kilowatt-hours. That kind of spending is the polar opposite of improving society’s productivity. This matters because increasing productivity is, as all economists know, the key to increasing society’s overall wealth. Even if such programs create jobs, and they would, we’d be putting more labor into producing the same output which, ultimately, is negative for economic growth.
How will these policies affect cities?
If they’re implemented as envisioned, it will mean both more expensive and less reliable electricity. A realiable grid is more important in our increasingly everything-digital age, and also as more electricity is used for transportation. Roughly speaking, we’ll nearly have to double the grid to replace all the oil used on the roads.
What lessons should we take away from last month’s cold snap and rolling blackouts in Texas?
Eventually, after all the finger-pointing and green-spinning, we’ll find out that there were multiple relevant factors in the domino of events that happened. That’s always the case with big disasters. But all disasters start with a trigger. In Texas, it began with a near total loss of output from the state’s huge wind farms. Put differently, there wouldn’t have been an outage if just a fraction of the Texas wind capacity had instead been the kind of power plants that grid operators can call on when they’re needed. And those would be things like winterized natural gas turbines. At the center of the debate about how to prevent a next time—and there’s always a next time with weather events—there’s a simple truism: the hallmark of all critical infrastructure is reserve capabilities that are available when needed. I know that some people are seriously proposing that batteries can do that job for wind. Texas is planning to build the world’s second biggest battery-storage system for a “next time.” For perspective, that planned, huge storage system will be able to store just three minutes of the electricity produced by Texas wind farms.
What recent books would you recommend on energy and the environment?
For confirmation that there are no global-scale solutions to changing world energy supply or demand, there’s Bill Gates’s new book, How to Avoid A Climate Disaster. Gates, of course, starts from the premise that we need to do something. For sobering perspective on the consequences of green-energy technologies, I just started reading The World For Sale: Money, Power, and the Traders Who Barter the Earth’s Resources. The title is self-explanatory. As I’ve written often, the shift from oil and gas to wind, solar, and batteries is a shift from liquids and gases to using solids and mining for energy minerals. That shift entails an enormous—about ten-fold—increase in the total quantities of materials used for each unit of energy delivered. And it means a shift in the places where we get critical energy materials; from domestic production to imports. Those shifts will be consequential.
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