STEYER V PODESTA on Renewables

October 19, 2016

In the latest round of personal email leaks, energy policy jumped into the headlines with an interesting exchange between renewable energy bankroller Tom Steyer and renewable energy advocate and current Clinton campaign manager John Podesta.

Last summer Steyer told The New York Times he couldn’t support any presidential candidate who refused to endorse his fanciful environmental goal of generating half the nation’s energy with renewable fuels by 2030. The billionaire pledged his troth and money to Bernie Sanders. After reading this, Podesta, like a jilted bride left at the altar, blasted his would-be suitor with words that would give a rap artist the vapors. (Bravender, E&E News, Oct. 14)

Both were splitting hairs, for they share two fundamental assumptions that are equally implausible. The first is that carbon-free energy will replace baseload power from fossil energy in the foreseeable future. Steyer’s renewable goal is little different from Clinton’s equally fanciful goal of generating a third or more of the nation’s electricity from renewable sources by 2027. Last year wind and solar together held 5.5 percent of the power market, coal and gas about 72 percent. So Steyer and Podesta are like two guys fighting over who’ll be first to win the Powerball lottery.

The second conviction they share should concern taxpayers: the belief that massive and inefficient federal subsidies will continue to fuel these ambitious goals. Already, subsidies for renewables dwarf those for coal, oil and natural gas. EIA says in 2013 subsidies for renewables totaled $13.2 billion; for coal $1.08. The sun is no longer among the best things in life that are free.

Renewable kilowatts are also costlier than fossil-fuel kilowatts. Last week the Institute for Energy Research challenged the Center for Biological Energy for falsely claiming that fossil energy is “kept afloat” by government largess (“A Lesson on Subsidies for the CBD”, Oct. 13). On a per megawatt hour basis, IER found that renewables are awash in government largess compared with the meager subsidies for fossil energy (IER chart). By this key metric, solar subsidies are actually hundreds of times higher – much higher than even for wind, whose government windfall is far greater than for all other fuels, even nuclear.

Both men understand why renewables will have to be subsidized to continue their impressive growth. Because otherwise consumers won’t pay for them or for any green product – whether it’s curbing emissions, buying lumber from sustainably managed forests or slowing climate change. According to a September poll conducted by the University of Chicago and the Associated Press, about 42 percent of voters say they wouldn’t pay even a dollar a month to curb greenhouse gas emissions.