Research & Commentary: U.S. Transition to 100 Percent Renewable Energy ‘Would Lead to Catastrophe’

Published April 24, 2019

A February 2019 policy brief from the Institute for Energy Research explains why the United States, contrary to the claims of advocates, will not be able to transition to 100 percent “renewable” energy production. The 100 Percent Renewable Energy Myth notes “setting a national goal of relying upon 100 percent renewable energy within a decade would lead to catastrophe,” and would “require at least $5.7 trillion of investment in renewable energy and storage.”

The brief begins by noting “renewable” energy sources such as wind and solar are intermittent generators, and only have capacity factors of 34.6 percent and 25.7 percent, respectively. Because of these low capacity factors, renewables must be backed up by conventional energy sources such as natural gas and coal, or require large-scale battery backup. However, technology does not exist to provide battery backup on the size and scale a 100 percent renewable scenario would require.

Further, the immense land requirements necessary for wind and solar facilities also undermines the feasibility of moving to 100 percent renewables. The brief estimates getting to 100 percent renewables would require blanketing a third of the land in the United States with wind turbines and solar panels. Wind power requires more than 70 acres of land per megawatt of electricity produced. Solar power requires more than 43 acres. This is 5.5 and 3.5 times more land required, respectively, to produce a megawatt of electricity than is required from natural gas.

Moreover, construction of wind turbines and solar panels requires vast quantities of rare-earth metals such as dysprosium, indium, neodymium, and tellurium, which are primarily mined in China. The brief argues the move to 100 percent renewables would “shift the United States’ self-reliance on electricity generation to a reliance on Chinese and other suppliers, unless countless new mines were started in the U.S. to develop the copper for electric motor windings and the strategic and critical rare earth metals that are essential to these technologies. The United States would be much more dependent on China for these materials than the United States was ever dependent on the Middle East for oil before the horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing revolution came along.”

What’s more, states that force utilities to generate a certain percentage of electricity from renewable sources—known as “renewable energy mandates” or “renewable portfolio standards”—are experiencing energy rate increases twice as fast as the national average. States with these mandates had electricity prices 26 percent higher than those without. The 29 states with renewable energy mandates (plus the District of Columbia) had average retail electricity prices of 11.93 cents per kilowatt hour (cents/kWh), according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. On the other hand, the 21 states without renewable mandates had average retail electricity prices of only 9.38 cents/kWh. In just 12 states, the total net cost of renewable mandates was $5.76 billion in 2016 and will rise to $8.8 billion in 2030, a 2016 study revealed.

A study by the left-leaning Brookings Institution found replacing conventional power with wind power raises electricity prices 50 percent and replacing conventional power with solar power triples electricity costs. A 2019 working paper from researchers at the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago finds even a miniscule 1-4 percent increase in renewable generation leads to an 11-17 percent hike in electricity prices.

“Intermittent wind and solar cannot stand on their own,” the brief concludes. “They must have some form of back-up power, from reliable coal, natural gas, nuclear units, storage capability from hydroelectric facilities, and/or batteries. Batteries of the size and scope needed for 100-percent renewables are unproven and not cost effective. Even if a 100 percent renewable future were feasible, the land requirements and costs of transitioning would be enormous and would require subsidies to ease the electricity price increases that would result.”

State legislators should not mandate the use of renewable sources in electricity generation, especially in such a quixotic manner as to require 100 percent renewable generation. Such mandates raise energy costs and disproportionally harm low-income families. Instead of trying to increase renewable mandates, legislators should repeal them.

The following documents provide more information about renewable energy mandates.

The 100 Percent Renewable Energy Myth
This Policy Brief from the Institute for Energy Research argues that a countrywide 100 percent renewable plan would put the U.S. economy in jeopardy. The brief investigates the intermittency, land requirements, capacity factors, and cost of transition and construction materials that limit the ability of the U.S. to adapt to 100 percent renewable energy.

Do Renewable Portfolio Standards Deliver?
This working paper from the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago finds that average retail electricity prices in states after the passage of a renewable energy mandate are 11 percent higher after seven years and 17 percent higher after a dozen years, even though the increase in renewable electricity generation is a minimal 1-4 percent. Reducing carbon dioxide emissions in this fashion costs between $130 and $460 per metric ton.

Evaluating the Costs and Benefits of Renewable Portfolio Standards
This paper by Timothy J. Considine, a distinguished professor of energy economics at the School of Energy Resources and the Department of Economics and Finance at the University of Wyoming, examines the renewable portfolio standards (RPS) of 12 different states and concludes while RPS investments stimulate economic activity, the negative economic impacts associated with higher electricity prices offset the claimed economic advantages of these RPS investments.

Legislating Energy Poverty: A Case Study of How California’s and New York’s Climate Change Policies Are Increasing Energy Costs and Hurting the Economy
This analysis from Wayne Winegarden of the Pacific Research Institute shows the big government approach to fighting climate change taken by California and New York hits working class and minority communities the hardest. The paper reviews the impact of global warming policies adopted in California and New York, such as unrealistic renewable energy goals, strict low carbon fuel standards, and costly subsidies for buying higher-priced electric cars and installing solar panels. The report’s authors found that collectively these expensive and burdensome policies are dramatically increasing the energy burdens of their respective state residents.

The U.S. Leads the World in Clean Air: The Case for Environmental Optimism
This paper from the Texas Public Policy Foundation examines how the United States achieved robust economic growth while dramatically reducing emissions of air pollutants. The paper states that these achievements should be celebrated as a public policy success story, but instead the prevailing narrative among political and environmental leaders is one of environmental decline that can only be reversed with a more stringent regulatory approach. The paper urges for the data to be considered and applied to the narrative.

The Social Benefits of Fossil Fuels
This Heartland Policy Brief by Joseph Bast and Peter Ferrara documents the many benefits from the historic and still ongoing use of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are lifting billions of people out of poverty, reducing all the negative effects of poverty on human health, and vastly improving human well-being and safety by powering labor-saving and life-protecting technologies, such as air conditioning, modern medicine, and cars and trucks. They are dramatically increasing the quantity of food humans produce and improving the reliability of the food supply, directly benefiting human health. Further, fossil fuel emissions are possibly contributing to a “Greening of the Earth,” benefiting all the plants and wildlife on the planet.

Climate Change Reconsidered II: Fossil Fuels – Summary for Policymakers—summary-for-policymakers
In this fifth volume of the Climate Change Reconsidered series, 117 scientists, economists, and other experts assess the costs and benefits of the use of fossil fuels by reviewing scientific and economic literature on organic chemistry, climate science, public health, economic history, human security, and theoretical studies based on integrated assessment models and cost-benefit analysis.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit Environment & Climate News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

The Heartland Institute can send an expert to your state to testify or brief your caucus; host an event in your state; or send you further information on a topic. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if we can be of assistance! If you have any questions or comments, contact George Jamerson, Heartland’s government relations director, at [email protected] or 312/377-4000.