Published on February 17th, 2020 | by Zachary Shahan
February 17th, 2020 by Zachary Shahan
Ah, man. It’s annoying as heck to see people who you think are idiots screw up a topic you know well, but it’s an extra special kind of annoying when brilliant people screw up — massively — on that same topic. In this edition of “Smart people who don’t understand the energy industry of 2020,” we’ve got Fareed Zakaria of CNN.
Fareed is one of the most astute global political commenters I can think of. He’s a brilliant analyst who knows a great deal about the politics of numerous countries and has a true talent for slicing through the noise to get to the heart of a matter. But politics is not the same as policy, and geopolitics is not the same as domestic energy policy.
Unfortunately, for whatever reason, Fareed has swallowed and digested some truly inane energy industry talking points. In a video segment and column, “Bernie Sanders’ magical thinking on climate,” Fareed communicates several falsehoods and misleading claims in just a few short minutes. I have no idea where he picked up these talking points, but they definitely stem from certain energy industry propaganda sources — not good science on these topics.
There are several portions of the monologue that deserve a response, but I’ll start by pointing out that anyone who really wants to learn about this matter should:
Listen to “Transitioning the World to 100% Renewable Energy.”
Read the following five articles about Stanford University Professor Mark Z. Jacobson’s latest master work on transitioning the grid to 100% renewable energy (in detailed, practical, cost-effective ways and for every minute of the day and year). His unmatched work also shows why 100% renewable energy is also the cheapest option for society:
Regarding Fareed’s comments, I have to start with nuclear, just because the recommendation was so inane. Fareed somehow thinks nuclear is a better option than renewables — perhaps he thinks it’s still 1970. In actuality, new nuclear is an illogical solution on the most important topics — cost and speed of installation.
Nuclear is several times more expensive than renewables, even if you “overbuild” renewables to meet electricity needs 100% at all times of year*. Nuclear is not even close to cost competitive, which is why everyone is building renewables and no one’s building nuclear — corporations, governments, and individuals all follow the same logical market trend. It also takes forever to build nuclear power plants (several years, perhaps even a decade or longer in many cases), whereas large solar farms and wind farms can go up in a matter of months. Nuclear power (new power capacity) makes absolutely no sense as a climate solution when you look at the facts and see it’s much more expensive than renewables, much slower to build, and also much less flexible (the last thing the grid needs).
Now, if Fareed’s only concern is shutting down existing nuclear prematurely, that’s a fine concern. However, that’s not what Bernie’s plan proposes. US nuclear power plants are old — very old. They will be too old to keep in service by 2030, at which point probably not a single one will be economically competitive. We shouldn’t shut down nuclear prematurely, but we also shouldn’t subsidize it for years to keep it running when we have better/cheaper solutions.
Another odd claim: that 5% of “energy consumption” in the US comes from renewables. In this case, he decided to lump transport, heating, and electricity together when it was clear the rest of the conversation was only about electricity. 18% of US electricity is currently from renewables, not 5%.
Further, Fareed cites energy market data trends from 2005–2016. He ignores the past 4 years. The first half of that time period also includes the time before solar became a mature, cost-competitive technology, and even the same for wind to some extent. These two energy sources are now the cheapest options for new electricity capacity around the world and have accounted for the majority of new power capacity globally for the past few years. The timeframe used to highlight natural gas’s role in the transition diminishes the role renewables play today, and it definitely diminishes the role they will play in the coming decade, when they are becoming not only cheaper than new coal, nuclear, or natural gas power plants, but also cheaper than electricity from already installed power plants.
There’s a variety of other cherry picking and misleading talking points thrown into the mix, but at this point, the whole 4-minute rundown on the energy industry is such an out-of-date embarrassment that I don’t even see the point of going further. The biggest arguments Fareed makes are the most ridiculous. I’m super curious where he accumulated these 20th century arguments. They are too out of touch with the real energy market of 2020 for me to believe that he had an unbiased expert on staff help him to create this piece.
It’s ironic that he used the term “magical thinking” in his title, since the ill-informed summary is packed with magical thinking — from him, not from Bernie’s truthfully top-notch energy team.
For more on the topic, whether Fareed sees this article or someone else not up to speed with the industry does, here are some top starting points aside from the great articles already listed above:
Naturally, I’d be happy to talk with Fareed about this at much greater length — I could do so for hours or days. People more qualified than me to do so include Mark Z. Jacobson and Mike Barnard. If you are going to dabble in a new topic and you have a gigantic microphone, it’s critical to get a thorough, up-to-date rundown of the topic from people who are at the top of the industry looking at the big picture. If Fareed talked to anyone at all about these issues before running his piece and making the video, they certainly weren’t modern experts on the topic. It’s an unfortunate error in a time when media personalities need to really be on top of their game and demonstrate why the public should continue to learn from them. With at least 9 out of 10 segments with Fareed being so informational and insightful, it’s hard to be too presumptuous or harsh on him this time, but the production was also too ill informed and misleading to skip over.
Fareed, get in touch with someone who can help you move from 1990 to 2020 on energy topics. Don’t engage in magical thinking and then project that on others like our constantly ill informed current president does.
*That means curtailing excess renewable energy at times of high supply and low demand rather than simply trying to make renewable energy supply exactly 100% of demand in those periods and then have to fill in with storage or something else in <100% times.
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