We shattered a CO2 record last month. Here’s how we can build a Green New Deal.

  • Published on May 5th, 2019

It’s impossible to talk about infrastructure without talking about the Green New Deal.  For the purpose of these diaries, we will refer to the version(1) of the Green New Deal put out by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez in H.Res. 109.  This bill calls for the United States to convert to 100% renewable energy within 10 years through a massive mobilization on the order of World War II and the Apollo Program combined. So what would it take to do that? Is that even possible? And what would happen if we achieve it?

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory puts out this energy flow diagram for the United States.
Note the massive amount of wasted energy in light grey, much of which is natural, as no machine is 100% efficient, meaning a lot of energy usage is wasted as heat. 

By Fortunate Son

As you can see from the above energy flow diagram  from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory , the present breakdown of energy by source isn’t that promising. Add up all the renewable sources, and that still only gets us to 11%.

The Green New Deal calls for us to get 100% of our energy from renewable sources by 2030.

The 14% of energy consumption from coal is rapidly shrinking, but it is being replaced by natural gas.
The 14% of energy consumption from coal is rapidly shrinking, but it is being replaced by natural gas.

Some mountains may be just too high, so I’m going to keep that 9% of generation from nuclear power for now, since nuclear fission per se, as dangerous as it is, does not generate greenhouse gasses.

But We Can Do This (Right?)

As I wrote in a diary on California already building High Speed Rail, something amazing happened in the United States the middle of last decade. It was not just that humanity finally figured out what to do about solving the problem of greenhouse gasses resulting from power generation (i.e., wind + solar). The United States was already doing it.

So, let’s build the remaining 86.7 quads of wind and solar generating capacity!

Is there enough room to build enough solar power? Yes, one study says we need 21,250 square miles of solar panels.

Is there enough room to build enough wind power? Also yes. It turns out it would take 3,995,434 more turbines to power the United States.  Spaced relatively close together, as on a wind farm, these would take up about half the size of Alaska.

But interspersed amidst communities, in backyards and on rooftops, plus going offshore, the footprint would go way down.

A recent study found that about 75% wind and 25% solar would be about what would be best to replace fossil fuels based on geography, solar incidence, and wind data. So the United States would need 5,500 mi2 of solar panels, and about 3,000,000 more wind turbines(4).

With some important caveats(5), which we will all summarily dismiss for this diary, this isn’t out of the realm of what is possible.

Ready to Flip the Switch

So we wave our magic wand, and build the 5,500 mi2 of solar panels, and about 3,000,000 more wind turbines, all by 2030, and connect them to the electrical grid(7). President Ocasio-Cortez(8) is there to flip the switch, and…

They told me they fixed it. We built enough solar panels and wind turbines! Why did everything just go dark?

Electricity, On Demand

The US power grid is a marvel of engineering. The National Academy of Engineering has called it one of the greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century.  The electrical grids of the contiguous United States consists of 120,000 mi of lines operated by 500 companies. But it has a built in weakness with regards to renewable energy: it works on demand (just like every other electrical grid on the planet).

What does electricity on demand mean? Well, it’s not unlike Bart Simpson’s imagination:

You want more power? Well, you have to shovel on more dogs coal, oil, gas, etc. Here’s a more technically accurate explanation that doesn’t involve dogs:

Excluding wind and solar from our simplification, power around the world is generated by engines. And these engines run on fuel, whether it be coal, oil, or gas at fossil fuel plants, or steam at nuclear power plants. These engines power large, rotating alternating current generators. And turning those generators isn’t easy.  There’s magnetic resistance from the current they have generated, not unlike drag on a car or airplane.  The frequency at which that current is supplied is key. Here in the United States, it is 60 Hz.  The generators must spin at a speed that is a multiple of the desired frequency, such as 1800 rpm or 3600 rpm. When the power load increases (you turn on a light), this extra current travels all the way back to the generator at the power plant, and increases the resistance on the engine. The engine must therefore work harder to keep in phase, so the governor calls for more fossil fuel or steam. The opposite happens when you turn that light off.

This is an oversimplification, of course. One light bulb alone has an imperceptible impact on the electrical distribution system. But hundreds of thousands of people increasing or decreasing load are what the electrical distribution system handles every day. Sometimes, should that load occur unexpectedly, not well.

And now you see why fossil fuels were such a natural fit for our alternating current electrical distribution system. It’s not just that they were relatively cheap and that people were ignorant of global warning. When load increases, you just add more dogsfuel. But with renewable sources like wind and solar, that’s harder. You can’t make the wind blow or the sun shine when you need it. Not to mention the united States is in darkness for several hours every night, thanks to all those muckrakers who debunked the flat earth theory.

A Giant, Rechargeable Battery

The Green New Deal (or some version thereof) must go on if we are to save the planet, and the solution to the problem of the wind sometimes not blowing and the sun sometimes not shining is to build giant (rechargeable) batteries.

You can build all the solar panels and wind turbines you want, but without building massive energy storage, the Green New Deal simply will not work.

What is energy storage? Basically, it’s the capture of energy produced at one time for use at a later time. The most accessible example is the rechargeable batteries you have at home, as in your cell phone. This type of rechargeable battery takes electrical energy from the plug socket and converts it into chemical potential, and then uses that chemical potential to generate electricity when unplugged. That works for a 1 watt cell phone, but what about powering a Nation like the United States that uses tens of quadrillions of watts every hour?

Again, the United States is already doing it, and even leading the way. The United States actually has about 23 gigawatts (GW) of storage capacity. That’s nowhere near enough for the Green New Deal. It’s estimated the Green New Deal would need at least 100 to 1000(7) times that to match the terawatt level of consumption.

The U.S. currently uses about 3,900 terawatt-hours (TWh) per year. A 12 hour chunk of that would be about 5.4 TWh… If each of the 110 million single family homes in the U.S. were to install an energy storage system, and split the total volume needed with the electricity utilities, we’d need approximately 24kWh/home.

24kWh is only about half the size of a Tesla Model 3. So everyone gets half a Model 3. But chemical batteries are actually a really bad way to do this, as mining the rare earth elements used in them is pretty bad for the environment. And they’re called rare. Which tells you you need to know about them.

Fortunately, there are also an amazing array of other ways to achieve energy storage, all of them very Sisyphean. From David Roberts:

The oldest and highest capacity is pumped hydro, whereby water is pumped uphill to store energy and then run down through turbines to release it. (A company in the American West is attempting a dry-land variation of this, pushing giant blocks uphill on train tracks.) …. And beyond that power can be stored as heat (in, e.g., molten salt), as cold (in ice)…

The bulk of energy storage is presently as pumped hydro. When there is a surplus of energy (during day time, when the wind is blowing, etc.), water from down below is pumped up to a reservoir. When there is a need for energy (at night time, there’s no wind, etc.), the reservoir powers a normal hydroelectric power station. Pumped hydro is just a hydroelectric power station with pumps capable of sending water back up to the reservoir, and capacity in that reservoir to store the exta water.

pumped water energy storage system

The train blocks work similarly. When there is a surplus of green energy, an electric motor drives the train cars up a hill. When there is a need for energy, gravity pulls the train cars back down, where they turn a flywheel to generate energy.


Animation courtesy of ARES North America
Animation courtesy of ARES North America

Like I said, it’s all very Sisyphean. But there’s the same problem with all these physical energy storage means: They don’t respond quickly to changes in demand. Thankfully…

There is… Another…

But what if we could have an energy storage means that:

  1. Has all the benefits of fossil fuel combustion, but with none of the environmental costs of having to burn a fossil fuel?
  2. Has all the benefits of electrochemical battery storage, but with none of the problems associated with rare earth minerals?

Well, there is. And it uses the most abundant element in the Universe: Water.

There are more fascinating uses of hydrogen for a green economy than can be contained in just one diary(11). I’ll let David Roberts give an excellent summary:

It is an odd twist of chemistry that there is fuel embedded in the most common substance on earth: water.

Hydrogen — the H of H2O fame — turns out to be something of an all-purpose element, a Swiss Army knife for energy. It can be produced without greenhouse gases. It is highly flammable, so it can be used as a combustion fuel. It can be fed into a fuel cell to produce electricity directly, without combustion, through an electrochemical process.

It can be stored and distributed as a gas or a liquid. It can be combined with CO2 (and/or nitrogen and other gases) to create other useful fuels like methane or ammonia. It can be used as a chemical input in a range of industrial processes, helping to make fertilizers, plastics, or pharmaceuticals.

It is quite handy.

Most hydrogen is presently manufactured by steam reforming of natural gas. This basically involves blasting natural gas with high temperature steam to prise loose hydrogen. This obviously can’t be used in a Green New Deal. But as David Roberts already notes, there is all the hydrogen we would ever need on Earth, in the form of water. And all you need to do to get that hydrogen is apply electricity.

The reaction for the electrolysis of water is:

2H2O(l) +Energy → 2H2(g) + O2(g)

That hydrogen can then turned around and be burned in a turbine to generate electricity:

2H2(g) + O2(g) → 2H2O(l) +Energy

Why doesn’t burning this hydrogen cause global warming? Because we’re not adding anything to the atmosphere(10). Contrast this with fossil fuels, where we are taking carbon that has been sequestered since the carboniferous period underground and putting it back in the atmosphere today.  With hydrogen fuel, we’ve taken water, broken it apart, combusted it, and reformed water. There’s nothing added, nothing gained.

So why aren’t we already doing this? Well, it’s hard.

The hydrogen in water doesn’t really want to let go of the oxygen (they are “strongly bonded”), so cracking them apart takes quite a bit of energy. The resulting hydrogen has to be stored, either by compressing it as a gas with big pumps or by (weakly) bonding it to something else and storing it as a liquid. That gas or liquid will require a distribution infrastructure. Finally, the hydrogen has to be extracted from storage and converted back to energy, either by burning it or putting it through a fuel cell.

By that time, the amount of energy invested in the process exceeds what can be gotten back out by a wide margin.

But there have been recent developments making hydrogen easier to extract and store.

The Appeal of Hydrogen

So where do our fossil fuel plants come in? We already have an electric grid designed around relatively few, large power plants being sources of high voltage electricity, which is generation there and then distributed. The cost to replace the US electrical grid would be about $5 Trillion. Why make the Green New Deal any harder than it already will be?

And our power stations have already been built and permitted(12). They are typically occupying land away from developed areas, are almost always near water sources, and if they run on liquefied natural gas (LNG), they already have high pressure bulk storage on site.

LNG is already used to generate the plurality of electricity in the United States. What if a LNG power plant could be converted to burn hydrogen instead? It can! And Mitsubishi is presently converting a power station in the Netherlands to do just that.

The 1.32-GW Magnum gas-fired power plant in The Netherlands

You can see the appeal, as all that’s needed is adding the means to generate and store the hydrogen. All the electricity and other equipment is already there. It is actually very difficult to burn hydrogen in a turbine, which is why it’s taken this long to get to this point. But progress has been made.

We Can Do This

The hydrogen economy has seen many periods of promise, only for economics to dash our hopes. But the Green New Deal, and Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, have changed everything by bringing the Green New Deal back into the spotlight. And energy storage must be a part of any Green New Deal. It doesn’t just answer the Republican talking point of what happens at night when or when the wind doesn’t blow. It answers how we can build a Green New Deal without the trillions in modifications to our existing infrastructure.


(1) Many may be surprised to learn that Rep. Ocasio-Cortez did not invent the Green New Deal.  Nor did her staffers. This isn’t a criticism of Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, whom I strongly support here in New York(2). The credit actually goes to a rather surprising source: Runner Up for “New York Times Worst Columnist of the Year” for the 18th Year Running: Thomas Friedman. He actually conceived the idea 12 years (24 Friedman Units) ago, maybe while having a conversation in the back of a taxi. Because infrastructure discussions elsewhere may invoke different historic versions of the Green New Deal,  I want to be clear which version we will be using here, which is the Rep. Ocasio-Cortez version that focuses primarily on achieving the IPCC goal of holding global warming to +1.5°C by 2030(3)

(2) I do not live in NY-14, so she is not my congresswoman, but I do live in a neighboring district.

(3) This is the IPCC goal enshrined in the Paris Accordssigned by President Obama, and then undone by noted climate activist “Dr.” Jill Stein.

(4) For the sake of this diary, we will ignore the very real risk that there aren’t enough rare earth minerals available to build this many solar solar panels and wind turbines.

(5) Now, we also have to electrify everything to make this work. We would need to electrify 140,000 miles of rail, replace 98% of the 263.6 million passenger vehicles with electric vehicles(6), the 141.8 million commercial vehicles with electric trucks, the 5.7 million homes that use fuel oil and the 62 million homes that use natural gas with electric heat. There’s nothing we can do about air travel with current technology, so we will assume that we can use biofuel or electrically generated synthetic fuel or something that might exist by 2030.

(6) 2.1% of passenger vehicles in the United States are already electric.

(7) Again, please note there is a raging debate as to whether this is even possible.

(8) Rep. Ocasio-Cortez will be 35 on Tuesday, November 5, 2024. Just saying.

(9) This analysis assumes only 80% renewable energy. Additional storage would be required for 100% renewable energy as called for by the Green New Deal.

(10) Yes, I know steam is a greenhouse gas.

(11) Did you know you can take hydrogen, carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and make diesel fuel? Yes, you can.

(12) In an era of Not in My Back Yard (NIMBY), permitting and approval, not science, are the biggest obstacles.

(Crossposted from DailyKos.)

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