By Andy May
French President Macron has implemented a new fuel tax to discourage drivers from burning fossil fuels in their cars. The resulting higher fuel prices have caused more than 250,000 people to protest, with some rioting. Polls indicate that 62 percent of the population think that prioritizing man-made climate change over fuel prices is wrong. The rioting has led to two deaths and over 600 injured. Almost 100 police officers have been hurt.
Macron’s popularity has sunk to 21 percent in a warning to other leaders who try to fight climate change with higher fossil fuel taxes. While Macron is unpopular for many reasons, the increase in gasoline taxes was the spark that ignited the protests and rioting.
Moral of the story? Rant all you want about possible man-made climate change, but don’t you dare touch my fossil fuels! The latest word is that Macron is going make his “energy transition” easier. Code for caving in, no doubt.
[Un]Scientific American claims that eliminating fossil fuels is easy, citing an article by Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucci, and will create more jobs than would be lost. They also claim that a plan to eliminate fossil fuels in New York would save $33 billion. If you believe that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn that I can sell you for half price.
The replacement of fossil fuels with renewables is an incredibly complex problem. I’ve tried to explain some of the difficulties here. I’ve also discussed the costs of renewable energy here. A more technical and complete discussion of replacing fossil fuels with renewables in Texas, by Peter Davies, can be seen in two parts on Judith Curry’s website, here and here.
Davies found that converting the state of Texas from fossil fuels to 100% renewables should be technically feasible, but very expensive. He used Texas to do his study because the state has very good data on energy consumption and abundant wind and sunshine. Further, the Texas grid is largely isolated from the rest of the country, making it easier to analyze. Basically, as Davies writes: “If a 100% renewable grid won’t work for Texas then it won’t work anywhere else.”
Texas solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity factors average around 32 percent, which is much higher than the U.S. average (probably around 20 percent), coincidentally the Texas average wind power capacity factor is also about 32 percent and in some areas, it is almost 50%. Davies concludes that a mix of solar PV and Wind, plus enough storage for windless nights, can supply Texas with adequate power. There is also enough land available for the installations which will cover 11,600 square kilometers or 4,500 square miles.
From a technical standpoint, Texas could be powered entirely from solar and wind, with backup from batteries and renewable gas storage (both methane and hydrogen). What about the cost? Davies estimates a 2030 wholesale electricity cost of 6.1 to 9.2 cents per kWh (kilowatt-hour). However, this is clearly a very low estimate as he does not include all capital costs. He assumes zero infrastructure costs, such as roads, permitting and regulatory costs. He does include the cost of equipment but ignores transportation and installation. Further, his cost of renewable methane seems unreasonably low. Finally, he ignores the cost of the required land and does not deal with the transition from gasoline and diesel to electric vehicles.
The current wholesale price of electricity in Texas is about 2.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. At the peak of the recent fossil fuel boom, between 2005 and 2008, it was between 5.5 cents and 7.5 cents due to the high cost of fossil fuels then. From 2002 to the present, it has averaged about 4.3 cents. Thus, the cost of Texas moving to 100% renewables, is between 40% and 210% higher than we are used to paying. This is much lower than the differential observed in Germany with their energiewende program. In figure 3 we can see the surcharge (in cents per kWh) that German consumers must pay to support the program.
Even with the enormous renewable surcharges on German power consumers, they are still at only 36% renewable power in 2017. Texas has much more available wind and sunshine than Germany (Germany’s sun intensity is comparable to Alaska), thus one might expect the cost in Germany to be higher, but even so, Davies figures for the Texas transition to 100% renewables appear to be too low. But, even accepting Davies figures, an increase in electricity costs of 40 to 200 percent in Texas might still cause demonstrations and rioting. The transition is technically possible, but economically implausible. The political leaders in Texas and in the U.S. should pay close attention to what is happening in France today.
As (Andor, Frondel and Vance 2017) point out, if you keep raising the price of “clean” energy, you eventually reach a point where the public is unwilling to pay. This has apparently happened in France.
Andor, Mark, Manuel Frondel, and Colin Vance. 2017. “Germany’s Energiewende: A Tale of Increasing Costs and Decreasing Willingness-to-Pay.” 30. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2928760.