Fareed Zakaria, a regular commentator for CNN, Time and the Washington Post, critiques Bernie Sanders’ climate plans as magic thinking. Granted, they are flawed, but not by much. Sanders wants to stop both gas and nuclear by 2030, a very ambitious goal. Zakaria scoffs at it as unrealistic. But is it?
The U.S. has cut its emissions in the last decade, mostly by replacing coal-fired energy plants by Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) ones. Yet there are still relatively few gas plants operating, although many are under development. LNG plants are destined to become uneconomical within a few years, as renewable sources continue to get cheaper and gas prices rise. Therefore Sanders need not close operating gas plants; it will suffice to put a hold on all new gas plants, of which there are many in the design and permitting stages. Most nuclear fission plants are nearing the end of their permitted operation; they’ll be closed within a few years. It would be enough for Sanders to call a halt to any new fission plants, if there are any wending their way through the long approval process. There’s an opportunity cost to building both those types of plants; the money to build them would be better spent on wind, solar, hydro, and on battery research, which Zakaria says is necessary. Both gas and nuclear are uneconomic in most places today. Nuclear plants are hugely expensive on a lifetime cost basis; gas plants are likewise uncompetitive if the environmental costs of fracking and the global heating that the CO2 they emit are reasonably costed. If new gas plants are built, they will be uneconomical long before their 30-40 year life span is over. They’ll be forced into bankruptcy just like coal plants these days. LNG is cheap now, but the sun and the wind will always be free. The lifetime costs of energy from wind, solar, and batteries will continue their sharp decline.
It may take us more than a decade to clean up our act, but if Sanders were to set 2035 or 2040 as his target for net-zero emissions from energy, that goal ought to be achievable in the context of a concerted national effort to ensure a hospitable climate for all Americans.