OPINION: Why the Progressive Green Energy Revolution isn’t Realistic

By Neil Heriot | October 3, 2022

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Chances are, if you consider yourself a progressive, you are vehemently anti-fossil fuels. You protest, act to bring attention to climate change, and most importantly, fight to convert America into a 100% green energy and net-zero emissions society. And you want it to happen right now. As someone who is well aware of climate change and considers it an important issue, I can respect your convictions. Yet I would like to argue that the green revolution progressives want so badly is simply unrealistic and infeasible. Fossil fuels are here to stay, even as they continue to contribute to global warming.

Environmental activism has been consistently loud for the past several decades, making the case for green energy alternatives to replace fossil fuels. While some progress has been made, it is clear that our energy infrastructure is built around the production and usage of nonrenewables: in 2019, 80% of America’s energy came from fossil fuels.

Anyone who has been paying attention to world affairs recently has noticed that Russia has been taking advantage of the European reliance on their energy, leaving other countries scrambling. The Left will be quick to use this as evidence to show that fossil fuels must be phased out; they risk leaving countries dependent on the whims and ambitions of certain regimes like Russia. They are correct that America's energy, regardless of what type it is, must be produced domestically to ensure we remain in firm control of our energy, not Saudi Arabia, Russia, or the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Yet renewables cannot be implemented at the size and scale needed to guarantee that the energy needs of every American individual and business can be satisfied. Fossil fuels will inevitably return as a backup to keep the lights on and we will subsequently be at square one in our mission to wean the country off of fossil fuels.

Even if renewable energy, generated and processed domestically, satisfies American needs, energy security still would not be guaranteed. A central part of the ideal green American society would phase out our current gas powered cars in exchange for electric. It sounds simple, and the progressive is quick to show that electric vehicles do not emit C02 into our atmosphere like gas does. What is not mentioned, however, is that electric cars rely on cobalt to prevent their batteries from overheating. This would not be a problem if we had a large domestic supply of cobalt, yet according to the New York Times, 60-70% of the world’s cobalt can be found in Congo. To make it even worse, China had the foresight to start investing in Congo’s cobalt mines and now has a major advantage over America in terms of production and refinement. A green energy transition would eliminate the leverage over American energy security that fossil fuel suppliers such as Saudi Arabia have, but it would also transfer that power to countries like China that have the power to threaten America with its power over the cobalt supply chain.

Another important component to the green revolution is net zero emissions, or the goal to remove more carbon from the atmosphere than emitted. I’d love to see it happen, and zero would be even better, but this is very vague. At best, it might lead to some innovation that reduces emissions, but at its (more likely) worst, net zero promises are equated with actual progress and lead to complacency and a lack of any further, genuine action. These promises are ambitious, and reducing our carbon footprint is no small task, but rarely does any specific legislation or roadmap accompany these promises. Words are just words and they mean nothing until action is behind them. Everyone walks away from a climate conference happy with these promises, but in reality, the only things accomplished are a few politicians saying empty words.

I will acknowledge I have been nothing but pessimistic when outlining my views about the green energy revolution. Yet, even after all of this I remain confident that there is a way to transition to green energy. This transition must be slow and imperfect, and I doubt it would be satisfactory to the average progressive and/or environmentalist. It is fortunate that the cost of renewables has fallen sharply in recent years. A prime example of this is the cost of solar energy, which research has shown has fallen 80% since 2010. This could make certain forms of renewable energy such as solar and wind cheap to implement. Given time, funding, and effort, perhaps the sheer quantity of solar panels and windmills could become sufficient to completely remove fossil fuels in certain regions in the U.S. This cannot be achieved on a nationwide scale, which means these renewables would have to coexist with fossil fuels.

I am also glad to see the world reconsider nuclear energy as a viable alternative to fossil fuels. For many decades, the same progressives who are the climate's strongest advocates have also been nuclear energy’s biggest enemies. Since the Fukushima disaster in 2011, 60 nuclear power plants have permanently shut down. In associating nuclear energy with the nuclear bomb, radiation, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, progressives ignored nuclear energy’s positives. They do not acknowledge the studies which show nuclear energy is a safe and cheap source of electricity. Even better, waste produced from nuclear energy is nothing compared to waste produced from other forms. Simply put: If you want to ditch fossil fuels, you will want to have nuclear energy much more than you want to have other renewables. Now is not the time for ideological anti-nuclear purity.

Climate change is an existential threat to all of us; I am not downplaying or negating this in any way, shape, or form. I also understand we need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Here, the progressive and I are in full agreement. Where we disagree is in our response. The progressive wants a green energy revolution right now, where America completely cuts itself off from fossil fuels, and fully replaces all forms of renewable energy while ignoring nuclear energy. A more realistic transition would slowly and sustainably make the transition to cleaner sources and take full advantage of nuclear energy. It might not be perfect, but this transition would be immense progress in the right direction. What we want isn’t always what we get.