Hillary Clinton’s climate change goals aren’t going to save the planet

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Hillary Clinton announced her climate change policies last night. What should we make of them?

Let’s look at her two main policies.

The first:

Have more than half a billion solar panels installed across the country by the end of Hillary’s first term.

To say that this policy is worded in a deliberately misleading way is accurate. The average voter knows nothing about energy or climate change. Open season for a politician like Clinton.

Big numbers always impress.

And what could be bigger than half a billion? (And why half?)

Given that the average person does not know the capacity of the average solar panel or the capacity factor of that panel or the total electricity generation of the United States, the goal is essentially meaningless to the average voter. That, of course, is what Clinton desires here: Impress voters, don’t inform them.

And I don’t say this out of condescension for the average voter. I don’t even know what that half a billion solar panel target means. Is half a billion solar panels a lot? Let me think.

I could try doing a mental calculation to find out. Average US electricity demand is something like 500 GW (don’t quote me on the figure, it’s from memory). Average capacity factor of a US solar panel is a bit above 20%. But what is the capacity factor of the average panel? Here my memory fails me.

So that’s what Clinton has given us: an exercise in mental arithmetic and Googling.

Brad Plumer writes at Vox that this amounts to total solar capacity being around 140 GW by the end of Clinton’s first term.

How quickly would solar need to grow to meet this target? Right now, America has around 20 GW of solar capacity. Let’s say this grows by another 20 GW by the time Clinton pulls into office. That would give us 100 GW in 4 years, or 25 GW per year of her first term.

Is this doable?We can compare this with Germany.

25 GW of solar per year amounts to an annual increase in per-capita solar capacity of 78 W.

Between 2008 and 2012 Germany increased its solar capacity at an average rate of 6.7 GW per year. This was the equivalent of 83 W per capita per year.

In other words, Clinton’s proposed roll out of solar is more or less identical to the German roll out between 2008 and 2012.

This is not likely to be particularly easy. Germany has now drastically cut back its roll out of solar due to its high costs. Last year it installed one third of what it was installing at the start of the decade. Of course America is a lot sunnier than Germany. And political opposition to solar panels is lessening now that some are coming to see solar panels on roofs as a libertarian wet dream. I’ll lodge this target as doable.

Here is the second policy.

Generate enough renewable energy to power every home in America within 10 years of Hillary taking office.

This is another impressive and misleading goal. Official US data shows that electricity consumed in homes is only 10% of final energy consumption. In effect Clinton is calling for renewable electricity – including hydro – to grow from around 3 or 4% of final energy consumption today to around 10% by 2027.

Not quite as punchy as Clinton’s version of it, but much more accurate.

At this rate of growth, a fully renewable America is at least a century away. Clearly the renewables revolution is not upon us.

The supposed boldness of this target can be confirmed with some easy historical comparisons. Clinton plans for renewables to grow from around 13% to 33% of electricity generation in just over a decade. However, between 1990 and 2000 Britain’s electricity generated by natural gas went from 0% to 40%. In a single decade France took nuclear energy from 8% to 70% of electricity generation.

There is clearly nothing historically unprecedented about any of Clinton’s plans.

Once again a politician is confirming that there is no longer any hope of keeping atmospheric temperature increases to 2 C, while simultaneously offering up false reasons to think it is still possible.

3 thoughts on “Hillary Clinton’s climate change goals aren’t going to save the planet

    johnrussell40 said:
    July 27, 2015 at 5:27 pm

    Based on the installation on my house, and according to my records, it takes 21 panels to generate a total of 3780 kWh each year here in the South West UK That’s a typical generation total for this latitude. That means each year, say, 180 kWh per panel. So 100m (one fifth of each term’s installation goal) x 180 would produce 18 billion additional kWh each year. I’m guessing that’s not much.

    I realise that solar panels in the lower latitudes of the US will have a greater output than those in the UK (+50%?), but this might be useful for your calculations being based on real world annual solar outputs.

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    Jarmo said:
    July 28, 2015 at 8:27 am

    One must consider which is the primary goal of Clinton’s climate change policies: Saving the planet or winning her a term in the White House?

    Be it as it may, these policies require extension and probably expansion of federal tax incentives for wind and solar, which are set to expire.

    Germany’s heyday of solar expansion was propelled by FITs that paid 30-40 eurocents per kWh to panel owners when wholesale electricity price was 4-5 eurocents per kWh. Now FIT pays 11-14 c/kWh and installations have dropped to a level of 100 MW per month.

    Liked by 1 person

    […] to 25GW in each year between 2017 and 2020. While this sounds ambitious, it would be equivalent to the per capita rate of capacity increase during Germany’s solar push between 2008 […]

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