WE TAKE exception to Arnold Wallenstien’s recent commentary, in which he argues against a rapid transition from gas to renewable energy.
First, he fails to consider the alternative to a rapid transition, which is climate chaos. He talks about “climate zealots” as if they were a fringe group who focus on exaggerated concerns and ignore reality. In fact, it is Wallenstein who is ignoring the emerging reality of the climate crisis.
Already in the US there are billions of dollars in damage from hurricanes in Florida, fires in California, and drought in the Southwest. A recent story in the Boston Globe highlighted a proposal to spend up to three quarters of a billion dollars to put a storm barrier in the Fort Point Channel in downtown Boston to prevent flooding. There are reports almost monthly about the rising dangers of storm damage on coastal New England. All of these costs will rise over the next 20 years if we cling to natural gas.
Second, like all defenders of obsolete technology, Wallenstein has to assume no progress in science or technology in order to come up with a crisis 20 years from now. His concerns about reliability and times when “the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow” are subject to answers with which he is apparently not familiar. New storage technologies are surfacing, such as the integration of home and EV batteries, as well as green hydrogen. And, above all, battery technology is forging ahead. For example, right now Australia is building an 850-megawatt/1,680-megawatt-hour behemoth called the Waratah Super Battery in New South Wales. The battery will allow for the closure in 2025 of Australia’s largest coal burning electricity plant.
If Australia can do that now, why isn’t ISO-NE, the regional power grid operator, promoting large batteries? Why isn’t it promoting (instead of grudgingly allowing) the transition to solar and wind, so we can get to the point where we need to be concerned about the possibility of not enough solar and wind at some point? It’s because ISO-NE takes Wallenstein’s point of view and says “if it is not perfect, it shouldn’t be done” and they are sticking with natural gas.
Finally, Wallenstein is overly concerned about the far end of the reliability spectrum; the occasional times when a renewable grid could only meet 95 percent of the region’s power needs. He sees these moments as an argument against a rapid transition to renewables. But we can wrestle with that issue down the road, during the energy transition process, when our grid gets to be even half renewable, or even mostly renewable.
Why is this not treated as a pressing issue for this decade? An ISO-NE study in 2001 done by the Harvard Electricity Power Group found that only 8 percent of the New England electric grid is currently fueled by electricity generated by wind and solar power. This is a laughably low percentage, compared to Denmark which leads the world with 51 percent solar and wind power. Germany is up to 29 percent while Spain is at 33 percent. If New England moved to even 33 percent of its power furnished by solar and wind by 2030, then we would stop pouring thousands of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year after that.
It’s not that a rapid transition isn’t possible – let’s remember what this country did when we all agreed that there was an emergency. During World War II, the US rapidly altered our economy and became the powerhouse of the Allies, producing enough planes, tanks, and ammunition for our soldiers and for Britain and Russia. If the will were there, we could do that again.
Business as usual is a dead end road. With a grasp on new technology, public education, and good leadership, it can be done. And it must be done.