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May 12, 2021

4/15/2021 9:31:00 AM
Controlling the Global Thermostat

Dear Editor;
Recent letters to the editor have used the commentary of Mark Mills of the Manhattan Institute to portray wind and solar energy as impractical compared to oil and coal. These opinions deserve a response, especially considering the precarious state of our rapidly warming world. The burning of the fossil fuels that Mills advocates is relentlessly increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases with disastrous effect.
The use of wind and solar power is growing at a blistering pace and there are good reasons for that. First, government and business alike realize that we must transition away from the burning of coal and oil that's causing large areas of the world to be so hot as to be uninhabitable, rising water levels displacing hundreds of millions of people, extreme weather events, massive losses in animal species, and so on.
The second reason for the rise of wind and solar power is that their unsubsidized cost is now lower than coal and competitive with natural gas-fired plants. Projections by energy industry watchdogs such as Bloomberg New Energy Outlook have wind and solar power meeting more than half the world's electricity needs within the next three decades.
Mark Mills in his commentary examines the consequences of completely replacing fossil fuels by wind and solar energy. That's setting up a "straw man" so he can knock it down. In actuality, there are many other technologies besides wind and solar that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Take, for example, energy conservation measures that have cut carbon dioxide emissions in the electric power sector by one-half since 2005. Intense development of other climate-friendly technologies is ongoing, such as carbon-capture at gas-fired plants, hydrogen technologies, advanced nuclear energy and a dozen others. Similarly, Mills' contention that an enormous hoard of batteries will be necessary is misguided. To handle the fluctuations in power associated with wind and solar, fossil fuels can be used in moderation for power storage, perhaps with carbon-capture, and advances in transmission of power over large distances are coming.
As for costs to society, the burning of fossil fuels takes the prize. Its social costs include mortality and illness from excess heat and natural disasters, depressed agricultural production, reductions in labor productivity, disruption of energy systems, increased risk of violent conflict, property damage from hurricanes and floods, and mass migration out of affected regions.
Yes, the transition away from the burning of fossil fuels will be daunting - but it will happen. For an even-handed analysis of the Mark Mills commentary, see the Niskanen Center report, "Renewables do not rely on magical thinking - they are winning on price." The newly-published book "How to Avoid a Climate Disaster" by Bill Gates gives a hard-headed view of what it will take to deal with this crisis.
Earl Barnes
Dodgeville, WI

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