Powering the Future

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal would reshape the economy in 10 years. That could shock the energy sector

Key Points
  • Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wants to tackle climate change with her proposed Green New Deal.
  • The plans calls for generating 100 percent of the nation's electric power from renewable sources and building a national "smart grid" in just 10 years.
  • Analysts caution such quick action could have unintended consequences and undermine the goal of eliminating carbon emissions.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., address the Woman's March in Manhattan, Jan. 19, 2019.
Ira L. Black - Corbis | Corbis News | Getty Images

The millennial architects of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal appear to be drawing inspiration from the old mantra of their generation's most iconic company: "Move fast and break things."

That company, Facebook, has connected about a third of the world's population in just over a decade. The insurgent political movement behind Ocasio-Cortez has something more ambitious in mind: remaking the planet's largest economy in order to save the world from climate change.

As the the progressives begin to release the early sketches of their plan to create a zero-carbon economy, some policymakers and researchers worry the Green New Deal will literally break things. The concern is that Ocasio-Cortez's plan to achieve climate goals in just 10 years will not only tee up defeat but unleash disruptions and unintended consequences that reverberate from U.S. power markets to Central African mines.

Looking at something like 10 years, it's not a lot of time to look around at what's going on and react to it. If you give yourself a little more time, you have more opportunity to see what's working and make tweaks to make sure you're on the right path and accomplishing your policy objectives.
Dr. Noah Kaufman
research scholar, Center on Global Energy Policy

In one possible scenario, a rapid transition creates vulnerabilities in the system that leave the nation exposed to power shortages during times of peak demand, like last week's polar vortex. While conservatives have long evoked rolling blackouts as a bogeyman in the debate over renewable power, energy researchers do express concern about the time frame for achieving Ocasio-Cortez's goals.

"From a vantage point like mine, they're certainly outside the realm of what is achievable, and I'm not sure that by putting those proposals forth, we're actually really moving the ball forward for the agenda," said Francis O'Sullivan, head of research at the MIT Energy Initiative.

A Green New Deal would mobilize the nation's capital — its money, manpower and know-how — to advance clean tech and overhaul the American energy and transportation sectors. The goal is to drive carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions to zero and prevent the potentially catastrophic impacts of climate change.

Ocasio-Cortez and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party are the latest advocates for such a plan. Their vision also strives to achieve economic justice with proposals like a federal jobs guarantee, basic income and universal health care. Ocasio-Cortez and Democratic Sen. Edward Markey are expected to introduce legislation into both chambers of Congress to move the plan forward soon.

Here's what Rep. Ocasio-Cortez's tax proposal would mean

The progressive coalition has yet to propose policies to reach this clean energy future, and Ocasio-Cortez has only floated ideas for how to pay for it — including a charge on carbon emissions and a 70 percent marginal tax rate for wealthy Americans. However, the coalition has set broad, ambitious goals:

  • Generate 100 percent of the nation's electric power from renewable sources.
  • Build a national, energy-efficient "smart" electric power grid.
  • Upgrade every residential and industrial building for energy efficiency.
  • Eliminate greenhouse-gas emissions from the transportation sector, as well as from farms, factories and other industries.
  • Fund "massive" investment, and make the U.S. a leading exporter of clean-tech products and services.

In her proposal to establish a House select committee, Ocasio-Cortez said she wants to hit the targets within 10 years of passing legislation authorizing a Green New Deal.

To be sure, the goals are not promises, said Demond Drummer, executive director at New Consensus, the think tank charged with fleshing out the deal and other progressive policies.

"We're not promising anything. We're setting a goal," he said. "We're setting a goal, and we're going to get there."

"Ten years is the statement. It really communicates we need to take bold, aggressive action."

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez's office declined to make the Congress member or an aide available for this story and did not respond to written questions.

Hitting mid-century goals by 2030

Policies aimed at achieving zero emissions have historically targeted mid-century for two reasons, according to Dr. Noah Kaufman, who studied pathways to decarbonization on the White House Council on Environmental Quality under President Barack Obama.

First, climate scientists generally believe cutting emissions by 80 percent to 100 percent by 2050 would allow nations to collectively prevent global temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius by 2100, the headline goal of the 2015 Paris climate agreement. Beyond that threshold, climate scientists warn the impacts of global warming grow less predictable and perhaps exponentially more devastating.

Second, a longer timeline allows reductions to occur without major disruptions to the way companies and citizens go about their business. The 10-year target for Ocasio-Cortez's goal, for example, would force utilities to shut down natural gas plants long before their useful life is over, said Kaufman, now a research scholar at Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy.

Drummer confirms the Green New Deal would phase out all fossil fuel and nuclear plants, though he said it would be done "responsibly and justly."

"The reason why we think it's worth looking into is because the science says we actually don't have 10 years. The science says this should have happened 10 years ago from yesterday," Drummer said.

Drummer points to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's recent warning that "unprecedented changes" are necessary to meet the more ambitious goal of holding global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The world is on pace to exceed that level as soon as 2030, the Nobel Prize-winning panel composed of climate scientists said.

Policymakers and scholars tell CNBC a broad, overarching strategy to combat climate change is necessary, and they welcome the attention that Ocasio-Cortez has brought to the issue.

Climate foreclosure crisis

Kaufman does not doubt the nation could drive emissions close to zero in 10 or 20 years, provided the United States treats climate change as a national emergency and reaches political consensus. However, he and others warn that a sudden, rapid transition could create problems that undermine green goals.

"Looking at something like 10 years, it's not a lot of time to look around at what's going on and react to it," Kaufman said. "If you give yourself a little more time, you have more opportunity to see what's working and make tweaks to make sure you're on the right path and accomplishing your policy objectives."

100 percent renewable power: "A really big stretch"

Currently, only some parts of the country, like California and Texas, are seeing renewables go from playing a marginal role in the power system to a meaningful role, said O'Sullivan, the MIT researcher.

"The idea of a wind and solar future — 100 percent in 10 years' time — that's a really big stretch in many places. A very considerably cleaner system in 10 years' time, now that's much more realistic in regions where you have some hydro, aggressive additional buildup of wind and solar and quite a bit of nuclear hanging out as well."

Renewable-energy sources generated 17 percent of the country's electric power in 2017, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Hydropower accounted for 7.4 percent, followed by wind at 6.4 percent. Solar contributed just 1.3 percent.

Meanwhile, nuclear power plants generated 20 percent of the nation's electric power and 63 percent of its zero-carbon power.

Scaling up wind and solar power would require replacing hundreds of thousands of miles of transmission and distribution lines with high voltage wire, in addition to outfitting the infrastructure with sensors to create a smart grid.

O'Sullivan said the United States is "nowhere near" implementing a national smart grid, and he is skeptical the country could stand one up in 10 years. Building out that infrastructure is a tortuous process that entails navigating a thicket of stakeholders, from local landowners to federal regulators.

In 2011 the Electric Power Research Institute estimated the cost of a national smart grid, including storage, at $338 billion to $476 billion. EPRI said the grid would create $1.3 trillion to $2 trillion in economic benefits and cut emissions by nearly 60 percent from 2005 levels. EPRI, an independent nonprofit, is mostly funded by utilities.

Even at today's modest levels, rapid deployment of renewables has created technical and market complications, said O'Sullivan. California solar and wind farms have curtailed large amounts of supply because they were generating more power than could be used or stored at times. The spike in renewable power also drove prices down to levels that create problems in power markets.

These complexities "are surmountable, but they are not surmountable in unrealistic time frames — in time frames that just do not mesh with the overall inertia of the system," O'Sullivan said.

More batteries, more problems

The Green New Deal also requires installing systems to store energy when the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine.

The United States currently has 1.4 Gw of installed energy battery storage capacity, and it's on pace to grow that capacity to 4 Gw by 2023, according to energy research firm Wood Mackenzie. That pencils out to 3 percent to 4 percent of the electric power the nation can generate.

"There is no solution for 100 percent renewable that doesn't require massive amounts of storage," said Daniel Finn-Foley, senior energy storage analyst at Wood Mackenzie Power and Renewables.

The battery industry is exploding — here's how it's changing our world

That's where the Green New Deal's vision for electric power intersects with its transportation sector goal — replacing all internal combustion engine vehicles with electric vehicles. The dominant technology behind both EVs and electric power storage is lithium-ion batteries.

Wood Mackenzie forecasts that under current conditions, annual electric vehicle sales will reach 2.9 million by 2030, accounting for 16 percent of all lightweight vehicles sold in the United States.

Getting to 100 percent around 2030 would be a "huge" jump, and one that raises serious geopolitical, humanitarian and environmental concerns, said Ravi Manghani, director of storage research at Wood Mackenzie Power and Renewables.

That's because lithium-ion batteries rely on rare earths like cobalt.

There are serious concerns about the environmental impacts on lithium-producing nations. Meanwhile, more than half of the world's cobalt supply comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a central African nation with a record of instability and a history of child labor in the mining industry.

Lifting EV sales from 16 percent to 100 percent by 2030 would require a roughly five- to sixfold increase in mining, Manghani said. He is concerned that a huge surge in demand over a short period could incentivize environmental and labor abuses and even tip DRC further into instability.

Here’s why companies are scrambling for cobalt

One solution is to prioritize new battery technologies that use less cobalt, and certainly, the Green New Deal calls for mobilizing the nation on a scale similar to World War II and the Space Race to accelerate innovation.

Still, Drummer acknowledges that some technologies, like zero-carbon airplanes, are unlikely to emerge at commercial scale over the next decade.

"That may take 50 years, but the point is, we've got to try," Drummer said. "We're not moving currently with the urgency we need to be moving to actually address this existential threat."

He added: "The unintended consequence of moving fast must be weighed with the known consequences of not moving fast enough."