America, in the Dark

Wind, solar, and … blackouts?

November 2021

Script

Click to reveal bonus content (fun facts and additional insights) within script.

 

We stand on the cusp of a bold new era for energy: a future of clean, abundant fuel sources that will power our economy while simultaneously protecting our environment.

It’s an accomplishment that could reshape the very contours of human history.

Of course, no great civilizational advancement comes without difficulties.

So it’s worth noting that there is one small catch [lights flicker and then go out]. Ok … maybe not that small.

[OPENING SEQUENCE]

Imagine taking someone from 100 years ago and plopping them down in present-day America. What do you think would surprise them the most?

The fact that we all walk around with little rectangles in our pockets that can tell us anything we want to know?

The fact that we can now edit our genes?

Or the fact that the society behind those innovations … also struggles to keep the lights on?

That’s right: Despite our progress on other fronts, America’s actually seen its number of power outages increase dramatically in recent years. i Which is inconvenient, if you’re lucky — and dangerous if you’re not.

Given that danger, you’d think we’d be doing everything in our power to keep the lights on. But in reality, we’re actually doing things that increase the risk. Although we’re doing it with the best of intentions, if that’s any consolation.

Here’s the issue: Because of concerns about carbon emissions, there’s been a widespread push to get more of America’s energy from renewable sources like wind and solar. So much so that politicians throughout the nation have passed laws requiring their use.

Twenty-seven states now have such laws on the books,ii with 19 of them required to eventually get 100% of their energy from renewables. iii

The impulse is understandable: Who wouldn’t want cleaner energy? But of course we’ve got to ask some follow-up questions — like, “How much will it cost?” and “Will it actually work?” The issue, after all, isn’t what we want out of those energy sources, but what they can actually provide.

Here’s the good news: Solar and wind power have gotten significantly better in recent years. Here’s the bad news: Today, they’ve just about reached the ceiling of their potential … and they still can’t give us nearly enough power.

From 2011 to 2018, there were nearly $2 trillion spent around the world on wind and solar energy. And at the end of that process — they covered about 3% of the world’s energy needs.iv In the U.S., it was about 4.5% in 2020. v

And, despite that huge investment, wind and solar aren’t even our leading source of carbon-free energy. That’d be nuclear, which gives Americans almost double the energy of wind and solar combined.

So what’s going on here? Why do we have so little to show for all this effort? After all, if we can put a man on the moon, certainly we can do something like changing around our energy sources, right?

Well, as one energy scholar puts it, “Transforming the energy economy is not like putting a few people on the moon a few times. It is like putting all of humanity on the moon … permanently.”vi

Why is it so complicated? Start with this: Renewables are sources of energy that are replenished by nature. Which sounds great, right? But here’s the problem: That means we have no control over when they’re available.

The wind doesn’t blow everywhere or all the time. And the sun has an annoying habit of disappearing for hours on end. So, when they go away … so does the power.

How do you get around this problem? Well, so far you can’t. Right now, we have to rely on other, more dependable power sources to pick up the slack when renewables falter. So while a state like California can brag about how much renewable energy it’s generating, it actually has to import more than 1/4 of its energy from other states.vii And in 2020, more than 2/3 of that energy came from non-renewable sources.viii

In other words: renewable energy – non-renewable energy = blackouts.

One long-term proposal to get around this problem is to use batteries to store extra energy that can be used when renewables aren’t running.

The only problem? You guessed it: Turns out that’s super hard too.

How hard? Tesla’s $5 billion Nevada “Gigafactory” is the country’s largest battery manufacturing facility. And the total amount of batteries it produces in a year … would only be enough to store about three minutes worth of America’s electricity needs.ix

And that’s not the only logistical difficulty attached to going all in on renewables. Wind turbines and solar panels require vastly more space than other power sources. It’s estimated that getting the U.S. to 100% renewable energy would require somewhere between 25-50% of all the land in the country.x

The problem here isn’t wind and solar power themselves. There are plenty of times and places where they work well. The problem is trying to use them as the power source for the entire country, 24/7, despite the fact that we know they can’t shoulder that burden.

That’s one of the reasons that a 2020 survey of the very people responsible for maintaining the grid declared that changing our energy sources is the single biggest threat to the reliability of America’s electricity — more dangerous even than cyberattacks.xi

Overhauling America’s energy economy will depend on having power sources that are clean, and reliable and affordable all at the same time. And that’s a pretty tall order.

So tall in fact that when Google put together a team of geniuses to figure out how to do it, they reported back that not only would renewables not be up to the task but that, in fact, “We don’t have the answers. Those technologies haven’t been invented yet.” xii

Which doesn’t mean that it’s impossible — just that we’ve still got a lot more work to do. But c’mon, we’re America. We’ll figure it out! We created the little all-knowing rectangle box! And that was pretty good, right?

...I mean, apart from the whole causing society to lose its mind thing.

Sources

  1. “Power Outages Like the One in Texas Are Becoming More Common in America” — The Economist
  2. "State Renewable Portfolio Standards and Goals" — National Conference of State Legislatures
  3. “100% Clean Energy Collaborative — Table of 100% Clean Energy States” — Clean Energy States Alliance
  4. "Energy and Climate Policy — An Evaluation of Global Climate Change Expenditure 2011–2018" (Coilín ÓhAiseadha, Gerré Quinn, Ronan Connolly, Michael Connolly, and Willie Soon) — Energies: Economic Development and Energy Policy
  5. U.S. Energy Facts Explained — U.S. Energy Information Administration 
  6. “The New Energy Economy: An Exercise in Magical Thinking” (Mark Mills) — Manhattan Institute
  7. "California: State Profile and Energy Estimates" — U.S. Energy Information Administration
  8. "2020 Total System Electric Generation" — California Energy Commission
  9. “The New Energy Economy: An Exercise in Magical Thinking” (Mark Mills) — Manhattan Institute
  10. Power Density: A Key to Understanding Energy Sources and Uses, Pg. 247 — Vaclav Smil
  11. "2021 ERO Reliability Risk Priorities Report", Pg. 15 — North American Electric Reliability Corporation
  12. “What It Would Really Take to Reverse Climate Change” (Ross Konigstein and David Fork) — IEEE Spectrum

Shownotes

SOUND | Premium Beat: “A Simple Explanation” (Emmett Cooke), “Follow the Butterflies” (Chris Phaze), “Snappy” (Jonathan Boyle), “Epic Calling” (Immersive Music) “Star Spangled Banner” (Stoney Waters) // Pond5: “Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra) Introduction” (Tak_Music) // Pro Sound Effects: Cloud Library

FOOTAGE | Action VFX // Getty: selensergen, angkhan, Stocktrek Images, ophat angworakun, Go Nakamura / Stringer, Scott Heins / Stringer, Ezra Shaw / Staff, Drew Angerer / Staff, Al Seib / Contributor, Scott Heins / Stringer, narkorn, braverabbit, commandoXphoto, Arsgera, The Washington Post / Contributor, Bloomberg / Contributor, Education Images / Contributor, Ethan Miller / Staff, George, Stephanie Sawyer // Manhattan Institute: Mark Mills // Unsplash: Ryan Duffy, Oleksii S, Geri Mis, Photoholgic, Dimitry Anikin, Marcelo Cidrack, Júnior Ferreira, Alex Simpson, NASA, CHUTTERSNAP, Jack Prichett, Karim MANJRA, Omid Armin, Lukas Lehotsky, Hasan Almasi, Uwe Conrad, SpaceX, Aleksandar Zivkovic // Twitter // Fortepan // Los Angeles Times // The Denver Post // Associated Press // North American Electric Reliability Corporation // IEEE Spectrum // CITED SOURCES AND NEWS OUTLETS ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH AND HAVE NOT ENDORSED OR SPONSORED ANY PORTION OF THIS PRODUCTION.

Sources

  1. The Economist
    “Power Outages Like the One in Texas Are Becoming More Common in America”
  2. National Conference of State Legislatures
    "State Renewable Portfolio Standards and Goals" 
  3. Clean Energy States Alliance
    “100% Clean Energy Collaborative — Table of 100% Clean Energy States” 
  4. Energies: Economic Development and Energy Policy
    "Energy and Climate Policy — An Evaluation of Global Climate Change Expenditure 2011–2018" (Coilín ÓhAiseadha, Gerré Quinn, Ronan Connolly, Michael Connolly, and Willie Soon)
  5. U.S. Energy Information Administration
    U.S. Energy Facts Explained
  6. Manhattan Institute
    “The New Energy Economy: An Exercise in Magical Thinking” (Mark Mills)
  7. U.S. Energy Information Administration
    "California: State Profile and Energy Estimates"
  8. California Energy Commission
    "2020 Total System Electric Generation" 
  9. Power Density: A Key to Understanding Energy Sources and Uses
    Book by Vaclav Smil (Pg. 247)
  10. North American Electric Reliability Corporation 
    "2021 ERO Reliability Risk Priorities Report", Pg. 15
  11. IEEE Spectrum
    “What It Would Really Take to Reverse Climate Change” (Ross Konigstein and David Fork)

 

Bonus Content

To download or print the bonus content, click here.

More Videos

January 2022

Why a Complex Government Is an Ineffective Government

The more complicated the rules, the harder life becomes for the average American.
Watch Now...

January 2022

Five Major U.S. Metros with Highest Population Growth

Where are Americans moving these days? Over the last decade, some cities experienced explosive growth while others stalled out.
Watch Now...