Net-zero carbon goal is unattainable

Donn Dears – 20 June 2022

The goal of the United States government is to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, per the Paris Agreement. A three-step analysis establishes this as an impossible goal.

Three possible alternatives — wind, nuclear power and utility photovoltaic solar (PV) — are analyzed separately in a three-step process to determine the amount of new capacity needed for any of them to meet net-zero carbon by 2050. The same process then is used to determine whether any combination of the three can achieve the goal.

Step one determines the amount of new wind, nuclear or PV capacity needed to replace all the electricity generated by fossil fuels in 2021.

A second step identifies the amount of each needed to double the supply of electricity to meet demand when all light vehicles are battery-powered and homes use electricity for heating rather than natural gas. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that electricity consumption will nearly double from current levels to meet the added demand.

Finally, in the third step, we calculate the amount of each needed to generate the electricity required to produce enough hydrogen to make steel and cement that meet net-zero carbon requirements. Producing steel and cement emits 14 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions, with the use of hydrogen virtually the only way to eliminate these emissions. (Cement will also require carbon capture and sequestration to be fully net-zero carbon.)

Listed below is the amount of new capacity for each power source that must be installed over the next 28 years for any one of them to achieve net-zero carbon.

  • 995,141 new wind turbines rated at 2.5 megawatts (MW), or 35,551 units annually.
  • 881 new nuclear plants, or 31 annually.
  • 3,918,996 MW of new PV, or 139,954 MW annually.

As a reality check, we researched the most capacity installed in one year since 2000 for each power-generation method. The numbers are as follows:

  • 5,680 wind turbines rated 2.5 MW.
  • 1 nuclear plant.
  • 21,500 MW of PV.

A comparison of what is needed in new generation with historical data clearly shows the goal to be a physical impossibility. For example, installing 35,551 new 2.5 MW wind turbines every year far exceeds the 5,680 wind turbines ever installed in one year. Larger wind turbines are being developed, but even 10 MW units would greatly exceed the number of units ever installed in one year.

Rooftop PV was not included since the most small PV ever installed in a single year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, was 4,500 MW. Most residential rooftop installations are less than 0.1 MW, making the number of houses required huge and highly unlikely to be achieved.

Finally, wind, nuclear, and PV were evaluated to determine whether a combination of the three could achieve net-zero carbon by 2050. The findings were the same: It is impossible to achieve the goal with a combination of these methods.

The analysis did not include storage, but doing so would make achieving net-zero carbon by 2050 even less likely. A battery capable of storing sufficient quantities of electricity for several days, possibly a week or two to ensure reliability, has not yet been invented. Cloudy and stormy days lasting for a week or more, where wind and PV couldn’t operate, have been documented.

Hydrogen has been proposed as a way to eliminate the use of natural gas in power plants. However, hydrogen is an energy loser. Although there is high confidence gas turbines can be modified to burn hydrogen, producing hydrogen requires 70 percent more wind and PV energy than simply replacing natural gas power plants with wind and PV installations.

Offsetting the vast quantities of CO2 left in the atmosphere by the shortfall of wind, nuclear, and PV installations would require sequestering the gas in forests or elsewhere — another task of questionable feasibility. Stored CO2 can leak, forest sequestration can be reversed by fire.

In addition, achieving net-zero with offsets is fraught with the potential for manipulation through such avenues as double counting. Such concerns led Indonesia to recently prohibit using its forests for new carbon offsets.

The net of net-zero is that it is a goal grandly titled but grounded in little reality. Besides, its premise that CO2 is a pollutant ignores the gas’s overarching quality as a plant food necessary for life.

Attempting to achieve the impossible goal of net-zero carbon will wreak havoc on the U.S. economy and harm every American. Now is the time to abandon net-zero and stop the war on fossil fuels.

Donn Dears is a retired engineer and senior executive of General Electric Co. under CEO Jack Welch; member of the CO2 Coalition, Arlington, Virginia; and author of five books, including “Net-Zero Carbon: The Climate Policy Destroying America.” Documents supporting the above conclusions are available at www.powerforusa.com.

Originally published here at the Washington Examiner on 20 June 2022.

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