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Is the Green New Deal Just a Pipe Dream?

The 10-year timeframe is unrealistic even if a lot can happen in a few decades

Denmark now gets 42% of its electricity from wind. The share of electricity generated from wind, solar and other renewable sources has shot up in Europe over the last two decades. Portugal, Germany, and Ireland are other renewable leaders. [Image credit: CGP Grey / CC BY]

The Green New Deal that Democratic lawmakers recently proposed would confront climate change by eliminating America’s net carbon emissions within a decade. If enacted, it would transform America’s energy industries and slash pollution, improving public health.

This proposal is a non-binding resolution, not an actual bill, and many of the proposed measures are long shots as long as the Republican Party holds a majority in the Senate and the Trump administration remains committed to its fossil fuel-supporting energy dominance policies.

Having studied the electric power sector and energy policy for more than 20 years, I think that some of the changes in the Green New Deal could actually happen within a decade — as long as all three branches of the federal government were on board.

But even if the most progressive Democrats were calling all the shots, the idea that the U.S. could accomplish this ambitious overarching goal within a decade strikes me as a stretch. California, which is committed to making all of its electricity carbon-free, aims to get that done by 2045, rather than 2030.

Even if completely revamping the nation’s power grid within a decade proved feasible, the Green New Deal also targets emissions from sectors such as transportation and agriculture. And reducing their carbon footprints has proven much harder around the world.

Change can be fast

Politically, the Green New Deal certainly seems like a non-starter even if the environmental and economic benefits would likely outweigh many of the costs. But are the ideas in the Green New Deal — especially those that would require radical changes, such as reinventing how the U.S. generates and consumes energy within a decade — truly outlandish?

While no nation has ever achieved anything quite as dramatic in so short a time, countries can rapidly change how they get their energy, without destroying their economies or compromising energy security. There are several good examples, especially in Europe.

Perhaps France’s swift adoption of nuclear power is the best one. Nuclear reactors generated only 10% of France’s electricity in the mid-1970s, a share that rose to 70% within 10 years and has remained at about that level ever since.

More recently, countries such as Denmark, Germany, Ireland and Portugal have made strides toward shrinking their carbon footprints within a decade by ramping up the power they get from renewable energy, primarily onshore wind energy.

Denmark now gets 42% of its electricity from wind, while Portugal and Ireland both derive around 20% of their power from that renewable energy source.

Likewise, Brazil managed to boost the share of ethanol produced from sugarcane in the fuel it used to run cars and trucks from virtually nothing to about 50% within a decade following the adoption of targeted policies in 1975.

Change can also be slow

A common thread running through many of these success stories is a limited number of players. France’s nuclear embrace largely involved its big state-run utility company, Électricité de France. Having a single big state-run oil and gas company, Petróleo Brasileiro, or Petrobras, made it easier for Brazil’s government to bring about such a quick shift with ethanol.

When there are multitudes of companies and decision-makers, as is the case in the United States, these transitions tend to be harder and take longer.

Two proposals in the Green New Deal, to make buildings highly energy-efficient and to electrify transportation, would require action on the part of hundreds of millions of people. These are also areas where change has generally come much more slowly.

The potential for energy efficiency is vast, but getting people to upgrade appliances or buildings to increase energy efficiency has been particularly difficult. What’s more, some researchers have found a persistent gap between whether an energy efficiency investment is worthwhile and the willingness of consumers and businesses to spend their money on them.

This is probably due to a number of different factors. Researching and replacing your old appliances and equipment takes time and effort. There are usually high upfront costs when you own your own washing machines and water heaters.

And for renters, problems arise when it’s up to landlords to buy new equipment so their tenants can save money on their electric bills.

Some states have ramped up energy efficiency through outreach efforts and incentives. But there is still a long way to go, and revising building codes to raise these standards is politically very challenging.

Replacing vehicles that run on gasoline, diesel, and other fuels with electric models is also harder than it may sound. Despite years of federal subsidies for electric vehicles, U.S. EV sales remain sluggish. Only around 360,000, or 7%, of the 5.5 million passenger vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2018 were electric models.

And because cars generally last longer than a decade, replacing all of the nation’s cars, trucks, and SUVs will take a long time. Power plants also last a long time, but since many of the most polluting power plants in the U.S. are several decades old, many of them could be retired soon.

Even in Norway, where nearly half of the new vehicles sold are electric, EVs account for only 10% of the vehicles on the road today.

Market forces and policies

One common thread in every country that has been able to make rapid and major changes in their energy supply has been the role of government initiatives.

To be sure, market forces can contribute to clean energy. The wind and solar power industries are growing rapidly, and natural gas has overtaken coal as the main fuel for power generation in the U.S.

Big changes in the U.S. energy mix are nothing new. The U.S. transformed from a wood-based energy economy to mostly coal within a few decades at the end of the 19th century. And as Americans rapidly increased how much energy they were using in the mid-20th century, their reliance on oil, natural gas, and nuclear power grew. Since 2000, wind and solar power have become more significant contributors to a diverse mix of energy sources.

But, from what I can tell, market forces alone are setting a much slower path toward a lower-carbon economy than the Green New Deal’s supporters would like to see. A two-decade transition, in my opinion, is more likely to succeed as long as the nation’s politicians were to unite around making it a top priority.The Conversation


Seth Blumsack is a professor at Pennsylvania State University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


  1. user-723121 | | #1

    The Green New Deal has to be and is the will of the people. Politicians come and go, planet Earth will be here and will either be in a livable state or not. We may not be able to accomplish all that is set out by the Green New Deal in ten years but it is a clarion call to action with young people leading the way. We can do so much in the way of efficiency improvements for buildings, transportation and other energy consuming sectors.

    The Green New Deal, we must !!

  2. fourforhome | | #2

    "the Green New Deal could actually happen within a decade — as long as all three branches of the federal government were on board."
    Disregarding the political and practical aspects of the GND, why would the Supreme Court need to get on board? To brush aside constitutional challenges to the largest governmental power grab ever?
    Does our constitution need to be modified to accommodate the sweeping changes the GND would require?

    1. JC72 | | #4

      NGD requires vast amounts of fiat currency and some form of central planning. FDR stacked the Supreme Court to get programs in the New Deal passed and it has never really mattered what the Constitution says/doesn't say.

      1. STEPHEN SHEEHY | | #14

        FDR didn't "stack" or pack the Court. In fact, a number of New Deal programs were found by the Court to be unconstitutional. And the Constitution is silent about how many justices are on the Court. Fiat currency? Really?

        1. JC72 | | #18

          Clearly you're aware of Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937.

          As for my fiat comment. Yes, fiat. I'm going to recommend that you read up on Modern Monetary Theory. This economic theory is the avenue by which GND proponents believe they can "raise" the necessary funding. I am not making this up. A simple Google search is all you need.

          UPDATE: Because I cannot reply. Here's my final reply.

          As for FDR, with the failure of the JDR bill in 29137 FDR got is wish within 2 yrs and ended up appointing justices who were sympathetic to his policies (ex. Justice Black, Reed, Frankfurter). This is just a statement of fact.

          As for inflation you only have to look at the price of housing, a post-secondary education and automobiles.

          1. STEPHEN SHEEHY | | #19

            The court packing bill was never enacted. And "fiat currency" is just a pejorative term for pretty much every currency. What's your alternative, the gold standard? Bitcoin?

            Finally, GND is just a general concept, claiming that we need to rapidly transition to renewable energy, while assuring fundamental fairness to working people. Nothing in it requires printing any more money than we printed so we could go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. While those foreign adventures may not have worked out well, they didn't generate any inflation. Building electric cars and wind turbines and erecting solar panels are as good for the economy as building gas power plants and ices.

          2. Expert Member
            MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #20

            I remember the good old days when a bag of cowry shells really meant something.

  3. JC72 | | #3

    Germany severely miscalculated on the capacity of renewables. They were so far off that they had no choice but to continue with a second natgas pipleline (Nord Stream 2) from Russia.

    1. Expert Member
      Dana Dorsett | | #5

      >"Germany severely miscalculated on the capacity of renewables. They were so far off that they had no choice but to continue with a second natgas pipleline (Nord Stream 2) from Russia."

      SURE they did! Really!?!

      So THAT is why natural gas has such a large share of the electricity generation market in Germany - about 12% of the total Twh delivered im Deutchland as of three years ago, less than 8% now... they're running out of gas and getting desperate. (NOT!)

      When Nord Stream 2 goes online it will magically shoulder out the nearly 40% (and rising) fraction that variable output renewables delivered in that country in 2018?

      Unlike the US, in the German energy sector natural gas and "also ran", not very competitive on price, and has never gotten out of low double digits as a fraction of the total. This is a far cry from a "...had no choice..." kind of fuel for Germany. Of COURSE Germany has a choice- the choices have been there for a long time, and other fuels have largely beaten natural gas on price, and will continue to do so in the future even if increased pipeline capacity from a financially desperate Russia results in lower European gas pricing (which isn't a sure thing.) Germany doesn't now and never did need natural gas for making electricity.

      There is plenty of reason to believe that Nord Stream 2 will become a stranded asset well before it's anticipated service life is up, possibly even before it's completed. The chemical industry has a bigger interest gas (and gas prcing) than the energy sector, but it's not a all clear that there will be enough ongoing business volume to pay for Nord Stream 2.

      If there's is a miscalculation on renewables it was on how much subsidy renewables really needed to be competitive. They definitely overpaid for distributed solar in the early 2000s. The notion that overpriced natural gas from Nord Stream 2 is going to be what replaces the capacity of the retiring coal & nuke fleets in Germany is primarily in the dreams of the Gazprom primary stakeholder, not the German ratepayers or politicians. There are cheaper and lower risk choices.

      1. JC72 | | #9

        NatGas is going to be the stop gap as Germany tries to wean itself off oil/coal (34/23 percent respectively). NatGas is still used for things other than power generation and accounts for 22 percent of total energy consumption which is more than nuclear & renewables combined.

        1. Expert Member
          Dana Dorsett | | #12

          That's the dream in Russia ( or the executive suites at Gazprom), anyway...

          Nord Stream 2 is isn't much about Germany- it's about Russia being able to screw Ukraine out of transport fees than, a wedge to exert more financial power over Ukraine, making Russia less vulnerable to having the export shut off should Ukraine get a better footing.

          1. jason_stratton | | #22

            Germany has some of the fewest solar hours in the industrialized world. They would have been better off renting Italian and Greek rooftops to place their solar panels. It would have helped mitigate the rampant over exporting that Germany has been doing to southern Europe over the last 10 years. As it is, southern Europe is on the edge of financial collapse and the whole continent forgot how to have babies like 30 years ago. I predict that in 5 more years we will all be more worried about political distress in Europe and all of the CO2 will be coming from Asia.

  4. FluxCapacitor | | #6

    Coincidentally I was at the very location where the article picture is taken. This is me in Denmark on beautiful summer day. The windmills can be seen in background!

    1. Expert Member
      Dana Dorsett | | #7

      Those aren't windmills, those are wind TURBINES. (What would they actually be milling out there anyway? :-) )

      Taler du dansk?

      1. FluxCapacitor | | #8

        Ha, Yes, I speak Danish fluently, I lived there for 16 years.

        BTW in Denmark they still refer to them as windmills....I slipped back into Danish there for a second.

  5. thrifttrust | | #10

    I'm pessimistic. Fossil fuels are cheaper than they ever were. Homes and motor vehicles are more efficient than ever yet the public uses the gains to buy ever larger houses and four door pickups. They they say they won't support fuel taxes cause then they won't be able to afford to feed their toys. It's a viscous circle. Raising fossil fuel prices is the new third rail in American politics. The affect is even evident here at GBA. Someone will ask for advice on his yet to be built McMansion, yet rebuff suggestions that would make a real difference because of the cost. I mean, that layer of external insulation could cost as much as the forth bathroom.

    The auto manufacturers have gotten relief from the current CAFE standards. In one sense I sympathize. The public is not interested in their fuel efficient offerings. They can't reach the CAFE mandate without selling a higher proportion of them. Ford could easily meet the mandate by adding $20,000 to the price of an F150 and give Focuses away for free, but they'd prefer to discontinue the Focus and pander to the truck buyer. The current CAFE have the perverse effect of making vehicles larger. The standards are based on vehicle footprint. As it increases the allowable mpg rating goes up. Can't reach your efficiency goal? Simple fix, add six inches.

    1. Expert Member
      Dana Dorsett | | #13

      >Fossil fuels are cheaper than they ever were.

      Not really. The inflation adjusted cost of crude oil is dramatically more expensive than it was in the 1970s, about twice the average price of the 1960s.

      Natural gas IN THE US is currently low, but it's been this low before. Current pricing in the US is nearly twice what it was at it's low only 4 years ago. Worldwide gas pricing trends are in the other direction, and very SUBSTANTIALLY higher than in the US, which is the only thing that makes the Nord Stream 2 pipeline or LNG export from the US worth considering. But even in the US onshore wind power is often cheaper than the contract price for combined cycle natural gas at near record low contract pricing for gas, and that's before tax credit and production subsidies for wind are factored in:

      Note that PV + battery at the utility scale is beating fast ramping natural gas on price in technology-neutral bidding for peaker power and ancillary grid services.

      In the US coal pricing has had a recent fall, largely due to the poor economics of coal fired powerplants vs. combined cycle natural gas and wind:

      Maybe coal is getting cheaper somewhere, but it's priced out of some of it's traditional markets in many locations.

  6. exeric | | #11

    I think we are on the brink of a petro-political seismic shift. You can fool most of the people for a long time but it never lasts forever. It is cheaper to produce power from renewables, both solar and wind, than it is to build and operate new natural gas fired power plants, much less existing coal fired plants. Things will now change rapidly.

    What is happening is that there is a fierce backlash from people involved in the petroleum industry. They see the assets that they poured billions into becoming stranded assets. They will do anything to stop that from happening and to slow down that process. They pour huge money into convincing the gullible public that GND is a pipe dream. And many gullible people, even on this site, eat it up. They don't realize that GND is just a formalized name to a process that is occuring naturally.

    Shell oil is now trying to get into the game of building batteries for the individual home. That is called "leading from behind". They are trying to convince the public that they need their own individual power back up system. The game they're playing is trying to slow down integration of cheap renewables by making storage more expensive and more labor intensive. Electrical storage has a happy place that is far more aggregated than. But the grid can also be made more modular and resilient than what currently exists by making storage located where groups of people live, not just near power plant locations. There is a middle ground that is both efficient and resilient.

    Here is a really good review of a book (that I have not read) that explains the inevitability of how all this plays out as industry transitions from one central theme to another. It's happened many times before.

  7. thrifttrust | | #15

    When I got my first car in 1967 I paid 29¢/gal. Using the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index, that's $2.23/gal in today's dollars. I've purchased gas for less than $2 in recent months. However, I see that in 1998 gas was indeed cheaper at less than $1.50 today. I guess that first fillup at 29¢/gal. sticks in my mind.

    In 1970 I moved into the only house I've lived in with fuel oil heat. The price was 17¢/gal. That's $1.14/gal. today. I checked and it was also cheaper in 1998 at 73¢/gal. at today's prices. In 2016 It was $1.13/gal adjusted for inflation and at the end of 2018 it was $1.65/gal.

    Dana suggests that gas was cheaper in the 70s. By 1974 gas was 55¢/gal or $3.00 today. While I was living at the fuel oil house the price shot up from 17¢/gal. to 43¢ or $2.55 today. That price jump was another factoid that sticks in my mind. I was on the second floor of an uninsulated turn of century flat. It had a gravity furnace. I'd shiver, huddled by to the heat register while the folks below me were toasty, tempered by my flat above them and my furnace below.

    Sorry, I should have said petroleum instead of fossil fuel. I did not look at coal and natural gas. The 1998-1999 price dip was an anomaly and prices had tripled by 2000. I stand by my basic premise. gas is stupid cheap and offers no incentive for drivers to choose efficient vehicles.

    1. Yupster | | #16

      Must be nice! We regularly pay $3.50 USD per gallon for gas here in Ontario. That's $4.73 CAD. Gas is my largest annual expense and I drive a little 4 banger! And now we have a carbon tax coming, so that's going to raise the price of gas some more. Enjoy your days of stupid cheap gas...they may be limited...

    2. Expert Member
      Dana Dorsett | | #17

      >" I should have said petroleum instead of fossil fuel. I did not look at coal and natural gas. The 1998-1999 price dip was an anomaly and prices had tripled by 2000. I stand by my basic premise. gas is stupid cheap and offers no incentive for drivers to choose efficient vehicles."

      You might find this EIA widget fun to play with:

      Pull up the retail gasoline graph. The annual average price of gasoline is more expensive right now than it was at any time between 1986 and 2003. It wasn't just a one-0ff year in 1998-1999.

      Heating oil is currently where it was 1986, but the average price between 1986 and 2004 was quite a bit cheaper than now.

      Retail natural gas is currently pretty much where it was in the 1980s, but not as cheap as it was in the 1970s.

      Retail electricity has enjoy a long term deflationary trend, but has been pretty flat for the past 2 decades. It's slightly up from the lowest points since 2000, but not by gobs. Cheap renewables continuing to go on the grid puts downward pressure on electricity pricing, even as the cost of managing intermittent generators adds something to the transmission & distribution line items on the bill. Going forward, expect pricing to go down. PV and wind are both continuing to get cheaper (PV faster than wind), and as more of that stuff goes on the grid as zero marginal cost price-takers the harder it is for generators of higher fuel and O & M costs to mark it up. Electricity markets will need some tweaking, but in the end the ever falling levelized cost of renewables (and storage) are going to win the day.

      It's cheaper on a lifecycle cost basis to drive a Tesla Model 3 than a Toyota Camry even right now for almost everyone in the US:

      This was before the price cut, but it's rough numbers are the same. The industry is at a real tipping point, and both the auto and oil companies are catching on to that. CAFE standards or not, as the up front prices of EVs continue to fall the switch from gasoline to electric cars and light trucks is going to speed up- it's still the thin edge of the wedge, but it's a tsunami type wedge.

      Rather than being cost adder to electricity, smart car chargers make managing the increasing share of intermittent renewables easier & cheaper, (with less curtailment too), with enough value to provide financial incentives for plugging in to smart EV chargers.

      The 2020s are going to see a pretty amazing transformation of both the power grid, and the transportation. Electricity should get both greener and cheaper, and the low maintenance, high reliability and low operating cost electric cars will become a no-brainer decision even if oil prices tank.

    3. Chris_Duncan | | #29

      Gas is cheap because it's heavily subsidized. And the long-term costs like environmental damage are not Included. And right now Saudi Arabia is dumping on the market to hurt Russia and Venezuela

  8. ch_architects | | #21

    Thanks for the thoughtful words.

  9. Dennis_Miller | | #23

    I think pursuing alternatives to fossil fuels is a good idea, whether or not you believe climate change is manmade. For one thing fossil fuels are finite. They will run out some day. I would rather see these materials conserved for other uses such as plastics etc rather than merely burned as fuel. Another reason is that during time of war petroleum is a critical resource. The less we squander the more we have for our tanks, fighter planes and ships.

    But the New Green Deal is an absurdity. We can hardly build one power plant in 10 years yet we are going to revamp the entire energy sector of the economy in that amount of time?!?! Not possible. Maybe 25 years, or 40 years, but 10 is impossibly fast. Also I've heard people suggest that there are enough of the right materials to make enough backup batteries for the intermittent demands of solar and wind power. Also no mention of clean nuclear energy. But in the end I lose all support for the NGD when it includes a bunch of junk unrelated to green energy and talks about supporting those unwilling to work. What does that have to do with being green?

    1. GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #24

      This is more of a question of national will that production capability. In 1939, U.S. factories made 3,000 airplanes for the U.S. military. In 1944, they made 100,000 -- more than a 30-fold increase in production.

      Politicians haven't realized or acknowledged the severity of the climate crisis. If they ever did, national resources could be devoted to addressing the threat.

  10. jeff_ldc | | #25

    Interestingly, all this talk is always about how to switch to more sustainable energy sources, but rarely ever about the waste, when what we really need to do is just stop rampantly wasting resources. Some sources say that we could reduce our over-all consumption of energy on the residential side by 80+%, just by caring, thinking, modifying and doing things differently, and with NO loss of quality of life. If people did this, Climate Crisis = solved. Pollution issues = solved. Foreign occupations for oil security = eliminated. And the list goes on.

    Think... halogen spot lights running 50% of the time, doors and windows left open intentionally during heating and cooling season, driving big truck to get a gallon of milk, driving everywhere instead of biking for the short trips, insulation homes better, installing more efficient HVAC systems, switching to more fuel efficient vehicles, taking vacations closer to home, stop idling vehicles while parked in the sun and texting on phone, stop wasting water (uses a massive amount of energy actually) and the list goes on and on and on.

    People are just extremely wasteful, with no gain in quality of life, other than the fact that they don't have to "think" about any of this. Time has already proven, the masses won't do it on their own. An ERF would solve all of this, and make the green new deal become a reality. ERF = Energy Recover Fun. A fee placed on the consumption of all unsustainable energy sources to effectively raise the their cost by say... 20% (or more...)/ year until they approximately triple. This would cause people to start to take notice and "think" about their energy consumption/waste. Then everything would practically fall into place.

    We have this problem because energy is entirely too cheap, and is subsides by our environment and our future. The monies from this ERF could be used to fund programs to assist in providing deep energy retrofits on existing homes, plant trees, give incentives to business working on ultra efficient energy products, etc. so everyone would be able to "afford" the increased energy costs, unless they did not take advantage of the energy program, and/or continued to waste, in which case, so be it.

    IMO, something along the lines of this is what NEEDS to happen, or things are going to become worse and worse, and most likely cause devastation to the human population, as it already is happening to the most other parts of the animal world. In fact latest news is that we are now headed for a massive insect collapse (not just Monarchs which were the canary in the coal mine)... and these little creatures, although often not though of as being important (or not though of at all, or just as pests) are basically the base of the entire terrestrial food chain. Here is a link to one such article about it. There are many more:

    This is real. People need to wake up, or at least the politicians, do... and regardless of wether or not their constituents want to pay more for energy, or be regulated more, it needs to be done or WE are likely done. This was quite clear to scientist back in the 70's, but little has been done about... in fact, even with the addition of more fuel efficient vehicles available, and more solar and wind then ever before, our overall consumption of fossil fuels has vastly increased during the same time frame. This is NOT acceptable, and all the while our politicians continue to fight like greedy children, at a massive cost to all of us and our futures (the present for some).

    Kudos for green building advisor for at least helping to pave the way for a low energy future... but unfortunately, such websites are a funneling of an elite portion of the population trying to do the right thing on their own while the other 99%? do as they've always done.

    Crossing fingers a MLK like politician will follow to give us a strong push in the right direction, so we can break barriers of progress like never before (other than maybe in 1944 as Martin Mentioned). This is the kind of will we need now. Peace.

    1. Expert Member
      Dana Dorsett | | #26

      Jeff_LDC: Paragraph breaks are like breathing...

      1. jeff_ldc | | #27


    2. Jon_R | | #28

      Agreed, energy prices don't reflect their actual cost to society. Energy is a US entitlement program and it causes waste.

  11. Chris_Duncan | | #30

    The green New Deal is like when you bargain for something and you ask for more than you want so you have maneuvering room. And I think they should have got some technical people involved instead of just politicians, because some of it is clearly not viable and maybe even not necessary or cost-effective.

    It's very clear that something needs to be done and soon, right now we are in the middle of a species die-off the fifth one in the history of the planet and the first one caused by man.

    And atomic energy is not green energy it's actually the worst. Just look at Fukushima which has still not been contained after 7 years. One of the reactors had stored plutonium which has a half-life of thousands of years, and they don't even know what's happened to that pile of now melted down rods. The Pacific Ocean is being ruined and the West coast of the US is showing the signs with species die offs.

    I drive a Prius and it saves me about $1,000 in gas annually over a vehicle with 30 mpg., and that is just because of the regenerative technology. They said the batteries would be a problem but the estimated lifespan was 5 years which is really 15. It's a 2005 and I just replaced the battery for the first time this year for a cost of $1,600. So I've owned the car for 9 years so $9,000 in gas savings, the math works out.

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