Economists of all stripes are fond of saying that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Where the University of California’s renewable energy goals are concerned, this old adage is 100 percent correct.
One hundred percent, incidentally, is the stated goal of the UC’s newest energy conservation initiative. As David Phillips, the UC Office of the President’s associate vice president for energy and sustainability, noted last month, the UC hopes to power all 10 of its campuses and several medical centers with 100 percent renewable energy by 2025.
This bold commitment parallels the state of California’s recent pledge to decarbonize its energy grid by 2045. In fact, the two commitments have much in common, as both are overly ambitious and fiscally irresponsible.
There can be no doubt that increasing the University’s use of renewable energy is a laudable goal, at least in theory. But this initiative promises to be prohibitively costly, especially where green infrastructure is concerned. In addition, the massive challenges involved in such an energy transition make it look more like an exercise in political symbolism than a coherent, workable policy.
The enormous obstacles that lie in the way of the UC’s full decarbonization should prompt administrators to scale back the scope of the project and set more achievable renewable energy goals. Specifically, the UC should consider stopping short of a fully decarbonized grid and stretch out the transition period over the course of several more years to reduce capital costs.
To get a sense of the eventual cost of transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy, consider the current realities of the UC’s power usage. Specifically, the University receives about 15 percent of its energy from renewable sources such as solar, wind and biofuel. To increase the proportion of renewable energy that it utilizes, the UC would have to invest in at least some green energy infrastructure. The only problem is that this infrastructure promises to be wildly expensive, at least for now.
Solar power is notorious for being very expensive, according to a report from the Brookings Institution. In fact, solar-powered systems in 2017 cost about $2,000 per kilowatt to install, as the Union of Concerned Scientists reported. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average American household uses about 900 kilowatt-hours of energy per month.
But these problems do not preclude a more modest energy transition effort. According to the EIA, the capital investment required to increase renewable energy usage has been falling for some time, and will probably continue to fall as technologies improve. If costs will decline over time, it makes sense to spread capital purchases over the course of a longer period than the timeline set forth in the UC’s plan. In other words, a less ambitious green energy transition plan would probably prove more cost-effective in the long run.
As if that weren’t enough, the practical challenges that attend the University’s proposed energy transition cast doubt on the seriousness of the project. According to a study from Clara F. Hueberger and Niall Mac Dowell published in the scientific journal Joule, 100 percent renewable systems may have trouble meeting basic demand at “peak” hours – the periods of the day when electricity consumption is highest. Even more importantly, the study noted that fully decarbonized systems may also fail to provide services that facilitate the transmission of power and ensure the health of an electrical grid.
This means that UC campuses may not be able to ensure reliable, secure power generation under a fully decarbonized grid.
It is ridiculous to suppose that UC administrators had no knowledge of these seemingly insurmountable problems when they launched the renewable energy initiative. More likely, University administrators were cognizant of the problems attending full decarbonization but pressed ahead anyway to score political points. After state lawmakers committed to decarbonizing California’s grid, status-conscious administrators may have wanted to shore up the university’s reputation as a “national leader in sustainability.” The University did not respond to a request for comment.
Given that the UC has experienced a host of financial difficulties that directly affect students, administrators can ill afford to commit precious resources towards an abortive decarbonization plan. Administrators would certainly struggle to justify expenditures on decarbonization if the University continues to lack the resources to address overcrowding in classrooms and other pressing student issues.
To be sure, these problems should not induce the UC to scrap its emissions reduction efforts altogether. Investments in renewable energy are critical if the UC is to do its part to halt climate change. The University currently enrolls more than 238,000 students across 10 campuses, which adds up to a massive environmental footprint. Not until large, powerful institutions like the UC commit to doing their fair share to reduce emissions can we begin to make a dent in climate change.
The University’s stated commitment to fighting global warming is commendable, but its recently announced energy transition plan is not. In the face of significant obstacles and whiffs of political grandstanding, the UC should moderate its ambitions and formulate a more feasible plan to reduce its emissions.
At the moment, 100 percent renewable energy is 100 percent impossible.