38 Comments

Great piece, and I strongly agree with it. One of the craziest things to me about the culture war is how different the reality is from the rhetoric — case in point, Texas being a leader in green tech even as politicians in Texas decry green tech as liberal nonsense. But Texas does let stuff get built, and this stuff makes money, so it happens anyway.

The secret has always been to make the new, green future actually better and/or cheaper than the status quo. Then the culture war evaporates and people will transition to new tech en masse.

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Is it so hard to believe that Texans *don't* believe in green tech as "green" tech, but believe in building the most efficient and diversified energy system, and right now, that very much includes "green" energy like solar? That they object to the force-feeding of green technology for political reasons but are fine with it on purely energy grounds?

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If you want to go deeply theoretical, George Lakoff's work on cognitive science and linguists show that All Politics is Cognitive. Leftwing and rightwing brains have fundamentally different worldviews, moralities and values even though they inhabit the same physical world and share an external reality.

This is rightwing framing: "That they object to the force-feeding of green technology for political reasons". Think about this: If the only way solar power will ever be adopted is through force-feeding, there is no other case to be made for solar power other than coercion. Standing in opposition makes you look heroic. Getting solar power for utilitarian reasons like practicality or economics is going to require uniquely conservative justifications to save face in conservative communities.

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Practicality and economics are not uniquely conservative justifications by any stretch. In many cases, conservatives are horribly impractical. I think your (or Lakoff's?) essentialization of "right wing" and "left wing" are at the very least applicable only in limited contexts, and, in my opinion, probably incorrect outright.

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Everyone, by virtue of their consumer choices or lifestyle habits, is motivated by practicality and economics. It's so true that it goes without saying, and no ideology can plant their flag on the concepts of practicality and economics.

That's a plain truth, but plain truths are boring and lifeless. Besides utility, our consumer choices and lifestyle habits are also shaped by and large by the communities we interact with.

I'll balance it out: Why did lefties stop buying Teslas and cancel their Twitter accounts in the wake of Elon Musk being alt-right? For the exact same reason magas stopped drinking Bud Light after Anheuser-Busch engaged in an online ad campaign with a trans influencer. There's a very human urge to belong, and social pressure is a powerful, irresistible force. Not to mention the psychic discomfort caused by cognitive dissonance: See the explanations of the leftie Tesla owner and the rightie Bud Light drinker after their respective moral panics and why they stay when their social circles have left.

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You really like looking down your nose at people who think differently than you Andrew.

Instead of larping as a keyboard warrior on Substack you should go buy your own solar panel and implement some real change.

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May 31Liked by Noah Smith

Great piece, Noah. I learned some new things (US Lithium sources, for example.)

But one thing made me grind my teeth: "this requires interfering in the free market in some way". As an economist, you know full well free market models are not the real economy which very little resembles them. Nor are we starting to interfere with the market: we always have created, shaped, regulated, and changed the market.

This upsets me because it is accepting many decades of propaganda about markets which has been financed by the same big-money interests that brought us global warming and denialist propaganda about that and many other important subjects. Please don't use "free market" unless you are talking about abstract economic models.

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May 31Liked by Noah Smith

Great piece Noah. Going a little slower on EVs definitely has advantages that should be acknowledged: mitigates the negative polarization against them, eases the mid-transition issues like gasoline availability, allows EV batteries and charging infrastructure to improve leading to better first impressions and experiences and provides some breathing room for ex-China automakers and suppliers.

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The negative polarization will likely be reduced when a lot of the new EVs become used EVs and the price comes down. (This is why a lot of the Asian carmakers followed Hyundai's lead and gave $7,500 lease discounts after being locked out of the IRA tax credit reforms. There will be a lot of used EVs on the market in the late 2020s, and this used EV market is going to be the starter EV for people transitioning away from gas vehicles.)

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Will those batteries still be good? I’m hesitant about the idea of a used EV.

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Batteries through normal use will chemically degrade. One of the guidelines new EV drivers get is to not charge to 100%, but to 80% or some cars 90%. Through normal charges, the degradation should be about 1-2% annually.

(Also, EVs are "always on" even when they are off. There is a little energy being spent while the vehicle is in sleep mode, as it is downloading maps and software updates while powered down.)

It'd be worth it to pay extra to get the used EV from a new car dealer's lot, because while the 10-year warranty on a Hyundai or Kia applies to the original owner only, a used car will get some kind of warranty should any issue crop up.

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Sounds like we're headed for the Futurama future: global warming will happen,but nuclear winter will also happen and cancel it out.

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Also in the Futurama universe, phone booths have been converted to suicide booths yet vending machine technology has not improved beyond the slinky coil and your vial of crack gets stuck. :)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XzoRo_FeDrs

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Sigh......There are so many issues here. One of the reasons of public skepticism is price.

"According to data from Cox Automotive, parent of Kelley Blue Book, the average transaction price for electric cars was $55,242 in April, 2024, vs. gas-powered vehicles at $44,989. Tesla contributed to a substantial drop in EV prices as it cut prices in the last year.”

Without that price drop from Tesla, we’d be back to the average price of $60,000. There is not much of a used EV market. Much like the game of musical chairs, no owner wants to be told he’ll need to spend $5000 to $20,000 for a new battery pack.

Every single Tesla owner I have ever asked about range has said the same thing ICE owners have said. I don’t get the mileage (or range) I was promised. You failed to mention the problems with charging. The American public doesn’t want to wait 30 minutes for an 80% charge, and many households don’t have a spare $1500 lying about for a fast charger. You haven’t mentioned the people who rent...Where are they supposed plug in. Using a 110 Volt plug it will take forever to charge your EV.

Lifted from a Politico article below.

"Congress at the urging of the Biden administration agreed in 2021 to spend $7.5 billion to build tens of thousands of electric vehicle chargers across the country, aiming to appease anxious drivers while tackling climate change. "Two years later, the program has yet to install a single charger.”

The market. All three American car companies announced that they were leaving the sedan market a year or so ago. The reason? For one, they cannot make profitable sedans, and the American public has shown an affinity for SUVs.

So before you go mucking about in an industry that has evolved over decades, certain things need to be in place. These are but just a few of the problems. EVs may well be the supermajority of vehicles sold next year and likely not in 10 years unless all the States follow CA and prohibit the sales of ICE. That will be a whopper of a case and put the Commerce Clause to the test at SCOTUS.

EV’s for some are perfect vehicles, like my wife. It is not a vehicle I want.

Finally, a smarter transition policy would be to eliminate coal. Some sort of transition period to Nat Gas while simultaneously building out renewables and batteries where applicable. There is a logic to it whereas Democrats have not sounded logical. When Sen. Markey and AOC introduced their Green New Deal, which had more to do with Social Justice and Socialism, AOC pronounced that we have 12 years to live. Items like that are the reasons the public isn’t interested in market meddling.

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Voters don't believe the claims about global warming, arguably nobody rational can believe, but they don't want to argue with the left about it because they know it'll just get them cancelled or yelled at or both, without changing anything. And they know it doesn't really matter either because the world isn't really doomed. So they say "sure sure, yes, climate, very important" and then go book five long haul flight tickets for their summer vacation.

Where the rubber hits the road is when left wing parties start hurting quality of life in order to do climate stuff. The EU is finding this out the hard way. They didn't care about unpopularity with voters, but after farmers started dumping bales of hay and cow poop on the roads in protest against mass farm seizure plans the Commission suddenly backed off their climate policies.

The link about Texan solar/wind being more reliable than fossil fuels seems kinda misleading to me BTW. It goes to a tweet saying Texas had a massive power crunch and had to issue stability warnings because some thermal plants were offline. But this doesn't say anything about how reliable the power sources are relative to each other. Last winter Texas was wanting to bring decommissioned coal and gas plants back online! They also created a low interest loan program for building natgas plants. How is this compatible with the claim that renewables are more reliable and cheaper than fossil fuels?

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“the sun is weaker in winter)”

Solar panels are up to 20% more efficient when cooler temperatures prevail. It’s getting hotter not cooler. If we’d quit subsidizing corn production for ethanol (a huge waste of water to grow and process into ethanol). Note: Kansas farmers on the border of Nebraska threaten to file a lawsuit in federal court to stop the development of ethanol plants near that border. Why? The amount of fresh water that would need to be tapped to produce ethanol threatened Kansas farmers ability to irrigate. That’s as rich as irony gets, I think. Again, if you put solar panels on those fields dedicated to growing corn for cars and trucks to eat, you could produce almost three times the amount of electricity the U.S. currently (rim shot) uses. Battery storage for that volume of electricity would eliminate worries about weaker wintertime sun. But solar panels don’t mean you can farm those same fields. You could grow soybeans, wheat , etc. under a designed array of solar panels at a height that allows farm equipment to operate underneath. Once the crops begin growing, solar panels become 20% more efficient above greenery. Also, you save a significant amount of fresh water because it’s not lost to transpiration/transfer to the ocean. So, you’re going to achieve a dual purpose. Farmers would get paid land lease money for allowing solar panels, and irrigation costs could be significantly reduced. On a hot summer day, as much as 75% pivot irrigation sprayed water is lost to transpiration. A huge irrigation cost and reduction in wasted fresh water is compelling.

This is just science. So what’s lacking: political will. I’ve yet to meet a farmer who wouldn’t take two income streams and get subsidized, to boot.

The capex to build a solar energy farm that is equivalent to a natural gas power plant is unqualified the annual opex of a natural gas plant.

All of these pencil far better. Eventually, in the long term, natural gas and nuclear will get rolled by market forces. Whether it’s a farmer or a corporation, the flow of change follows the money. In business, one of my aphorisms was: “If you’re saving money, you’re making money.” I didn’t meet anybody who could argue against or resist slashing overhead costs for an already profitable business. They simply didn’t have the numbers. This is what drove the internet growth of e-commerce.

In the meantime, half the vehicles sold last year in the U.S. were SUVs. I’m guessing it will be Toyota who will become a winner with its focus on hybrids. This exploits the doubt/fear in re lack of EV charging stations. In a sense, hybrid vehicles are to the car industry what natural gas is to the oil and coal industries.

Time will tell.

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Great comment! It inspired me to look up what the name of a combination of solar power + agriculture would be called: agrovoltaics. Fascinating and hopefully receives more exposure in the future

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Don't have an issue with the overall thrust of the piece; however....

"That still leaves seasonal intermittency to deal with (the sun is weaker in winter), but that’s a much easier problem to solve; at the very least, you can overbuild more solar."

You're ignoring a relatively small risk of a catastrophic event: a Mt Tambora style volcanic eruption, which, while in any given year extremely unlikely, would amount to a wreck on a wreck: food and travel would be heavily damaged, and if we can't generate sufficient electric power because the sun's direct light that reaches the earth has been dramatically reduced, we're dealing with a huge problem + a massive blow to the very thing that allows us to deal with other problems (energy). No reasonable amount of battery storage can address an issue of this scale, and it's an issue that can occur with virtually no warning at a practical level. A well-diversified energy portfolio is still heavily desirable, and tying something like 50+ percent of generation to a technology susceptible to a mass event is unwise. But hey, maybe it will not happen within the useful lifetime of our current power generation techniques, so at least there's that.

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As someone who has worked in and written about solar and energy storage for over a decade, I'm impressed by the author's command of the techno-economic dimensions of the energy transition. It's quite unusual to encounter that from someone who isn't an energy subject matter expert (and many mainstream energy SMEs get these details wrong - perhaps intentionally).

However, I think Noah Smith's optimism that the energy transition is happening anyway is a bit misplaced. Yes - the transition is happening, it is driven by economics & superior tech, and it is essentially inevitable. But what matters is not just whether it happens. It is how quickly. As noted by Bill McKibben (one of the only times you'll hear me quote him), when dealing with the climate, winning slowly is the same as losing.

When I worked for RMI (formerly Rocky Mountain Institute), we found that even if we got near 100% EVs in new car sales by 2030, only around ~25% of the cars on the road would be EVs, due to the 11-13-year average lifespans (I forget what number we used) of new cars. Notably, we also found that if we wanted to reach our targets under the Paris Agreement, we would need to reduce VMT around 20% as well. And this is assuming a very rapid build-out of renewables to decarbonize the power sector (and meet the additional demand).

Therefore, I would encourage the author to re-visit the effects on the EV adoption rate that will be caused by keeping Chinese EVs out of the U.S. market. I ask that he also consider that US automakers are essentially slow-walking the transition by eliminating affordable models like the Chevy Bolt. Because of the central role of transportation in U.S. emissions, *any* slowdown in the EV adoption rate is damning for our ability to rapidly reduce emissions and preserve a livable planet.

I must admit that I agree with the author about the political necessity of Biden's move. Unfortunately, the climate doesn't care about political necessities. It's physics, and walling off the U.S. market to keep out Chinese EVs is one more thing that will deeply screw us in coming decades.

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founding

I don't like tariffs on EVs, as it hurts consumers and won't really have an impact on the American car industry, but the massive tariffs on cheap Chinese solar panels does not have a good defense rational. We are hurting our own transition to a decarbonized economy and we don't need the power to be internally self sufficient in energy. I guess you could claim that solar is important to our allies and having production capability inside the alliance is important, but that is quite a stretch. The same, to a lesser extent, is true for batteries. In a protracted war, we will need our own production capacity, which we have very little of now. If it will be a brief war, we should just be hoarding Chinese batteries now.

I think we are in for a long protracted global conflict with China, similar in some ways to the Cold War. Developing our own industrial capacity to compete globally with China broadly is important, but protectionism doesn't really do that, it just creates inefficient local products and a country that falls farther and farther behind the global competition. Look at the British experience with steel and coal in the 70s. It's important sometimes for nascent industries and developing countries.

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Why is it a stretch to say that it’s valuable to have solar panel manufacturing exist domestically or in allies?

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founding

The US is already energy independent. We produce more oil than Saudi Arabia.

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How is that relevant to whether or not it’s valuable to be independent for solar panels? We want to eventually finish making a transition to green energy regardless of the geopolitical situation, and in any case, oil just isn’t a great option for electricity generation.

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founding

If we are really interested in making a transition to green energy we should buy as many cheap Chinese solar panels as possible. If China is subsidizing their production, that’s even better because they are helping us economically.

The only arguments that resonate with me as to why we should have tariffs are national security concerns. In general, free trade makes everyone wealthier due to the comparative advantage of free trade. Putting tariffs on cheap Chinese electric cars reduces the standard of living of American consumer and increases greenhouse gas emissions at the arguably important benefit of having an electric car capacity - I am pretty skeptical here because I don’t think we are going to see electric tanks or armored cars anytime soon - but I can see the argument as making sense. There is no strong national security argument to be made for the need for a domestic solar power production capability. In the case of war we can fall back on fossil fuels. In fact, we should grab as much solar as we can to preserve fossil fuels for other uses, including military.

What do you think? Do you think tariffs on solar panels are a good thing and why do you think that?

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I think that we have to pay attention to all the sets of interests here - climate, security, and economic. No one is so much more important than the others that we should engage in the policy that would be optimal if that were the only concern. It’s good to have cheap energy right now, and good to preserve the capacity to make cheap energy in the future, and good on both time scales to have energy sources that don’t cause major carbon emissions. So we want to preserve an ability to make solar panels in friendly countries, though not at infinite short term economic cost.

“Falling back on fossil fuels” is not something you can do if you have a war that lasts a couple years and you lose access to new solar panels - it takes multiple years to reconfigure systems that depend on electricity to function on oil.

I don’t claim to know what the ideal policy is here. I expect that people who have a better sense of the scale of each issue, and a better sense of the impacts of any policy, should be the ones setting policy. But I am confident that anyone who says that we can set optimal policy by pretending that one of these issues is the only one that matters is wrong.

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Really well done article, but I wonder if the focus is correct. What the article says (and I agree with), electrification will happen because of technology/business drivers. There will be ups/downs which are common with any technology adoption. Yet, most of the article is about policy changes from the government. Also, regulatory/permitting is a big issue (agree), but this is driven by government intervention of the past.

As far as I can tell, the desire to have some capacity which can scale makes sense for national defense reasons, but everything else is likely to make things worse.

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“the Inconvenient Skeptic”

John Kehr

Chapters 11 and 12 contain serious errors and misconceptions.

288 K – 255 K = 33 C cooler is rubbish.

Nobody agrees 288 K (390 W/m^2) is the GMST plus it was 15 C in 1896.

255 K (240 W/m^2) is the spherical ToA (not surface) equilibrium OLR with a 30% albedo not a GHE.

Without the “GHE” there is no 30% albedo and the equilibrium OLR becomes 278 K (342 W/m^2) 23 C warmer than the 30% case. (And w 30% more Q GMST would also rise by 23 C to 311 K.)

The Earth is 23 C cooler (278-255, 311-288) with the atmosphere/water vapor/30% albedo not warmer.

396 upwelling LWIR is the BB calculation for a 16 C surface that fills the denominator of the emissivity ratio. (emissivity=radiation from system/radiation from system as BB at temp) This 396 up/333 “back”/duplicate 63 GHE radiative forcing loop is “extra”, not real and has no business even being on the GHE balance graphics.

And, no, it is not measured.

IR instruments do not measure flux directly. They are designed, fabricated and calibrated to deliver a relative, comparative, referenced temperature assuming the target is a black body. If the target is not a BB the operator is advised to paint it or tape it black to mimic such or insert the known emissivity. In the case of the K-T graphic: 63/396=0.16. SURFRAD & USCRN also do this wrong.

There is no such thing as “air flux.” This requires energy flow from cool to warm w/o work violating LoT 2. (page 229 “radiative fluxes” is LoT nonsense!)

This apparent cooling is actually produced by the kinetic heat transfer processes of the contiguous air molecules. (conduction+convection+advection+latent)

More kinetic action produces cooler temperatures and less radiation and less kinetic action produces higher temperatures and more radiation.

Temperature is a function of the kinetic processes, radiation is a function of temperature, radiation is a function (inverse) of the kinetic processes.

The kinetic and radiative heat transfer processes are inversely joined at the hip as demonstrated by experiment, the gold standard of classical science.

https://principia-scientific.org/debunking-the-greenhouse-gas-theory-with-a-boiling-water-pot/

There is no GHE, no GHG warming and no CAGW.

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Jun 3·edited Jun 3

I have been reading you for a while but if you care I want to share a different view.

Your first paragraph is epitome of the problem that has plagued America in the last 45 years since the elite have appearantly never really studied history or chose to ignore it's lessons. I think you intuitively know that what you are saying about markets is just wrong but it's hard to break the old habits. Fundamentally, it's the other way around, markets always need restrictions and removing the restrictions in the markets should need a good justification.

Market's never were and never will be efficient in their current form. They were also never created happy and prosperous societies. They created Dickensian England, Great depression, Massive poverty in South America and Robber Barons. They also has created massive de-industrialization in America and Europe, You would be delusional like our current crop of politicians if you think this de-industrialization is maximizing economic prosperity and happiness.

The prosperity and happiness came as result of FDR creating New Deal and putting massive amount of restrictions on the markets.

New Deal was not fixing market's by tweaking it or solving the problems as they arise. it was never reactionary. It restricted most of the destructive behaviors in the markets and created a framework for markets to operate in, which Reagan throw away.

Unless majority of people like you in a very short time change your fundamental misunderstanding of what markets can and cannot do, China would become the new and only super power in the world. It's also not going to be a cold war this time. USSR could keep up to some extent with America during cold war. USA is outclassed in every possible way by China. Seriously, there is no competition, we have already lost badly.

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Great piece. In the conclusion Noah mentions that since climate is part of a broad scope of industrial policy this could protect it from reversal by Republicans. I sure hope that’s the case but I am concerned a Republican trifecta after 2024 could really adversely impact climate policy. It seems they won’t have 60 votes to outright repeat the IRA. And the IRA is technology agnostic and a significant portion of the investment has occurred in red states thus far. So that is encouraging. Additionally the bipartisan infrastructure bill has some clean energy provisions. But so much of the success of this policy revolves around implementation and the regulatory process and I am not so optimistic if the political climate changes. And of course the Supreme Court will be conservative for years to come.

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Jun 2·edited Jun 2

Noah, great piece that makes the case for a sensible, nationalist economic policy. Can you talk about the future of water rights and management? You touched on the effects in India in this article, but consistent water is the is critical counterpart to electricity for the function of industry, commerce, agriculture, and daily life everywhere. Mexico and the Southwestern U.S. are already having consistent struggles now, year over year.

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All well and good, but it would be cool if it were actually acknowledged in certain circles. Just sayin

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