What’s the Deal with the Green New Deal?

Freshman House Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and some of her colleagues have made news recently by calling for a “Green New Deal” to combat climate change. Hearkening back to President Franklin Roosevelt’s aggressive countermeasures designed to pull the country out of the Great Depression, the Green New Deal sounds bold and dramatic. Speaking at a town hall meeting in December, Ocasio-Cortez called the plan “the New Deal, the Great Society, the moon shot, the civil rights movement of our generation.”

A draft bill calls for “meeting 100% of national power demand through renewable sources … eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from, repairing and improving transportation and other infrastructure … [and] eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from the manufacturing, agricultural and other industries.” What’s more, the bill calls for achieving these goals by the year 2030.

Reactions to the proposal have been mixed, to say the least, with some environmentalists hailing the GND as the sort of bold vision that the world needs in order to combat climate change, and some critics deriding it as fanciful and hugely expensive.

How you view the GND is up to you. But forming an opinion about any proposed public policy requires some background information. In that spirit, here are a few energy-related facts to keep in mind:

The Green New Deal calls for eliminating fossil fuels from the electric industry. Currently, the U.S. gets about three-fifths of its electricity from burning fossil fuels. In 2017, the last year for which complete government data are available, the Department of Energy reports that natural gas accounted for 32.1% of U.S. power production, followed by coal at 29.9%, for a 62% combined share. The other 38% largely consisted of emissions-free nuclear power (20%), hydro-electric power (7.4%) and wind (6.3%).

Most of our electricity does not come from conventionally defined renewable power such as wind and solar. Even if you expand “renewables” to include hydropower and emissions-free nuclear, only about two-fifths of our electricity “mix” is carbon-free. So, realizing the GND’s goal would require a major reduction in U.S. electricity usage, a huge increase in wind, solar or other renewable power, or some combination of the two.

The Green New Deal calls for eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector. Currently, the U.S. relies on fossil fuels for at least 92% of its transportation needs. According to this handy pie chart from the DOE, gasoline powered 55% of all transport in 2017; diesel accounted for 22%; jet fuel, 12%; and natural gas, either compressed or liquefied, 3%. Another 5% came from biofuels, which theoretically could count as renewable; and 3% from “other sources,” such as electricity (which, remember, mostly comes from fossil fuels).

The Green New Deal implies eliminating fossil fuels for winter heating needs. Currently, 57% of U.S. households burn some type of fossil fuel to keep warm. Again per the DOE, 47% of households burn natural gas; 5% use propane; and another 5%, heating oil. Electricity warms 40% of American homes, via systems such as electric heat pumps. (A small slice of the population, probably folks living in very warm climates, have no heating system. Another small slice primarily burns firewood.)

Keep in mind too that most of the electric heat in the U.S. is in the South, according to DOE. That makes sense, given the region’s relatively mild winters. The colder Northeast and Midwest, where heating needs are higher, rely far more heavily on furnaces and boilers running on natural gas, propane or heating oil.

The Green New Deal also calls for eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from industries beyond energy. Chemical makers and other industries currently use more natural gas than the power sector does. Even though the U.S. is generating a record amount of electricity by burning natural gas, it uses even more gas to make plastics, chemicals, fertilizers and more. Such “industrial” uses of gas also more than double the amount consumed by residential customers, who burn gas to heat, cook, power water heaters, clothes driers and the like.

Those are some of the facts about our energy usage today and the role that fossil fuels play. Hopefully they’ll be helpful as you hear more debate emanating from Washington about the Green New Deal.