On energy, Bernie Sanders panders to the one percent

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Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist and independent U.S. Senator from Vermont, has emerged as a serious threat to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary. He is running a populist campaign that effectively blames “the top one percent” of income earners for most of the nation’s problems. Sanders claims to be a champion of the poor and the middle class, fighting against the “millionaires and billionaires.” But in at least one area – energy – this clearly isn’t true. Sanders is pushing an energy plan that only the one percent can afford, and in doing so, he’s taking sides with the millionaires and billionaires who finance environmental activism at the expense of working families.

In the name of saving the planet, Sanders opposes 90 percent of the energy sources that power the American economy and support our way of life. He has joined fringe groups like Greenpeace, the Center for Biological Diversity and 350.org in a campaign that opposes the production of fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas. Last November, Sanders even authored a Senate bill named after the campaign – Keep It In The Ground – to ban fossil fuel production on federal land.

US energy consumption

Sanders also opposes nuclear energy, even though the nation’s 61 nuclear plants are far-and-away America’s largest source of carbon-free electricity. Trying to cut carbon emissions without nuclear power “is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy,” according to former NASA scientist and climate activist James Hansen. Nevertheless, Sanders still wants to rid the country of nuclear, right along with coal, oil and natural gas.

In their place, wind, solar and other renewables – sources which can barely meet 10 percent of today’s energy demand – would take over completely. Because the sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow, the Sanders plan also depends on a huge expansion of battery storage to quite literally keep the lights on.

Sanders promises his “carbon free, nuclear free energy system” will be affordable for working families, but that simply defies common sense. Effectively, Sanders wants to dismantle America’s existing energy infrastructure – which we have paid for already – and go on a spending spree for new, more expensive energy sources.

Let’s start with electricity. The current fleet of power plants is a mix of coal, natural gas, nuclear and some renewables. Generating electricity from these sources costs, on average, somewhere in the ballpark of $35 per megawatt-hour, according to data collected by the Energy Information Administration from utilities and wholesale power markets. By comparison, new solar costs between $125 and $240 per megawatt-hour, according to the EIA. That’s roughly three to seven times more expensive than today’s average generation cost. New wind power costs about $74 per megawatt-hour on land, and $196 per megawatt-hour offshore. But those costs are just the beginning.

Large-scale battery storage, essential to making sure solar and wind energy will be available around the clock, is far from cheap. Even optimistic estimates put the cost of large-scale batteries well above $200 per megawatt- hour. Any way you slice it, scrapping power plants prematurely and replacing them with solar panels, wind turbines and batteries will be a very costly exercise. In just one state, New York, a 100-percent renewables program would cost $382 billion and cover 13 percent of the state’s land mass in wind farms, according to analysts at Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Now let’s deal with oil. “We must move our transportation sector beyond oil by running our cars and trucks on electricity generated by solar and wind power,” according to the Sanders energy plan. But who can really afford an electric car? Even with a $7,500 federal tax credit, they are still thousands of dollars more expensive than comparable models that run on gasoline. Electric car supporters argue the cost difference is made up over time, because refueling from the power grid is cheaper than filling up at the gas station. Maybe so, but this argument depends on affordable electricity from today’s power grid. In a terrible irony for Sanders, when the cost of electricity increases several times over, it puts electric cars even further out of reach for the poor and the middle class.

But not for the one percent. If any group of people can afford huge increases in energy costs, it’s the wealthy. In fact, the biggest supporters of fringe environmental groups and their crusade against fossil and nuclear energy just so happen to be millionaires and billionaires. For example, 350.org’s donors include the Rockefeller Brothers Fund – a foundation run by the heirs of oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller – and hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer. Naturally, the leader of 350.org, Bill McKibben, has endorsed the Vermont senator and even observed “the planet is happy that Bernie Sanders is running for president.”

As for Steyer, he is openly using his fortune to push Sanders, Clinton and Democratic candidates in races all over the country to oppose the energy sources that run today’s economy – the same energy sources that helped make him a very wealthy man. But the Rockefellers and the Steyers are hardly alone. Through organizations like the Environmental Grantmakers Association and the Health and Environmental Funders Network, the heirs of family fortunes and other left-wing donors have pumped huge sums of money into environmental groups to campaign against the nation’s energy producers.

These one-percenters have made or inherited their money already, so higher energy prices won’t stop them from heating or cooling their homes, driving wherever they want or flying from coast to coast and continent to continent. Rather than waiting for wind, solar, battery and electric car technologies to get better and cheaper and stand on their own, environmental activists and their wealthy donors want to rush them into the market, using the force of the federal government, regardless of the cost to working families. Meanwhile, existing sources that actually have delivered big cuts in carbon emissions, such as nuclear and natural gas, just aren’t expensive enough to be interesting.

Sanders claims his energy plan will create millions of jobs, but to be fair, he also concedes it will put people out of work, too. Those about to lose their jobs can look forward to the cold comfort of “extended unemployment benefits, education opportunities, health care and job training for those transitioning to a career in the clean energy industry.” On the plus side, at least he’s not promising that if you like your job, you can keep it.

There’s a big difference between the millionaires and billionaires who use their wealth to create jobs and economic opportunity for others, and the millionaires and billionaires who would take jobs and economic opportunity away. On energy, Sanders is clearly pandering to a small group of one-percenters who are putting their alarmist political views about the environment – which Americans just don’t share – ahead of the interests of working families. Sanders can claim as much as he wants that he’s fighting against the rich, but on energy, he’s fighting for them.

Simon Lomax is an associate energy policy analyst with the Independence Institute and a consultant who advises pro-business groups. From 2004 to 2012, he was a news reporter covering energy and environmental policy in Washington, D.C. Contact him at simon@i2i.org


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