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Opinion Biden’s ‘gaffe’ is the truth: Oil is history

Former vice president Joe Biden walks past solar panels on a tour of the Plymouth Area Renewable Energy Initiative in Plymouth, N.H., in June 2019. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

A flub, a gaffe, a red flag for radicalism. At the final presidential debate last week, Democratic nominee Joe Biden stumbled worse than he has in ages — at least according to Republicans.

“I would transition away from the oil industry, yes,” Biden said, after President Trump accused him of wanting to not only dismantle the oil industry but also force the end of fossil fuels more broadly. “The oil industry pollutes, significantly,” Biden added, and “it has to be replaced by renewable energy over time.”

Sure, it was an inelegant (and politically damaging) representation of Biden’s views, as evidenced by cleanup work his campaign needed to do over subsequent days. But Biden’s underlying claim — that fossil fuels will eventually need to be supplanted by renewables — is only radical if you’re still working off of decades-old facts.

Recent, unexpectedly rapid technological improvement in renewables and battery technology has made clear that fossil fuels will eventually get phased out no matter what the government does. The only question is whether political leaders speed this process up or slow it down — and whether they help workers displaced by the inevitable change.

In the years since the GOP developed its talking points about the pain of transitioning from fossil fuels, the energy industry has changed dramatically. While no one was looking, solar, wind and battery technology got a lot cheaper, a lot faster, than almost anyone forecast — partly thanks to Chinese industrial policy — and thus renewable energy sources have grown increasingly competitive with fossil fuels.

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In fact, the International Energy Agency’s new World Energy Outlook found that solar photovoltaics are “consistently cheaper than new coal- or gas-fired power plants in most countries, and solar projects now offer some of the lowest cost electricity ever seen.” Because of government subsidies, renewable prices are still lower today than they’d otherwise be — but even so, the main reason prices have fallen so fast is that technology has improved so dang much.

In short, this means that traditional sources of energy are much less economically attractive. In fact, in the United States, it has become cheaper to build and operate an entirely new wind or solar plant than it is to continue operating an existing coal one, according to Gregory Nemet, a University of Wisconsin at Madison professor and author of “How Solar Energy Became Cheap.” Upfront capital-equipment costs have fallen, and once the equipment is installed, wind and sunshine are essentially free; by contrast, coal plants still have to pay for the coal and the people to operate the plants.

Legacy fossil fuels are therefore being phased out on their own, regardless of the regulatory environment.

“The Republicans are intentionally ignoring that fact because they want fossil fuel supporters to think it’s the Democrats that are against them, not just impersonal ‘market forces,’ ” said University of Illinois economist Don Fullerton.

Indeed, despite Trump’s efforts to prop up coal, coal-fired electricity generation has declined faster under this president than it did in the previous four years under supposedly overregulating President Barack Obama.

As much improvement as there’s been in batteries, storage technology still needs further advances before a complete transition to renewables becomes viable. In the meantime, we’re probably stuck with natural gas as a stopgap measure. Natural gas has also become much, much cheaper over the past decade, also thanks to technological change (i.e., fracking). And while natural gas still contributes to climate change, with sufficient oversight, it’s much less polluting than the energy sources it has largely replaced.

Similarly, in the fossil-fuel-intensive transportation sector, there have been massive advances in batteries and electric vehicles. We still have a long way to go before electric cars fully replace gas-powered ones; and that time will probably be prolonged by insufficient battery-charging infrastructure, plus the many years of life left on the gas vehicles Americans already own. But this shift is coming, too.

This is part of the reason even the usually bullish OPEC recently forecast that developed countries have passed “peak oil” — not because a Democrat might win the White House, but because other technologies have become more attractive.

Even so, politicians can make a difference, and they should, particularly faced with the existential crisis of climate change. They can try to accelerate the pace of change, and bring the United States into the clean-energy future faster, including by eliminating fossil-fuel subsidies and taxing carbon (Biden hasn’t endorsed a carbon tax, but economists almost universally do), and helping fossil-fuel-driven communities transition to new industries.

Or, like Trump, they can try to slow down the inevitable.

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