RealClear Energy: Arnold Schwarzenegger Gets a Sunburn

This article was written by Benjamin Zycher, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and it appeared in RealClear Energy.

News reports last month about a traffic accident involving former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger noted that he was driving a GMC Yukon, a full-size sport-utility vehicle that decidedly is not among the vehicle choices favored by the environmental Left. Indeed, it is fair to describe it as a civilian approximation of an armored personnel carrier. And good for Arnold: he exercised his fundamental right to make a vehicle choice that serves his circumstances and particular needs. That such choices are a crucial component of individual freedom – to use one’s own resources in ways furthering one’s own wellbeing – is a truth ignored too often in a political system that has grown fond of coercion.

So Arnold’s recent opinion column in opposition to proposals to reform the California subsidies for rooftop solar systems is of significant interest. In a nutshell: those with such rooftop systems (1) receive significant subsidies for the capital costs, (2) receive “net metering” prices vastly higher than wholesale rates for the excess solar electricity that they sell back to the electric utilities, and (3) do not pay the full costs of the conventional system that provides them with electricity as insurance when sunlight conditions are insufficient to power their homes and businesses.

Because the costs of creating and operating the conventional system and of subsidizing those with rooftop systems must be covered, the electricity rates paid by those without such systems must rise. It is primarily the upper-middle class and the wealthy who have such systems; those with lower incomes cannot afford them and/or do not live in housing meeting the physical requirements. Accordingly, it is incontrovertible that the subsidies for rooftop solar systems transfer wealth upward – that is, from the lower- and middle-income classes to upper-middle and wealthy households.

A partial reform of this system, now under consideration at the California Public Utilities Commission, is opposed vehemently by most of the usual suspects, including Arnold. (There are a few exceptions among them.) Arnold claims that a proposed fee of $57 per month for those with rooftop systems – it would cover the increase in grid capital costs that provide insurance (see above) for periods of poor sunlight conditions – is “a solar tax” because consumers without rooftop systems would not pay it. But those consumers already pay the full costs of the conventional system, including the cost of providing the insurance bestowed upon those with rooftop systems. Accordingly, in Arnold’s world, a reduction in a large solar subsidy is “a solar tax.” Does Arnold actually believe such nonsense?

Apparently so, as he goes on to complain that the prices that rooftop solar customers receive for the excess power that they sell back to the utilities would be reduced sharply. He forgets to mention that such power now receives the highest retail price paid to the utility for any power; but because the utility will sell that excess solar power to other customers, it obviously should receive no more than the relevant wholesale price. Would Arnold support even higher “net metering” prices so as to “incentivize” rooftop solar systems even more? The answer presumably is “yes,” but other people would have to cover those costs. What would Arnold say to them?

Nothing, actually. He concedes explicitly that the current system imposes net costs upon lower-income households, but then changes the subject by arguing that making “solar more expensive for everyone does nothing to help our most vulnerable.” The subsidy system, of course, does not make solar power “less expensive” for the state economy writ large, but instead shifts a substantial part of those costs onto the “most vulnerable.” Does Arnold not understand the difference between shifting (and hiding) costs versus reducing them? Apparently, he does not.

Arnold then claims that “California has been hit hard in recent years by the changing climate, with record droughts and catastrophic wildfires.” Wow. The climate certainly is “changing” as a result of both natural and anthropogenic influences. Does he believe instead that anything that happens has been caused by man? In any event, the Palmer Drought Severity Index shows no trend since 1895; if anything, the period since 1970 has been wetter than usual.

In its Fifth Assessment Report, the IPCC argues (page 162) that “confidence is low for a global-scale observed trend in drought or dryness (lack of rainfall) since the middle of the 20th century.” The number of U.S. wildfires shows no trend since 1895, and global acreage burned has declined over past decades. Does Arnold believe that the California wildfire problem has not been driven by government forest-management practices and the perverse incentives created by electricity rate regulation?

Arnold then argues that the subsidies for rooftop solar systems will help “to slow global warming.” Really? In 2018 greenhouse gas emissions (Table 4) from the California power sector were 33.7 million metric tons, or about one-half of 1 percent of total U.S. emissions of about 6.6 billion tons. If we apply the EPA climate model under assumptions that exaggerate the effects of reductions in GHG emissions, the effect of eliminating all GHG emissions immediately from the entire California power sector – not those merely resulting from the rooftop solar-subsidy system – would be nine ten-thousandths of one degree C by 2100. (The entire Biden net-zero proposal: 0.173 degrees C.) Would someone please ask Arnold what that is worth?

On and on goes Arnold as he avoids the central questions. Has he heard of the massive environmental problems caused by renewable power generally and rooftop solar systems in particular? Just to mention a few: the heavy metal, air, and water pollution created during the production processes for solar panels, and the attendant disposal problems when the panels outlive their useful lives. Does Arnold believe that the production and disposal of the massive batteries that he applauds are “clean?”

Rooftop solar electricity is vastly more expensive than conventional power, and more expensive even than utility-scale solar power and onshore wind power. No amount of propaganda can overcome the cost implications of the unconcentrated nature of sunlight (and wind flows).

Average effective solar radiation at the earth’s surface is about 240 watts per square meter. Even if we assume, say, 500 watts per square meter in regions with strong sunlight conditions, the theoretical (Shockley-Queisser) limit on the conversion of photons into electric power is on the order of 30 percent. (In actual practice, the figure is closer to 20 percent.) Accordingly, a square meter of solar receiving capacity under ideal conditions is sufficient to power one or two 75-watt lightbulbs.

Back to Arnold. While governor of California, he signed the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, arguing that it begins “a bold new era of environmental protection” and that “We simply must do everything we can in our power to slow down global warming before it is too late.” In reality, the law will do nothing in terms of climate phenomena even as it creates a vast array of new environmental problems; but it has yielded for Californians the fourth-highest average power rates in the lower 48 states.

Does Arnold care about any of this? Or is he more concerned with the virtue-signaling so prevalent in Hollywood? Notwithstanding his endless environmentalist pronouncements while governor, Arnold flew between Sacramento and Los Angeles on a private jet almost daily. In the aforementioned traffic accident, Arnold’s GMC Yukon SUV crushed a Toyota Prius, ironically enough, as well as a small sports car. 

No one should make light of such adverse events, in particular when injuries result, and even or especially when inflicted upon our political/policy opponents. But Arnold’s ignorance and hypocrisy are difficult to overlook, for reasons summarized well by that noted philosopher and keen observer of the human condition, Dogbert: “You can’t save the earth unless you’re willing to make other people sacrifice.” Truer words were never spoken.