Etam: Net Zero 2050?

  Serious goal-setting seems like a very good way to torment oneself, creating a new reason out of thin air. My New Year’s resolution is to avoid setting goals. Type […]
Published on May 16, 2023


Serious goal-setting seems like a very good way to torment oneself, creating a new reason out of thin air. My New Year’s resolution is to avoid setting goals. Type A is not my type.

But maybe it’s time to turn over a new leaf. I’ve decided I don’t want to be a bedridden old coot. So it’s showtime.

By the year 2050, I’m going to be the first 80-something to run a sub-four-minute mile. I’m going to bench press 1,200 pounds and win the Tour de France five times in a row, all as an octogenarian.

Aw come on. You’re laughing at me. Why do you have to be like that?

I’m not crazy, I’m just trying to get with the times. Aspiration is everything, reality is nothing.

If you live in Alberta, you may have noticed we are in the midst of a provincial election campaign. Regarding the potential outcomes, all I can say is this: I’m grateful to live near some natural gas wells. I’m grateful to step outside the city and be farmers and farmland and have clean water.

Taken together, by 2050, it seems quite probable that only those living amongst such a collection will be the last people standing.

Our two main combatants in the provincial election are, to the extent I am paying attention (not really), duking it out over who has the best emissions reduction plan, and who’s the most apt to lead to net zero 2050.

You want to run towards that light? Here’s a sneak preview of what you’ll get. The U.S., more advanced than Canada in terms of wind/solar penetration – some states now producing significant proportions of power from wind or solar – recently received a very cold bucket of water over the head with respect to renewables plans from none other than FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) commissioners.

Note that these commissioners include chairman Willie Phillips, a Biden appointee. Here are quotes from commissioners (including Mr. Phillips) testifying at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing: “The United States is heading for a catastrophic situation in terms of reliability…We face unprecedented challenges to the reliability of our nation’s electric system…[there is a] looming reliability crisis in our electricity markets.”

What is the specific cause of their alarm bells? The fact that hydrocarbon power plants – gas and coal – are being shuttered faster than reliable replacements are available. That’s what happens when arbitrary goals are carved in stone.

And they’re only at a fraction of where they want/plan to get with wind and solar! How do you like those targets now? Who’s up for a ‘catastrophic situation in terms of reliability’

Is anyone voting explicitly for an unreliable electrical grid? Because they certainly are implicit. That’s what we’re going to get in the race to net zero 2050 when unreliable power sources dominate at the expense of reliable ones.

And then let’s electrify everything in the meantime, to amplify the catastrophic consequences to the max. Let’s go all EV and further reduce the reliability of our grid. Let’s get rid of natural gas heat and roll the dice on sufficient wind speed to keep us alive some future January.

They’re all nuts.

Is this what it takes to succeed in this world, join the zombies in chanting when none of them have a realistic game plan?

Where are the spines? When will someone stand up and say “Old Man, you’re not going to be able to walk across the room without taking a nap, never mind running a 4-minute-mile.” When will someone stand up and say “Enough with the stupid timelines with no technological or logistical or realistic hope of coming to reality?”

Where is someone with the courage to tell ignorant mobs of commentators to stand back because there is work to do, and not succumb to groupthink, to stop acting like the forced enthusiasm in North Korean crowds where, if you don’t cheer loud enough for Dear Leader, things will go very badly for you indeed? Is that what we’ve become? “I pledge allegiance to the primacy of bad weather as evidence that we must destroy our fuel system and take a wild swing at something else we don’t even understand yet?”

You want targets? By all means, set targets. But tether them to some form of reality. Make the Pathways Alliance (CO2 sequestration of oil sands emissions) a reality. Ensure 10 per cent of the home heating system is hydrogen by a certain date. Reduce methane emissions/leaks by x per cent by whenever is realistic. Make sure there are 500 hydrogen fueling stations in the province by 2035. Whatever.

New technologies are being developed rapidly, as we speak. By all means, encourage them into existence. But don’t bank on the being there as replacements when unproven at scale, or when the cost of integrating is either a wild guess or subject to material availability of which there is no guarantee.

There are a million sane targets, built on reality, built on real things, each of which makes an emissions difference.

But we’re getting hung up on the not-sane targets. We’re burning all the bridges. We are pledging to chain our economy to an arbitrary target at an arbitrary date with no demonstrably tested way to get there, and then charge off into the fog at full speed, foot flat to the floor. We will cut off existing avenues that work for ones that we don’t know will – arbitrarily, and rapidly. We will pledge to build insane amounts of infrastructure with metals and minerals of which there aren’t enough in the world.

The International Energy Agency is the only group I’ve seen that actually tried to generate a net zero 2050 roadmap, and even by their calculations, half the technology required to do so does not yet exist in the commercial world. (And then they pointed out in a separate report that we aren’t close to having enough metals/minerals to do it anyway. But hey, it’s a roadmap!)

Here’s what you get for trying to rush it. Look at Germany, a former industrial powerhouse turning into a wreck before our eyes. Yes, the Russian war has accelerated their energy woes, but German electricity prices were sky-high before the invasion as they covered every surface in solar panels and chased away hydrocarbons.

Now, Germany is burning coal because it shut down nuclear plants and remains at war with fossil fuels despite building LNG import terminals in record time.

And look at the consequences of a blind rush to an unrealistic target, this from the Financial Times: “Oliver Blume, VW’s chief executive, has since called for politicians to intervene in the European electricity market, arguing that prices must stay below 7 cents per kilowatt hour for the region to remain competitive. The average price of electricity for business consumers in Germany was just over €0.25 per kWh including taxes in the second half of 2022.”

Oh, and about even the realistic targets: they’re getting obliterated in the rush to net zero 2050 also. I mentioned the Pathways Alliance plan to get the oil sands to net zero; sounds excellent but not good enough in certain circles that wield inordinate influence.

Consider this G&M story outlining how Greenpeace and other environmental groups have Canada’s Competition Bureau investigating the Pathways Alliance net zero road map for false advertising. Their reasoning is that yeah, you might get to net zero as producers, but combustion of oil products contributes 80 per cent of the emissions. So no matter what you do, oil sands producers, you’ll only be getting 20 per cent of the way there.

In other words, Greenpeace won’t be happy until production grinds to a halt. Who the heck is Greenpeace to be dictating our national energy policy, you might say. Fringe activists don’t call the shots.

Oh, but they do. For anyone that hasn’t been paying attention, let me introduce you to Steven Guilbeault, Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change, and former Greenpeace activist. Well, not exactly former – Mr. Guilbeault recently told the New York Times that he remains the same activist, he is just working from the inside now.

“I see my role, and I think certainly the prime minister of Canada sees my role as being an activist inside the government as opposed to what I used to do, being an activist outside government…I left Greenpeace to go to Equiterre because I felt it was time for me to try and continue my activism but in a different way. The decision to leave the environmental movement and go into politics is for me a continuation of my life’s work.”

The biggest problem with activists in charge is their disdain for the existing fuel system, and the fact that they want it gone. Support for anything to do with it is muted or non-existent. The best emissions reductions ideas I’ve seen are offshoots of the existing system, and they face strong opposition solely for the reason that they are built off the existing system. I’ve sat in their offices and heard their frustrated stories. But that’s the only way an energy transition will work.

Net zero 2050. Great slogan. If only there was a known or knowable path to get there. It won’t be wished into existence when we don’t have the building blocks. Try to build a house like that sometime. The only thing dumber is pledging a net-zero electricity grid by 2035. Introducing vastly more wind and solar will simply destabilize the grid like it has everywhere else, and introduce more unreliability.

Bottom line on the climate policy of whoever gets elected – if it’s a climate policy instead of an industrial policy geared towards emissions reduction and environmental well-being (as in, preservation, conservation, etc.), run for the hills.

Warren Buffett said something interesting at the Berkshire annual festival (one of many interesting things, as usual): “What gives you opportunities is other people doing dumb things…I would say there’s been a great increase in the number of people doing dumb things.”

I’m sure he’s not wrong, but it’s a tough way to live. What makes this election so dreary is that it’s evident that the province is extremely divided, and that the two sides really hate each other. The bilateral loathing is palpable, and whoever wins, it will remain an ugly, hateful scene until the next election. And probably far beyond.

To compound the misery, the divide will to a certain extent likely be broken along the lines that give me more despair than anything – urban vs. rural. One of the reasons we’re in such an energy mess is that urbanized people have become distanced from where stuff comes from – raw materials, energy, and food. A political outcome that increases that divide is a tragedy. Let’s hope for calm and sanity come June, and try to find some way to work together because…

It looks like the province will be, one way or another, signing on to an arbitrary goal with an arbitrary deadline and with no realistic path to get there. So be it. [Strokes chin like a Marvel villain.] Yes, Mr. Buffett, maybe we can’t bench press 1,200 pounds in our 80s, can we, and maybe we can’t prevent the hypnotic tide of insanity. But dumb things lead to opportunities, and wisdom dictates we look for them.

Rather than dwelling on politics (if your side loses) or celebrating too hard (if your side wins), you’ll be better off focusing on the fact that we live in one of the glorious corners of the world with abundant food, energy, clean water, and natural resources. (For those fighting the worst fire season in decades, hang in there and hoping all goes well.)

Chaining ourselves to arbitrary deadlines that are not even understood will bring down many of the world’s economic engines (see Germany). Be grateful if you live in one of the places with the resources to survive the onslaught.


Terry Etam is a columnist with the BOE Report, a leading energy industry newsletter based in Calgary.  He is the author of The End of Fossil Fuel Insanity.  You can watch his Policy on the Frontier session from May 5, 2022 here.

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