Skip to main content

On Bill McKibben, The New Yorker & Reducing Carbon On the Electric Grid

Matt Wald
The following is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior director of policy analysis and strategic planning at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

Last month Bill McKibben wrote in The New Yorker magazine about a family in Vermont that had insulated its house, replaced its oil burner with electric heat pumps, added solar panels to the roof and, presumably, cut its carbon footprint. It’s a noble concept but I’m not sure it’s working.

Bill and I go back a long way. We took a trip together in September, 1984, to Hydro-Quebec's James Bay plant, then nearing completion, and he wrote about it in March, 1986, in an article in The New Yorker about the various sources of energy for his apartment in New York. I believe it was one of Bill's first assignments for The New Yorker. I was then a reporter at The New York Times and wrote about the project immediately. Both of us have closely followed the evolution of energy and climate science ever since, but our paths have diverged somewhat. Bill is the co-founder of, which seeks to hold the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million. (It’s now over 400.) My bet for clean air is nuclear.

I've never met the family he wrote about, the Borkowskis, but I'm familiar with the energy system that they (and I, and Bill) live in. Alas, that system is not set up to take advantage of the changes they've made in their home.

Bill McKibben
For starters, Vermont Yankee, the reactor that provided 630 megawatts of round-the-clock, carbon-free electricity, closed last year, the victim of a market system that did not value its reliability, its ability to perform on demand, and its role in keeping the air clean. And New England could close another reactor in the next few years. So it's true that the Borkowski’s heat pumps have replaced oil, but what produces the electricity they use instead?

Natural gas and coal. Electrification (as in electric heat pumps replacing oil) can cut the carbon footprint but not always. In this case, an oil burner that was probably at least 80 percent efficient, and possibly 90 percent, has been replaced with a mixture of 34-percent efficient coal, and 60 percent efficient natural gas, minus transmission and distribution losses.

The efficiency of the heat pumps – that is, how many BTUs they provide to keep the family warm, compared to the number of BTUs they pull off the grid—is a complicated question, depending in part on the temperature of the air they’re drawing the heat from. When Vermont gets cold enough, the system will switch to plain old resistance heat, which has a bigger carbon footprint than the oil did. Whatever the efficiency, to meet our national carbon goals, the proper approach is to keep low-carbon sources on the grid.

Solar won't hurt, but its help will be limited. Bill says solar panels can save the utility system from building more central-station power plants by making energy at peak hours. But that happens only if your peak is at noon. In northern New England, peak is likely to be during dark winter nights, when the solar panels won’t do any good. Farther south, it will be late afternoons in summer, when the sun is too low in the sky to be much help. And heavy subsidies for solar can squeeze out other, round-the-clock zero-carbon sources.

Bill says that solar power is the most disruptive energy technology. It might become so – if there is a parallel breakthrough in batteries, which is not now on the horizon – but for now, the energy revolution isn’t solar, it’s fracking. Solar produces about 0.4 percent of our electricity, and natural gas about 27 percent, and rising rapidly. Ten years ago natural gas was 19 percent.

One reason natural gas grows is because it is chained to wind. To keep the electric system stable, adding wind requires adding natural gas turbines, which can start quickly and stop quickly, to compensate for wind’s uneven production. These gas burners are not particularly clean, and not particularly cheap to run, and certainly not zero carbon. But the combination of cheap gas and subsidized wind has pushed down the price of electricity in regional wholesale markets, which is bad news for actual zero-carbon generators, like nuclear.

Solar actually is zero carbon but it collects big subsidies from governments and all utility customers.

I contributed to the Borkowski’s panels, because they got a solar tax credit, and so did every other federal taxpayer. I contribute monthly to my neighbor's solar panels, through my utility bills, by providing what amounts to a cost-free, perfect battery (the electric grid). My neighbor sells energy to the system at noon, at a fixed price, and buys it back at the same price at 5 pm, when his panels produce little but his demand is highest, and when the wholesale price is far higher. In addition, I now contribute more than my fair share for building and maintaining the wires needed to meet his 5 pm peak demand – he pays system charges only on the net kWh he buys.

Bill and I visited northern Quebec at an odd time in energy history. Hydro-Quebec, flush with new capacity, was trying desperately to find new markets for power. But in the Montreal hotel we stayed in at the beginning of the trip, stickers on the bathroom windows asked guests to conserve precious energy.

We are at an odd time now, too. Heat pumps like the ones Bill wrote about could help electricity displace fossil fuels in consumers’ lives. Electric cars would do the same. But if we kill off zero-carbon nuclear, through markets and government policies that don’t recognize its value, then the future will not be as low-carbon as we hope.


212FH2O said…
After I read the McKibben article, I thought someone needed to poke a few holes in his logic. Nice analysis!
DW said…
Hi Matt,
I'd like to make a small correction to this statement you wrote to efficiency: "...60 percent efficient natural gas,..." 60% is VERY high Matt. Yes, GE's H-Frame unit and some their LS-100s peaker units approach 60% but 99% of the gas turbines out there are similar to GE's F-class frame units that, when attached to a heat recovery steam generator (HRSG) can approach 45% depending on altitude, humidity and other factors. They rarely do.

David Walters
Control Operator, (ret)
PG&E Potrero Power Plant/IBEW 1245
Gwyneth Cravens said…
Matt Wald points out some very important facts. Thanks for this post!

Popular posts from this blog

A Design Team Pictures the Future of Nuclear Energy

For more than 100 years, the shape and location of human settlements has been defined in large part by energy and water. Cities grew up near natural resources like hydropower, and near water for agricultural, industrial and household use.

So what would the world look like with a new generation of small nuclear reactors that could provide abundant, clean energy for electricity, water pumping and desalination and industrial processes?

Hard to say with precision, but Third Way, the non-partisan think tank, asked the design team at the Washington, D.C. office of Gensler & Associates, an architecture and interior design firm that specializes in sustainable projects like a complex that houses the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys. The talented designers saw a blooming desert and a cozy arctic village, an old urban mill re-purposed as an energy producer, a data center that integrates solar panels on its sprawling flat roofs, a naval base and a humming transit hub.

In the converted mill, high temperat…

New Home for Our Blog: Join Us on

On February 27, NEI launched the new We overhauled the public site, framing all of our content around the National Nuclear Energy Strategy.

So, what's changed?

Our top priority was to put you, the user, first. Now you can quickly get the information you need. You'll enjoy visiting the site with its intuitive navigation, social media integration and compelling and shareable visuals. We've added a feature called Nuclear Now, which showcases the latest industry news and resources like fact sheets and reports. It's one of the first sections you'll see on our home page and it can be accessed anywhere throughout the site by clicking on the atom symbol in the top right corner of the page.
Most importantly for you, our loyal NEI Nuclear Notes readers, is that we've migrated the blog to the new site. Moving forward, all blog posts will be published in the News section, along with our press releases, Nuclear Energy Overview stories and more. Just look for the &qu…

Hurricane Harvey Couldn't Stop the South Texas Project

As Hurricane Harvey battered southeast Texas over the past week, the devastation and loss of life in its wake have kept our attention and been a cause of grief.

Through the tragedy, many stories of heroics and sacrifice have emerged. Among those who have sacrificed are nearly 250 workers who have been hunkered down at the South Texas Project (STP) nuclear plant in Matagorda County, Texas.

STP’s priorities were always the safety of their employees and the communities they serve. We are proud that STP continued to operate at full power throughout the storm. It is a true testament to the reliability and resiliency of not only the operators but of our industry.

The world is starting to notice what a feat it is to have maintained operations through the catastrophic event. Forbes’ Rod Adams did an excellent job describing the contribution of these men and women:

“STP storm crew members deserve to be proud of the work that they are doing. Their families should take comfort in the fact that…