Recently, marches erupted all over the country to celebrate science, protest “science denial” and cynically call proposed cuts in federally funded research an impending disaster -- despite the fact that R&D has never had more money in American history.

In the interest of this concern for science and truth seeking, I would like to critically examine a policy prescription from Montana’s Democratic candidate for U.S. House, Rob Quist.

In an attempt to defend the Obama-era EPA’s “Clean Power Plan,” Quist advocated replacing Colstrip's coal-fired power plants with so-called green technology sources.

This comment has gone critically unexamined so far, so that’s where the science comes in.

Colstrip, one of the largest coal-fired plants in the West, produces 2,094 megawatts of electricity. One square meter of industrial solar panel produces 15 watts, and that number assumes average sunlight conditions across the United States. Colstrip, in southeastern Montana’s Rosebud County, is likely in the lower end of that spectrum.

To replace all units at Colstrip (which has a footprint of about 3.4 square miles), you would need a solar farm covering roughly 54 square miles. The largest solar farm in the world is a bit larger than 10 square miles and produces 850 megawatts of power.

Now here are some of the policy implications.

Quist is endorsing a proposal to spend your tax dollars – “I think that we need to subsidize companies like these,” he told MTPR -- to build a solar farm five times the size of the world’s largest existing facility simply to match the current daily output from Colstrip. The Chinese spent about $898 million to build their 10-square mile farm. Even a quick back of the napkin calculation tells us that building one five times as large in Montana would cost many billions more.

The fact is, Quist can’t really tell us how much a mega-project like converting Colstrip to solar or wind would cost, because it’s a fantasy to begin with. Even if he could give us an estimate, it would only serve to illustrate how expensive – and what a hugely consumptive use of land – such a project would be.

That cost estimate doesn’t even consider important questions: What do we do if it’s cloudy? Do Montanans, Oregonians and Washingtonians have to go without lights and heat when it snows? Battery storage at this scale is nowhere close to being economically feasible. Instead, natural gas power plants could be used as a backup for wind and solar for the six months of the year when we are covered in snow -- but why do that when we have a cheap, plentiful and reliable source of energy already there and functioning?

And while conversions to solar and wind are always sold as environmentally friendly, never do supporters talk about the degradation wrought by their pet projects, including: the environmental impact of all that rare-material mining needed to build more solar panels; the unforeseen costs to plants and wildlife with 54 square miles of shade where there use to be sunlight; and the impact on local bird populations if we replaced Colstrip with wind farms.

Taking this unserious policy recommendation seriously raises genuinely serious implications for the economic well-being of Montanans, who would see their electric and tax bills increase massively and 54 square miles of land used up for what currently produces more reliable power at 5 square miles.

The radical environmental movement, which supports plans like the one proposed by Rob Quist, is always ready to point out the costs and risks of hydrocarbon energy. Rarely do they want to talk about the costs and risks of their favored alternatives, particularly in relationship to the often-invisible benefits.

The bottom line is that Quist’s proposal would use in the neighborhood of 15 times more land to produce the same amount of less reliable power, while having almost no effect on the goal of reducing global temperatures. The entire Clean Power Plan would reduce global temperatures only 0.009°C by the year 2100 — a change undetectable by modern equipment and that would have no discernible effect on human existence, according to the EPA’s own climate model.

I don’t know about you, but from where I am standing, these costs simply don’t justify these benefits. Montanans can’t afford what Rob Quist is selling with this idea.

David Herbst is the state director for the Montana chapter of Americans for Prosperity.


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