Sub­si­dies for wind, so­lar put de­pend­able en­ergy at a disad­van­tage.

Wind and so­lar power sub­si­dies put de­pend­able en­ergy at a disad­van­tage

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - By Ben­jamin Zy­cher Ben­jamin Zy­cher is a res­i­dent scholar at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute.

The cli­mate ob­ses­sions of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion yielded a sub­stan­tial my­opia with re­spect to the other cen­tral goals of en­ergy pol­icy, the cost and re­li­a­bil­ity of the elec­tric power sys­tem in par­tic­u­lar. One ob­vi­ous re­sult of that sin­gle-minded fo­cus was a con­certed ef­fort to ig­nore sev­eral un­avoid­able trade-offs, as the push pro­ceeded for ex­pan­sion of wind and so­lar (“re­new­able”) elec­tric­ity gen­er­a­tion, ra­tio­nal­ized as “cleaner” than such con­ven­tional gen­er­a­tion as coal and nat­u­ral gas. More about that pur­ported clean­li­ness be­low. For now, we should rec­og­nize the im­por­tance of a new draft study from the Depart­ment of En­ergy, which ex­am­ines the ef­fect of in­creas­ing re­liance upon wind and so­lar power on the re­li­a­bil­ity of the na­tion’s power sys­tem. Shunted aside by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, this topic is cru­cial be­cause of the in­ter­mit­tent na­ture of wind and sun­light — un­like the en­ergy from coal, nat­u­ral gas or nu­clear fuel. These are avail­able upon de­mand and thus can be sched­uled (“dis­patched”), while wind and so­lar power are avail­able only when they are avail­able, and thus re­quire sub­stan­tial backup gen­er­a­tion ca­pac­ity in order to avoid power out­ages.

Such backup power is very ex­pen­sive — my own es­ti­mate of those backup costs is $368 per megawatt-hour — and there is an un­avoid­able trade-off be­tween those ex­tra costs and the mas­sive costs of po­ten­tial black­outs. The En­ergy Depart­ment’s two cen­tral pre­lim­i­nary find­ings can be sum­ma­rized as fol­lows:

• Many re­tire­ments of large, re­li­able baseload plants over the past 15 years have been driven by com­pe­ti­tion from in­ex­pen­sive nat­u­ral gas, from a slow­ing of de­mand growth for elec­tric power, and from the an­tic­i­pated costs of in­creas­ingly strin­gent en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions.

• But since 2007 the growth of wind and so­lar power, driven heav­ily by large fed­eral, state and lo­cal sub­si­dies and by guar­an­teed mar­ket shares (“re­new­able port­fo­lio stan­dards”), has ex­ac­er­bated the prob­lem of large baseload plant re­tire­ments.

In short: The sub­si­dies and guar­an­teed mar­ket shares for re­new­ables have dis­torted the mar­ket. Large, ef­fi­cient baseload plants fired by clean coal and nu­clear tech­nolo­gies are dif­fi­cult or im­pos­si­ble to ramp up and down as wind or sun­light con­di­tions de­cline or rise. As a re­sult, the “ca­pac­ity fac­tors” — the pro­por­tion of the time that they are pro­duc­ing power — of the baseload plants fall, the ef­fect of which is to in­crease their av­er­age pro­duc­tion costs.

The out­come de­scribed in the En­ergy Depart­ment study is straight­for­ward: The plants can­not op­er­ate ef­fi­ciently, their own­ers can­not cover their costs, and their early re­tire­ments are re­duc­ing the re­li­a­bil­ity of the elec­tric power sys­tem, an ef­fect that is both costly and un­avoid­able — and dan­ger­ous in terms of the po­ten­tial for black­outs.

Notwith­stand­ing ubiq­ui­tous as­ser­tions to the con­trary, wind and so­lar power are ex­pen­sive and un­re­li­able. They are ex­pen­sive be­cause the en­ergy con­tent of wind and sun­light is un­con­cen­trated. That is why they are de­pen­dent upon mas­sive sub­si­dies and guar­an­teed mar­ket shares; when those are threat­ened with pol­icy re­forms, in­vest­ment in those sec­tors col­lapses to zero. More­over, the pro­duc­tion sub­si­dies for re­new­ables — the pro­duc­tion tax credit for wind power in par­tic­u­lar — al­low the wind power pro­duc­ers to un­der­price their elec­tric­ity with­out in­cur­ring fi­nan­cial losses. Coal and nu­clear baseload plants, which can­not ramp up and down eas­ily or at all, must match those ar­ti­fi­cially low prices, which un­der some con­di­tions ac­tu­ally are neg­a­tive. The longer-term ef­fect of this large dis­tor­tion is less in­vest­ment in re­li­able baseload ca­pac­ity, and thus a power sys­tem that is less re­li­able.

More­over, there is noth­ing “clean” about re­new­ables. There is the heavy-metal pol­lu­tion cre­ated by the pro­duc­tion process for wind tur­bines. There are the noise and flicker ef­fects of wind tur­bines. There is the large prob­lem of so­lar panel waste. There is the wildlife de­struc­tion caused by the pro­duc­tion of re­new­able power. There is the land use both mas­sive and un­sightly, made nec­es­sary by the un­con­cen­trated na­ture of re­new­able en­ergy.

And above all: There is the in­crease — yes, in­crease — in the emis­sions of con­ven­tional ef­flu­ents caused by the up-and-down cy­cling of the con­ven­tional backup gen­er­a­tion units needed to avoid black­outs caused by the un­re­li­a­bil­ity of wind and so­lar power.

The En­ergy Depart­ment re­li­a­bil­ity study is im­por­tant be­cause it ex­poses the cen­tral prob­lem with wind and so­lar sub­si­dies swept for so long un­der the rug. Such pol­icy sup­port is forc­ing the shut­down of large num­bers of re­li­able baseload power plants pro­duc­ing in­ex­pen­sive con­ven­tional elec­tric­ity, in fa­vor of un­re­li­able wind farms and so­lar power fa­cil­i­ties, a grow­ing dis­tor­tion man­dated in pur­suit of a cli­mate agenda even though the net ef­fect on global tem­per­a­tures of the as­sumed re­duc­tion in green­house gas emis­sions would be ef­fec­tively un­mea­sur­able by the year 2100. Can this pos­si­bly make sense?


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