Only a few years ago, electric energy policy was all about servicing the power needs of the region with the most reliable, least cost generation. Nowadays, power plant development equals economic development, or at least, that's the pitch.
Energy pricing for over a decade dissuaded generators from building their plants long distances from load centers, thereby reducing the pressure to build costly and environmentally harmful transmission. And projects able to meet our peak demand requirements assured we were not building redundant, backup energy sources beyond what was necessary to cover reserve requirements. This coupled with the U.S. clean air and water acts and other environmental rules led to our energy resources becoming progressively cleaner, safer, more efficient and with a smaller footprint.
In just a few short years, there's been a dramatic shift in thinking in energy policy as regulators and the public raised concern about the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Many states adopted renewable energy legislation with the intent of lowering our greenhouse emission levels.
Renewable Portfolio Standards ("RPS") that set arbitrary goals for megawatts of renewables installed were predicated on the assumption that increased renewable generation in the state would reduce fossil fuel use, and consequently reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Other recent objectives include creating 'green' jobs, producing tax revenue opportunities for rural and remote communities, and supplementing income for farmers.
Although individual States might achieve their RPS requirements, Windaction.org doubts that we, as a Nation, will be happy with the results.
In the rush to shift the country's energy supply to renewables and wind, basic planning concepts have been brushed aside. Policy makers chartered with regulation and siting decisions are caught up in a renewables fever and we find ourselves in a place where the driving factor is to find a way to get projects approved, even if it means ignoring key tenets of electric generation siting and environmental sensitivities. “Renewables at any cost” is the modern mantra.
For many states, the review of renewable project applications has been streamlined and/or fast tracked -- often at the expense of thorough environmental reviews and the public's right to participate.
Last year, when T. Boone Pickens caught the public's attention with his pitch to transform the U.S. energy industry into one reliant on wind and natural gas, few noticed the trillions in public investments he was advocating to cover the capital costs of rural wind farms and the transmission lines needed to connect them to urban centers.
The Obama administration promises "green" jobs but we rarely hear mention of the public cost to create these jobs, how many are just temporary, and the number of jobs that will be lost in the migration to more expensive wind energy. Nonetheless, the race is on to erect thousands of turbines at a panic rate.
Rural communities, which always managed to get by, are now quick to advocate projects in their area for the money -- usually with little care or consideration of the environmental, health and social impacts. And farmers, often without the benefit of legal advice, are signing away their land rights to wind developers for 30-50 years for a fraction of the value.
Policies, rules, regulations -- and reactions -- are in effect which, if left unchallenged, will result in the massive and costly industrialization of our rural and wilderness areas all in the name of renewable energy.
In his comments to Congress regarding a national RPS, Dr. Jay Apt of Carnegie Melon University argued,
"Mandating technologies can be much more expensive than mandating performance, by capping emissions at a level that declines over time or by requiring that no more than a given amount of CO2 be emitted for every kilowatt-hour produced. Renewables portfolio standards unnecessarily increase costs (and often leave out efficiency and demand-side response) in an attempt to eliminate the use of uranium, coal, natural gas, and large hydroelectric power. What is needed instead is a direct performance standard that lowers the limits on emissions of CO2 in a predictable fashion over the next few decades to very low levels."
Specific to wind and solar, Dr. Apt made these comments in his testimony:
Even in good areas, the wind doesn't blow all the time. Looking at all the wind power plants in Texas in 2008, we find that in a quarter of the hours during the year Texas wind production was less than 10% of its rated capacity. That means that when a wind farm is built, some other power source of the same size must be built to provide power during those calm hours. Our research shows that natural gas turbines, that are often used to provide this fill-in power, produce more CO2 and much more nitrous oxide (as they quickly spin up and then slow down to counter the variability of wind) than they do when they are run steadily.
The point is that wind and solar can lower the amount of fossil fuels used for generation, but they don’t lessen the need for spending money on always-available generation capacity, nor do we get all the air emissions benefits we once expected. For new generators, the capital cost is the vast majority of new costs and so the savings by having free fuel from the wind or sun are small.
We agree with Dr. Apt. We must get back to focusing on the primary goal: Servicing the power needs of the region with the most reliable, least cost generation -- and low emission. By establishing energy policies that focus on the goal and not picking preferred technologies like wind and solar, we will see a wealth of new energy options and ideas that are now blocked due to biases in existing legislation.