Wind energy has a highly intermittent output that significantly mismatches peak demand and delivers energy largely when it is less needed during offpeak periods. Wind cannot satisfy the peak demand requirements of a utility unless it is backed up with fossil fuel plants and/or energy storage projects. This results in duplication of resources and additional costs, with little, if any, carbon mitigation. Further, wind’s occasional steep increases and declines in power delivery, unless skillfully managed, put the reliability of the grid in question. The tactic of switching off excess wind supply only diminishes the already weak pattern of intermittency and adds to the per kWh cost of wind. Typically, wind resources are located far away from where the power is needed and require significant additional costs of building new transmission. Intermittency, duplication, and grid operations all significantly increase the already high cost of wind energy.
While solar power is much more grid friendly than wind, it is generally the most expensive form of renewable energy. Solar energy quasi-matches system peak load periods, but the peak solar output significantly misses actual electric system load peaks. In addition, solar facilities still produce only about 18 to 25 percent of the time. Without electricity storage, solar energy will not be able to do more than serve as a supplement to other forms of energy. It is not currently a full-scale alternative to baseload energy.
A Renewable Portfolio Standard, or mandate of 20 percent, can result in a utility-scale duplication of net investment in generating plant of 100 percent or more. The mandate can also cause the wide variation of rate impacts, depending on availability of renewable energy projects and other utility specific parameters.
As with other claims for renewable energy, the claim of five million new jobs is grossly overstated. The DOE methodology used in the green jobs estimate reveals only 121,417 direct jobs will result from an aggressive build out of 20 percent renewables by the year 2030. When considering all-in net effects, each new green job in the electric sector will come at the cost of 1.5 to 2.7 traditional jobs.
Eyes Wide Open
As our nation embarks on the path of a green policy, we should recognize the U.S. electric sector, built over the last 100 years, has been successfully engineered for reliable low-cost energy. It has served us exceedingly well and has made a major contribution to our standard of living in virtually all areas of modern life.
As we consider how best to transition to a greener energy economy, we must move forward cautiously and recognize that such a transition will take years, if not decades. After all, how can we expect to reinvent in a few years what took a hundred years to build in the first place?
Renewable energy can be helpful to meet improved environmental targets, but we the people must recognize that the environmental benefits will come at a high price: an increase in electric rates, an increase in capital requirements, a challenge to grid reliability and net job losses. Only with our eyes wide open can we strike an informed balance and adopt a thoughtful energy policy without hype and pretense.