Like fossil fuels, renewables are not a perfect solution

Newton B. Jones, Intl. President

Intermittency, high cost plague wind power

LAST WINTER’S POLAR vortex stretched the limits of U.S. energy systems to a near breaking point. Faced with record-setting cold temperatures from the Rockies to the Atlantic seaboard, utilities fired up reserve coal-fired boilers to keep the heat on for millions of Americans.

American Electric Power CEO Nicholas Akins told Congress in the spring of 2014 that utilities barely managed to supply enough power to keep homes and businesses with electricity in the midst of dangerously frigid weather. He warned that many of the same reserve plants that helped save the day would probably be unavailable next time around, because EPA regulations would likely force their closure.

Akins’ warning speaks to the high risk of rapidly drawing down fossil fuel generation capacity to limit the impact of climate change.

Renewable energy cannot come to the rescue when weather patterns become extreme. You cannot fire up a wind turbine if the wind is not blowing or energize a solar panel if the sun is not shining. Therein lies the fundamental weakness of renewables. Absent a major breakthrough in energy storage solutions, wind and solar cannot replace fossil fuels. In fact, these renewables are dependent on other back-up energy sources — whether coal-fired, gas-fired, nuclear, or site-limited renewables like geothermal and hydro.

“Every energy source — wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, nuclear and, yes, fossil fuels — will be needed to sustain a global population of 10 billion people three and a half decades from now.”

International Energy Agency (IEA) Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven put it this way: “Not everything can come just from having more renewables. The system has to be stable so that the lights aren’t going to turn off the moment the renewables aren’t there.”

The major drawback of intermittent energy production is not likely to be solved anytime soon, but this isn’t the only problem with renewables. Wind power, in particular, must contend with multiple issues.

Complaints mount against wind energy

SOME OF THE most common complaints facing wind power are that windmills are a blight on the landscape, they kill birds, negatively impact ecosystems, and create disturbing sounds and shadowy flickers that affect people’s sleep patterns and peace of mind (so-called “wind turbine syndrome”). Anecdotally, wind towers sometimes fall down, as happened in the UK recently, raising fears of bodily harm and property damage.

Defenders of wind power largely dismiss these complaints as being a reasonable trade-off for clean, renewable energy, but that doesn’t mean the complaints are without merit, especially as wind farms expand with great speed and size, both onshore and offshore, around the world.

Take for example the proposed $2.6 billion “Cape Wind” project, which would be located off Cape Cod. This massive offshore wind farm would consist of 130 windmills, each 40 stories high, spinning enormous blades. Many residents in the area fear the wind farm would disrupt the fishing grounds in Nantucket Sound, harm property values, and disturb marine life from whales to turtles. The project has been in the works for a decade but has yet to be built.

Offshore wind farms that have been constructed, notably near the United Kingdom and Germany, have triggered anger and alarm over high cost and reliability issues. A study released in 2012 and reported in the Telegraph projected the lifespan of offshore wind turbines to be 12 to 15 years — substantially shorter than the 20 to 25 years previously estimated by the wind energy industry and the UK government.

“The study estimates that routine wear and tear will more than double the cost of electricity being produced by wind farms in the next decade,” wrote the Telegraph’s Robert Mendick.

Meanwhile, Germany’s flagship offshore wind farm in the North Sea has come under fire for technical problems that kept the 80 wind turbines from generating electricity two years after the wind towers were constructed. The situation has been a political embarrassment for Chancellor Angela Merkel and is creating serious doubts among investors.

Wind power comes at a steep cost

BEYOND THEIR TECHNICAL challenges, imposing footprint, potential for ecological disruption, and nuisance effects, wind power suffers from a high price tag. The fact that they exist at all in large numbers has to do with political decisions to force taxpayers to subsidize them and pay substantially higher electric bills.

A Forbes magazine article dated October 17 noted that the top 10 U.S. states for wind power capacity saw their electricity rates jump, on average, more than 20 percent between 2008 and 2013. That’s much higher than the national average of about 3 percent for the same period.

“The wind power industry claims switching from conventional power to wind power will save consumers money and spur the economy” writes James Taylor, managing editor for Environment & Climate News. “However, data from the top 10 wind power states show just the opposite.”

Nowhere is the high price of renewables, principally wind, more striking than in Germany, which has committed to an Energiewende (energy revolution). Germany plans to get 80 percent or more of its power from renewables by 2050. But the process is painful for its citizens and industry. By one government estimate, Energiewende will cost the nation $1.4 trillion by 2040.

To force fit renewables into the German electrical grid, coal- and gas-fired units are required to go on standby so energy from wind and solar power can receive priority. But constantly starting and stopping fossil fuel plants is hard on equipment, and utilities don’t make money when plants aren’t generating electricity.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the high cost of subsidized renewables has raised electricity prices for German companies by 60 percent in five years — more than double the cost of electricity in the United States. Kurt Bock, chief executive of BASF SE, the world’s largest chemical maker, told the Journal, “German industry is going to gradually lose its competitiveness if this course isn’t reversed soon.”

As Jeremy Warner, assistant editor for the Daily Telegraph, wrote recently, “Europeans have turned their energy markets into a recipe for competitive ruin, a warning to all of the dangers of well-meaning, but utterly counter-productive, government instruction.”

The dilemma for Germany and other members of the European Union that have endorsed aggressive greenhouse gas reduction targets is that going green carries an economic burden that often is not shared by developing nations. Those nations are free to take advantage of cheaper, more reliable fossil fuels sources, and they are doing so.

The world cannot afford to rule out energy options

ACCORDING TO THE IEA, global energy consumption will double by 2050, compared to 2009 levels. Nations will be hard-pressed to meet those demands if they choose to abandon fossil fuels or any other reliable energy option.

Like fossil fuels, renewables are not a perfect solution to the world’s energy needs. Every energy source has its own set of challenges. Technology and innovation ultimately may solve many of the disadvantages and dangers, but in the meantime energy policies must not be held hostage to ideological biases against one form of energy over another. The Green Movement has its extremists who simply want to put an end to all fossil fuel use — from coal to natural gas to oil. We can’t afford such fantasies or the wasted effort to counter such tunnel vision arguments.

Every energy source — wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, nuclear and, yes, fossil fuels — will be needed to sustain a global population of 10 billion people three and a half decades from now.

Energy policies should focus on optimizing each fuel source to minimize greenhouse gas emissions rather than abandoning ones that are out of favor.