The headline certainly draws attention:
“Switch to Clean Energy Can Be Fast and Cheap”
In energy resource development, “fast” and “cheap” are laudable goals, but are seldom realistic.
Before an energy project can be built, it goes through multiple “processes” (planning, permitting, licensing).
It is also subject to various “hearings” (public, legislative, regulatory, even judicial – see Jim Conca’s take on the recent Supreme Court action on the Clean Power Plan).
These things are not fast nor are they cheap.
In the push to show that an “all renewables” electric grid can be readily and affordably implemented, shortcuts (intellectual and other) should not be taken that overlook what is actually needed to develop real-life power generation projects, much less massively reconfigure the national power system.
To summarize the article reprinted in Scientific American:
Wind and sunshine could power most of the United States by 2030 without raising electricity prices, according to a new study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Even when optimizing to cut costs and limiting themselves to existing technology, scientists showed that renewables can meet energy demands and slash carbon dioxide emissions from the electricity sector by 80 percent below 1990 levels.
In less than 14 years! Hey, what’s not to like about that?
The above assumes that a wide variety of technical, economic, and institutional challenges can be successfully overcome by 2030. For example:
MacDonald and Clack said the key enabler for their high renewable energy penetration scenarios is high-voltage direct-current (HVDC) transmission. Photovoltaics and wind turbines often generate direct-current electricity, so transmitting in direct current removes a conversion step that costs money and saps power.
HVDC transmission lines also have fewer losses over long distances than alternating-current transmission. The authors envision an HVDC network across the United States akin to the interstate highway system, shunting power from where it’s produced to where it’s needed in a national electricity market.
In other words, for the U.S. to make a huge, rapid switch to renewables, the study recognizes that the national transmission grid would have to be significantly re-vamped as well. All in 14 years’ time.
Recall the cover of the July 1957 issue of Popular Mechanics that predicted flying cars would be as cheap as automobiles by 1967.
Blowin’ in the wind
As an example, consider the Northwest’s existing wind generating resources. They are heavily concentrated in the Columbia Gorge, for good reason; that’s where the wind is.
But, there are still weeks when the 5,000+ megawatts of wind generation capacity on the Bonneville Power Administration system isn’t contributing much, if anything, to the grid. Without the availability of firm back-up from hydro and thermal (nuclear, coal and natural gas), there’s real trouble. The lights don’t come on.
The study purports to overcome this challenge by building huge new HVDC transmission facilities to link all regions of the U.S. into a single fantastically huge grid. Imagine the expense, and the technical hurdles, that would need to be overcome to make this work.
So back to the “fast and cheap” scenario and the questions that are not asked.
Question #1: Who will pay for it?
Utilities generally don’t build generation projects because they are fond of the technology; they build them because there is a need, i.e. predicted load growth or retirement and replacement of generating resources. But in either case, there is a planning period that typically spans years before the first permit application is even filed. There is also the matter of securing the many millions, or even billions, of dollars needed to build the renewable resources, transmission facilities, control systems, etc.
Question #2: How long would it actually take to design, reach consensus on and then build a massively different power system?
Different regions across the U.S. have diverse mixes of public and investor-owned utilities with different processes located in various states with different rules and regulations and different environmental, cultural and economic concerns. In California, it took seven years just to reach agreement on and start up its regulatory program for reducing CO2 emissions.
It’s not realistic to think that all of the issues and interests could be addressed and then the new power system completed in 14 years’ time.
Question #3: Why an all-renewable portfolio anyway?
If the goal is to reduce carbon emissions, there are more alternatives than just wind and solar. There is hydro, there is nuclear, there is natural gas (which is less carbon-intensive than coal but way above the other two choices). The report does, thankfully, call for continuing existing hydro and nuclear resources, according to Rod Adams at Atomic Insights, who has delved deeper into it.
What some may not realize is that while the wind is free and the sun is free, the technology to convert wind and sun to electricity is not. It is a very mortal process with voices on all sides wanting a say. See the recent legislative episodes in Vermont.
A recent piece in the Spokane Journal of Business makes the case that in the Northwest, solar, not wind, will be the preferred new renewable going forward. A Bonneville Power Administration project engineer told the Journal:
“What we think we’re going to see is the development of solar energy take off. The cost to build is cheaper, and its power can be on a grid in a matter of months rather than years, as is the case with wind.”
But as long as there is a handful of people saying we can power the U.S. with wind and solar, the mantle will be picked up in the comment sections of energy related articles across the country. “So-and-so said we can do it, therefore we can!”
Question #4: How much new wind and solar generation do we even need in the Pacific Northwest?
When it comes to power resource planning, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council does as thorough a job as anyone of reading the landscape to see what’s on the horizon and beyond.
In the draft for their 7th Power Plan (the final plan is approved but not posted yet), the Council made clear that a non-generating resource is supreme:
“In more than 90 percent of future conditions, cost-effective efficiency met all electricity load growth through 2035. It’s not only the single largest contributor to meeting the region’s future electricity needs, it’s also the single largest source of new winter peaking capacity.”
What comes next? Demand response (we do that). And after that? Modest amounts of new natural gas-fired generation.
With just those three resources, load growth in the Northwest is covered through 2035, as projected, according to the draft plan.
As John Harrison of the NWPCC is quoted in the Spokane Journal article:
“It’s free fuel,” Harrison says. “But the bad news for wind power is that it doesn’t produce at capacity in high or low temperatures. We’ve probably maxed out on wind development.”
The Oregon experiment
That sentiment is also prominent in a recent Oregonian article by Ted Sickinger on the effort to move the state’s two largest investor-owned utilities out of the coal game.
The discussion in Oregon is to shift PGE and PacifiCorp to 50 percent renewables by 2040 (10 years later than the NOAA plan). Both would need to do away with a total of 2,400 megawatts of coal capacity, which means nearly tripling the current amount of wind capacity in the state (from 3,000 megawatts to 8,000 megawatts) if that is the chosen replacement resource. Cost: up to $13 billion.
Sickinger writes, “Yet there is a practical limit to the buildout in Oregon. The wind here doesn’t match Montana and Wyoming, and the windiest sites with nearby transmission on the Columbia Plateau are already taken. To maintain reliability, utilities will also avoid clustering all their wind turbines in one area.”
It’s a daunting task and ratepayers will ultimately decide if the environmental benefits of snipping the coal wire (the coal plants aren’t actually located in Oregon) are worth the estimated costs. But it is a shame that carbon-free nuclear energy is not part of the discussion, given NuScale’s development of homegrown small modular reactor technology. $13 billion buys a lot of NuScale modules. Just saying.
Smart energy strategy
More than aspirational dreaming, we need smart energy strategies – ones that take into account the economic, technical and environmental aspects of energy resource development. And what is possible. Also, one that values existing clean energy resources, such as nuclear.
In the real world the lights have to stay on. The heat pump has to work in the winter. The air conditioner in the summer. The margin for error is very small concerning people’s lives and livelihoods. “Fast” and “cheap” may not always cut it. Reliable and cost-effective will do just fine.
(Posted by John Dobken)