Renewable Energy’s Growth Threatens the Power Supply

H. Sterling Burnett
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Posted: Jan 25, 2016 12:12 PM
Renewable Energy’s Growth Threatens the Power Supply

Editor's note: This column was co-authored by Donn Dears (dddusmma@gmail.com), a retired senior executive at General Electric. This article is based on his new book, Nothing to Fear, the Story of Fossil Fuels and Climate Change.

Based on the best available scientific evidence, it is highly unlikely continued fossil fuel use will result in catastrophic changes to Earth’s climate or will cause harm to humans or the environment. Despite the available evidence, governments in the United States and other industrialized nations seem intent on pushing the development and use of politically favored renewable energy sources, particularly wind and solar power, through the use of subsidies and mandates.

It is critical to understand the push to replace fossil fuels with energy generated by wind turbines and solar panels threatens the reliability of the nation’s power grid and the continued existence of the utilities that built, service, and provide the vast majority of the power to the electric grid.

If the utilities fail, the control and maintenance of the electric power supply could fall to the federal government, which proven to be incapable of efficiently maintaining much of the public infrastructure people rely upon.

Wind and solar power are unreliable. When the wind doesn’t blow, or when it blows at a speed that’s too low or too high, wind turbines don’t deliver power to the grid. Even when the wind is blowing at high speeds, it is not constant, which means the electricity turbines produce is variable and requires power from other sources to be added to or subtracted from the supply to maintain a consistent flow of power through the electric grid’s wires and transformers. Rapid spikes or troughs in the supply can damage critical equipment.

Relying on solar power for electricity presents similar difficulties. At night, solar panels produce no power, and even during the day the power they provide varies when clouds pass or hover, panels get dirty, and during storms.

Typically, the source of supplemental power used in these cases is fossil fuels, and the turbines powered by fossil fuels must be operating continuously as spinning reserves at significantly lower than peak efficiency in order to be available to compensate for wind and solar shortfalls that often occur throughout a day.

This creates expensive economic inefficiencies. When utilities build large, reliable power plants, they have to operate their plants at peak efficiency, as close to 24 hours a day, 365 days a year as possible, in order to make any profit. Every kilowatt of renewable energy the government forces electric providers to add into their systems sidelines a kilowatt of electricity from traditional sources at various times throughout the year, and these periods can’t be planned for in advance.

To understand how significant this problem is, consider the following comparison to a restaurant with 200 tables. To stay in business, the restaurateur must keep the tables filled at as close to peak capacity as possible. Imagine after the restaurant has been built, the government mandates half of the tables in the restaurant must be reserved for people who bring their own food, and when they bring more food than they can eat, the restaurant has to buy their excess food at retail prices. To stay in business, the restaurateur would have to jack up prices considerably, likely pricing out all but the wealthiest diners. More likely, the restaurant would go under.

This is the situation in Germany, which was touted as a global energy leader when it started forcing wind and solar energy onto its power grid. Germany now has the highest energy prices in Europe. Manufacturing is now leaving as a result. The nation’s two largest utilities, which have lost billions of dollars, are now trying to sell their electric generating plants, but no one wants to buy them. If the plants are eventually sold, it will probably be at a huge loss. The German government will likely have to take them over and use taxpayer dollars to subsidize the continued operation of the plants just to keep the grid going. With prices rising and businesses leaving, Germany finally scaled back its green energy subsidies in 2015.

We should learn from Germany’s mistakes. Let’s not destroy America’s electricity grid in a vain attempt to control the weather 100 years from now. Ending subsidies for all fuel sources and letting them compete in a free marketplace on a level playing field would produce the most energy at the cheapest prices. Consumers, especially the poorest among us, and businesses would benefit, and life on Earth would continue to thrive as it has done throughout many millennia of climate change.