In a post last week, I noted that I have found it impossible to locate anyplace where advocates of increased use of "renewable" wind and solar energy present "remotely honest numbers" as to what this will cost the consumer as renewables move toward becoming the principal sources of electricity. Everywhere costs of wind and solar generation facilities are compared to costs of fossil-fuel generation facilities on the basis of some form of "levelized" cost per unit of capacity, in a game to pretend that a KW of electricity that I can turn on and off when I need it is the same as a KW that may show up at 3 AM when I am asleep and then go dead at 4 PM when I am trying to run my air conditioner and use my computer. This game seems to work when the renewables are 5% of total sources, and even 10%, and maybe even 15%. But at some point, as the percentage of non-dispatchable renewables increases, somebody needs to confront the challenges of putting together a system that works 24/7 for everybody without any glitches. If wind and solar are to be the main sources of the energy, and the system is to meet demand all the time, that has to mean multiple layers of extra capacity, plus full fossil fuel backup, plus some kind of massive storage capacity in the form of batteries or something else. What will that cost? Will somebody please tell us? Or at least, will somebody please address the question instead of just sweeping it under the rug?
This issue becomes increasingly acute as federal and state governments ramp up what they call their "renewable portfolio standards." You may remember President Obama in mid-2015 announcing a goal for the country of 20% electricity generation from renewables by 2030 excluding hydro -- a goal which would seriously push the envelop of what can be achieved without getting into building serious duplicate and backup capacity plus massive storage. (The linked page from the Greenpeace site advocates that the goal should not be President Obama's 20%, but rather at least triple that, or 60%.) Meanwhile, many states have set even more ambitious goals. California's RPS is 33% from "qualified renewables" ("certain hydro" allowed) by 2020, and 50% by 2030. New York's is supposedly 30% by 2015. (But we cheat massively by having the gigantic Niagara Falls hydro plant that works all the time, and by excluding the state-owned New York Power Authority and Long Island Power Authority from the mandates.)
Anyway, not meaning to pick on the Wall Street Journal, but they have a big front page story today headlined "Texas' Latest Gusher: Wind And Sun," touting the supposed great success of Texas in developing non-dispatchable renewable electricity, mostly from wind. According to the article, Texas is now up to having "more than 19,000 megawatts of renewable capacity," which is "enough power for nearly 4 million Texas homes." And, although solar is just getting off the ground, there are huge plans to expand solar capacity over the next decade or so. So what are the benefits? Per this article, the big ones are "jobs" and "new sources of income" for landowners:
Wind projects, including construction of power lines, created jobs in rural counties and gave landowners new sources of income. The state now has more than 100,000 people working in renewable energy, according to the Texas Workforce Commission, which is responsible for jobs creation.
But hey, you're the Wall Street Journal, so you know that "creation" of government-subsidized jobs is actually a form of wealth destruction -- right? Actually, there's no indication in this article that anyone understands that. Well, can we at least get some kind of indication of how much this gambit is costing? The answer is no. There is almost no information in the article about costs, and particular no recognition or discussion at all of the cost consequences of non-dispatchable renewables ramping up toward 20% and then 30% of electricity production. The closest we come to a discussion of costs is a mention that consumers in Houston can choose their source of power between "green" and "non-green" and stating the difference that they will see in their bills:
Residents of Houston currently can pick from 107 different rate plans offering 5% to 100% renewable power. In general, they are willing to pay a bit more to go green. Top-rated Reliant, a unit of NRG Energy Inc., charges 7.1 cents a kilowatt-hour for the plan that’s all renewable versus 5.9 cents for one that’s 5% green.
While it goes unstated, it is clear that such a small price differential must be derived from comparative "levelized" costs of each source, without any recognition at all of the extra costs imposed on system operation by the non-dispatchable sources. Oh, and by the way, if you choose to get all your power from the "renewable" sources, can you still turn on the lights at midnight on a completely calm night? Of course you can. In short, this is completely delusional.
Checking other sources, it's almost impossible to find anyone to say a negative word about Texas's increasing reliance on non-dispatchable renewables -- that is, unless you read between the lines. This glossy brochure from the Energy Reliability Council of Texas basically contains mostly optimistic platitudes. Then at page 14 we learn that previously "forecasters had estimated wind generation during peak demand at 8.7 percent of installed capacity, based on probabilistic calculations," but now they are going to up those estimates to a range from 12% to 56% of installed capacity depending on location in the state and time of year. So guys, if you're going to get up to half your electricity supply from wind, how much excess capacity are you going to have to build? Four times? Eight times? Twelve times? Sorry, they won't say. And even if you are going to have twelve times excess capacity, how do you avoid the problem of a complete calm where you will still need full fossil fuel backup capacity -- just as much fossil fuel capacity as you would need if you didn't have a single windmill?
Or consider this about the Texas "success" from the U.S. Energy Information Administration:
Texas leads the nation in wind-powered generation capacity more than 16,000 megawatts; in 2014 Texas generated over 39 million megawatthours of electricity from wind energy.
Sounds great. But, clever people that we are, we can do a little simple math: multiply the 16,000 MW by 24 and 365 and you get an annual rated capacity of 140 million MWh; but they only generated 39 million MWh. That's less than 28% of the supposed capacity averaged over the entire year. So how much excess capacity do you then need in order to build a system where you get the majority of your electricity from wind? Four times? Eight times? Again, nobody will say. And don't forget the backup capacity from fossil fuels!
The good news is that reality is rapidly catching up. It can't happen too soon as far as I'm concerned.