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Public must face true cost of unreliable renewables

Energy Policy: Wind and sunlight are free, but that doesn’t make them cheap. This is a lesson that states such as California will learn as they push hard to cut the fossil-fuel share of electric power.

It’s the taxes you can’t see that may gouge you the most. A case in point is the drive by many states to boost the role of “renewable” energy sources – mainly solar and wind – in generating electric power.

The idea of these “renewable portfolio standard” (RPS) plans is to require that a certain percentage of the state’s power come from renewables by a certain date. California’s RPS, for instance, requires 33% renewable energy by 2020, up from about 20% now.

Most other states are less aggressive, but the aim is the same – a “greener” energy mix, a new (if modest) source of jobs and more freedom from fossil fuels.

And, yes, there’s a price tag, and it could be huge.

California’s Public Utilities Commission estimated in 2009 that the 33% RPS rule (finally adopted in 2011) would require an investment of about $115 billion, or some $3,000 for every Californian.

But these costs will be buried in future utility bills, and their gradual rise may raise little notice.

If more businesses leave the state because of them, they’ll do so quietly. The state’s residents may grumble, but they’ll pay more in the belief that their state is doing something for the planet.

Even so, fewer jobs, lower incomes and higher energy prices loom. We have to wonder what the public will think when it learns that the “freedom from fossil fuels” pitch is so much hot gas.

There’s a large and obvious problem with wind and solar, after all: They’re not “on” all the time. Clouds can cover the sun, and the wind dies down.

Then, to keep the lights on, conventional power plants have to be ready to kick in at a moment’s notice.

What this means is that to boost the share of renewable energy, a state also has to build more reserve capacity of the old-fashioned kind.

And not only that. It also has to keep power sources such as gas-fired turbines “hot and spinning,” as Los Angeles Times reporter Ralph Vartabedian says in a recent in-depth look at the backup supply issue.

California does not include the need for reserve power when it estimates the cost of renewables. But it knows the need will exist. The nonprofit company operating the state’s power grid figures that reserve capacity will need to double by 2020.