The editorial “Clean power” (Herald, May 5) claimed that opposition to renewable energy for generating electricity is an “outdated model,” and that the main force behind such opposition is lobbying from coal companies. That is a popular but overly simplistic interpretation of the issue. In the case of state Senate Bill 252, the editorial was promoting, the opposition is to the use of mandates, not to the use of renewable energy sources per se.
The bill will require electrical cooperatives and their suppliers to obtain 20 percent of their power from renewable energy sources, primarily wind and solar. Economists keep reminding us that these types of enforcements distort the energy market by uncoupling supply from demand. It picks winners long before technical and economic issues have been properly assessed, and often leads to a supply of the mandated energy source that cannot be efficiently incorporated into the overall energy system. The cost to society in both money and inconvenience is almost always much higher than when the market is allowed to make the choice, and the benefits more physiological than environmental.
There are many examples of these undesired consequences reported from communities that have, or are now using mandates. Germany is a particularly good example to examine, because one of the new members elected to the La Plata Electric Association board told the community in a recent interview that we needed to catch up to Germany in the use of wind and solar. It is also a good example of what happens when other carbon-free sources such as nuclear power and carbon-sequestration are excluded from the competition.
A factual analysis of the German experiment was just published in the British science journal Nature called ”Germany’s Energy Gamble, An ambitious plan to slash greenhouse-gas emissions must clear some high technical and economic hurdles” (April 11). Germany’s energy companies are mandated to generate at least 35 percent of their electricity from carbon-free sources by 2020 (Note that the mandate is for carbon-free and not limited to renewable sources.)
Many energy experts believe that 35 percent is unrealistic because the mandate was set in 2004 before Chancellor Angela Merkel closed eight nuclear plants in the panic about Fukushima, and promise to close all by 2020. To replace the carbon-free shortfall, Merkel speeded up the implementation of renewable sources by providing generous subsidies that allowed owners of wind turbines and solar panels to “cash in on an estimated 20 billion Euros in 2012 that was actually worth a mere 3 billion on the wholesale electricity market.” Consumers had to make up the difference with higher rates.
According to the Nature analysis, the mandate also “created a nightmare scenario for grid operators.” In 2012, more than 200,000 blackouts exceeding three minutes were reported. These grid-management problems because of the enforcement of mandates have also been reported by the Bonneville Power Administration in the Pacific Northwest (Seattle Times, May 23, 2010), by Spain as described in analysis carried out by the University Rey Juan Carlos (March 2009) and in Texas.
Here in Colorado, Xcel Energy, which supplies the eastern half of the state with electricity, says it is already meeting the 20 percent mandate presumably with no grid-management difficulties. And Tri-State supplying the western half claims it will be much too costly to comply because of the technical additions necessary to prevent grid-management problems.
Rather than composing bumper-sticker slogans (If Xcel can do it, so can Tri-State), the Herald should be asking for an independent comparison of what each supplier is really doing. There are most likely valid technical and economic reasons for both statements, and by finding that out, we all might learn something.
One question to ask Xcel is how it integrates 20 percent intermittent energy into the system without grid-management problems or extra costs. Germany realized early that because of the intermittency, finding technologies to store large amounts of electricity to smooth out the variability was essential if renewable sources could be scaled up enough to reach the mandate.
The Germans now use excess electricity during low-usage times to pump water uphill into reservoirs and release it through turbines to generate hydroelectric power to use when needed. The cost of building and maintaining such facilities are substantial and must be added to the cost of relying on renewable systems alone. But they are running out of suitable reservoir sites and are spending 3.5 billion Euros between now and 2014 to develop new storage technologies. None yet have been perfected and costs continue increasing.
According to Nature, all the costs to date have “resulted in Germany having the highest electricity rates in Europe,” and is still not close to meeting its mandate. France produces 80 percent of its electricity carbon-free because it is 80 percent nuclear. Sweden’s electricity is 100 percent carbon-free because it uses 50 percent nuclear and 50 percent hydro-electric power. Both countries’ energy choices have been market driven, and both have some of the lowest electricity rates in Europe.
Garth Buchanan holds a doctorate in applied science and has 35 years of experience in operations research. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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