If you have been paying any attention to the science and engineering news lately, you probably have the impression that wind and solar power have finally made it as the primary electrical energy sources of the future. The Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration recently published an often referenced document showing that for 2015, wind and solar accounted for 41% and 26% respectively of all new electric generation capacity added in the USA last year. Gas added 30%. That sounds impressive. However, the key word in that announcement is “capacity.”
Capacity means the ability to produce power, not necessarily the actual production of that power. Your car has the capacity to go 60 mph for as long as there is gas in the tank. It has zero ability to do that when the tank is empty. Similarly, a modern wind turbine has the capacity to produce 5 megawatts of electricity when the wind is blowing 30 to 55 miles per hour, but generates zero when the wind is not blowing and only 0.6 megawatt when the wind is blowing 15 mph.
Similarly, a large array of solar panels has the capacity to produce 1 megawatt of electricity when the sun is high in the sky in summer with no cloud cover, but the actual power generated by that array varies throughout the day and is zero for 10 to 12 hours every day.
The problem with so called renewable energy sources like wind and solar is their intermittency. You, me and everyone else wants electricity when we need and want it, not just when the wind is blowing 30 mph or when the sun is shining. The key to making these renewable energy sources a truly reliable one is storing a portion of this collected “free” power when wind and solar are producing and releasing it when they are not. This is not easily done for large power sources, although some progress is slowly being made along those lines.
To be sure, every megawatt of electricity generated by solar or wind power eliminates the need to burn coal, oil or gas to produce that megawatt. That is a good thing if the overriding goal is to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere while enjoying all the benefits electrical energy gives us. There is a cost associated with this renewable energy future, and the fervent proponents of it from our president on down need to be honest with the people about what that cost will be.
Germany is one of the global leaders regarding adding solar and wind power to their electrical energy mix. Their citizens pay three to four times more for their electricity than we do. My electric bill averages $80 a month and about half of that is the generation cost. Assuming our electrical energy generation costs approach those of Germany as we add more and more renewable energy sources, my monthly electric bill will be around $180, a 125% increase.
In the overall scheme of things this is not an insurmountable obstacle. After all, in the past 10 years we have seen gasoline prices vary from $1.50 per gallon to $4, and we managed to cope with the $4 gas without catastrophic consequences. Therefore, a 125% increase in our electric bill over time should be able to be accommodated without crashing the economy or individual pocketbooks.
Just tell us that is going to happen. Then the government can stop playing games with renewable energy subsidies to hide the real cost of moving toward a more renewable energy future.
Robert Brems is a Coshocton resident and columnist for the Tribune.
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