By William Skaff
Skaff is a retired director of policy analysis for a policy organization in Washington, D.C. He lives in Roanoke County.
Considering electricity costs, climate change mitigation and adaptation potential, and environmental impact, renewables — wind and solar — are little more advantageous than conventional energy sources — natural gas, coal, nuclear — for electricity generation, and are in certain respects worse.
The cost to consumers of renewables begins with the basic electricity rate charged by the power company. To that must be added the cost of grants and tax credits received by renewable developers from the federal, state, and often local governments. Consumers pay for these out of their tax dollars. Then there is the cost of balancing on the grid renewable output, which is variable — wind speed fluctuates, clouds dim the sun — and intermittent — the wind is not always blowing, nor the sun shining. By contrast, electricity production from conventional power plants is steady, continuous, and available.
Our grid must balance supply and demand for electricity within a narrow range of frequency, or crash with a resulting blackout. When demand is expected to increase at certain times of day, the grid operator routinely calls more conventional power plants online. In the case of sudden increases, the operator will instruct “spinning reserve” conventional plants — those designated to operate at less than full capacity — to increase production until the load balances. Persistent fluctuation in supply and demand discrepancy is adjusted — “followed” and “smoothed” — with natural gas turbine plants, which are really jet engines bolted to the ground and, like a jet engine, can be ramped up or slowed down, immediately and continually.
Thus, because of their inherent variable and intermittent output, renewables as an electricity generation system are not a particularly effective climate change mitigation technology. Renewable electricity cannot be used if it is not balanced as it enters the grid. And it is balanced by natural gas turbines, which are the least efficient and cost-effective type of natural gas power plant. Most important, natural gas turbines produce carbon emissions and air pollutants. Consequently, renewables must be considered, not as clean individual wind turbines or solar panels, but as a system that requires balancing, and is therefore not carbon free.
Significantly, the grid is supposed to balance supply and demand, not supply with itself. That is the responsibility of the electricity generator, and so far renewables developers have avoided it. These facilities could balance their output before it reaches the grid with battery storage on-site: a portion of production would be stored and released when production cyclically ebbs and flows. But the required industrial-size batteries or arrays are very expensive, and renewables developers do not want to reduce their profits. Alternatively, small electricity generation “plants” could be installed at wind farms and solar parks for balancing, but, again, why incur added expense when consumers pay for this balancing in their electricity bills?
Renewables will not be a particularly effective climate change adaptation technology either. What makes wind and solar attractive — they are powered by weather — is also their demise, because weather is dependent on climate. In a recent study, the U.S. Department of Energy considered the impact of global warming climate modeling on energy sources. For wind, as the wind blows the least during the warmest part of the day, afternoon, and during summer months, more warm days during the year and a longer summer season will result in a decrease in wind generation. For solar, as the weather will become more stormy, the increase in cloudy conditions and days will decrease solar generation.
Contributing to the destruction of viewsheds and habitat, renewables use substantially more land than conventional energy sources to produce the same amount of electricity per facility annually: several hundred times more for wind and almost two hundred times as much for solar. One factor: a conventional power plant can produce electricity up to 93 percent of the time, whereas wind 34 percent and solar 24 percent, annually.
Then there is the direct toll on wildlife. Wind turbines kill birds of prey such as eagles either because they cannot see or are mesmerized by the spinning blades. Wind turbines kill bats because the spinning blades create a drop in air pressure that explodes their lungs. The noise of spinning blades drives animals and birds away from their habitat and breeding grounds. Spinning blades dry the land below, making it less hospitable to vegetation.
Solar panels kill birds because the reflective surface resembles water — birds land on the panels only to be burned to death, or they hobble off with their maimed wings to be eaten by carnivores on the ground below. Solar arrays eliminate habitat by covering it up — animal and plant life cannot thrive underneath.