Gigawatts of good intentions

Costly reality of renewables has many reconsidering their mandates

Posted on Aug 05 2015 in Commentary

RichardBiever-e1423592474639-150x150 (2)If Good Intentions alone could generate electricity, we could shut down every power plant that emits even one molecule of carbon dioxide or one speck of ash. We could close the intakes on any hydroelectric dam that disrupts the frailest fry in the tiniest tributary. We could dismantle every wind turbine that brains a bird or dismembers a bat. And we’d still have all the affordable, reliable electricity we’d ever need.

Lots of people with lots of good intentions have been demanding that utilities generate electricity with cleaner sources. But good intentions without good intelligence — or at least a working understanding of cost and the feasibility of these demands — generate no good at all.

Take renewable portfolio standards (RPS). These are legislative or regulatory mandates requiring utilities to produce or purchase a given percentage of their electricity from renewable sources.

The biggest federal fiat yet — the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s finalized “Clean Power Plan” — will have sweeping changes in the way electricity is produced and purchased in this nation if enacted. That edict is expected later this month.

The aim of these good intentions is to reduce greenhouse gases released from burning fossil fuels. Reducing emissions, mandate supporters say, is necessary to mitigate global climate change. Unfortunately, at some point, things like universal laws of physics trump mutable laws of man. Just because you mandate the use of renewable sources, you can’t mandate out the reality of their intermittent nature.

Without further major breakthroughs, renewables simply will be no more than a “utility player” in the energy lineup for the foreseeable future if we all want to be able to afford our lights or even keep them on.

Math tells us nothing electric utilities in the United States do can hardly dent the amount of CO2 the world’s
7 billion people emit. But what adds up with the EPA plan will be higher rates with less reliability here at home.

The problem with solar, wind and other renewables touted by RPS mandates is their intermittency and unreliability. Wind produces electricity at best about 40 percent of the time. Great strides have been made with solar, but it still only works when the sun shines.

How long will you accept having no power at home or work? If your electric co-op provided electricity 99 percent of the time, would you be OK with that? That means you’d still be without power over seven hours each month. How about 99.9 percent reliability? That’s still over 43 minutes per month.

This reality is beginning to sink in. Mandates set in the last 15 years are being scaled back for cost and reliability issues both at home and abroad.

Last month, the Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed commentary outlining the number of states looking at their renewable-energy mandates with new skepticism:

  • Kansas effectively repealed its renewable standard in May.
  • North Carolina is on track to freeze its mandate at 6 percent renewables, less than half its original goal.
  • Ohio froze its RPS year at 2.5 percent for two years, pushing the final target of 12.5 percent back to 2026.
  • West Virginia eliminated its mandate outright in February.

In an editorial late last year, the national electric co-op association pointed out that Germany spent the past 10 years changing its energy portfolio by government fiat. To boost the expansion of renewables, the government taxed consumers heavily through fees on their electric bills. In the end, Germany did see expanded renewable energy production, but it also saw extremely high electric bills.

German residential consumers now pay about 40 cents (U.S.) per kilowatt-hour, while we in the U.S. pay about 11 cents. More than 300,000 German households are unable to pay their electric bills each year.

Last month, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence sent a letter to President Obama expressing the state’s misgivings with the EPA’s upcoming edict. His letter included a shared belief among Indiana’s electric cooperatives in an all-of-the-above energy policy and concerns with EPA’s impact on electricity affordability and reliability in Indiana. Affected most will be lower income Hoosiers who are least able to cope with the higher rates the Clean Power Plan will most certainly bring.

In addition, eight of Indiana’s nine members of the U.S. House recently voted in support of the Ratepayer Protection Act (1st District Rep. Peter Viscloskey was the lone “nay”). The bill, which passed the House and awaits the Senate, would allow states to extend the plan’s compliance deadlines and defer implementation if it significantly affects rates or reliability.

Supporting the environment and an all-of-the-above energy policy are not mutually exclusive. A true all-of-the-above energy policy provides a gateway to affordable and reliable electricity for all electric co-op consumers.

In fact, since 2009, electric co-ops have doubled their renewable energy capacity and have made long-term investments in wind, solar and hydro energy production — without German-style mandated fees.

Make no mistake, the EPA’s Clean Power Plan with all its good intentions sets the U.S. down the path that’s been paved by Germany. … And we’ve all heard the old saying about good intentions, paths and paving.

RICHARD G. BIEVER is senior editor of Electric Consumer.