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A Long and Windy Road to Our Renewable Energy Future

In 2008 former Vice President Al Gore challenged the United States to get 100% of its energy from renewable sources in 10 years.  That was clearly an unattainable goal: nationwide, just 5% of our energy now comes from renewable like wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, biogas, hydroelectric.  But perhaps Gore's goal was more to push forward the movement toward "green" energy rather than actually achieve such a goal.

In Arizona, regulators have been pushing forward the move toward renewable energy since 1996 when the Corporation Commission initiated the Environmental Portfolio Standard.  In 2006, the ACC approved the Renewable Energy Standard, which builds on the EPS.  It requires the state's regulated electricity providers to generate 15% of their energy from renewable resources by 2025.

I've written about Arizona's Renewable Energy Standard in the past, but I have sort of taken for granted the idea that our utility providers will be able to meet that standard.  When I read this article in Science the other day ("Do We Have the Energy for the Next Transition?") I realized that maybe achieving our renewable energy goals on the timeline we've set won't be as easy as we've thought.

While Arizona's utility providers have made great strides toward the renewable energy standards, of the energy generated here in 2009, less than 1% was from renewable sources (excluding hydro).  (Though, to be fair, many of the state's grandest renewable energy projects are not yet on line - like APS' 280 MW concentrating solar facility Solana.)

What are the issues?

The crux of the issue is this: generating electricity from renewable sources is expensive.  And, sans the environmental aspect, it's not any better than generating electricity through fossil fuels (in fact, it's most often worse - see below).  So there is really very little economic incentive for utility providers to invest capital in developing renewable-energy power plants.

In fact, the capital costs associated with a solar facility are at least three times as high as the costs associated with a natural gas plant - and are often higher even than a nuclear plant (which is notoriously capital intensive).  Wind facilities are less expensive to build than solar, but still about twice as expensive as a natural gas plant.

So why are firms building solar plants and wind farms?  For one, because regulatory commissions have mandated it, and for two, the federal government has offered up some enticing incentives.  According to an Arizona Republic op-ed by Rhone Resch (who is president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association), "two key federal policies stand out as drivers of [Arizona's solar industry] growth: the Treasury Grant Program and the Department of Energy's renewable-energy loan-guarantee program." 

Yet Resch says that funding is in jeopardy: "Congress has already used $3.5 billion from the $6 billion originally allocated to the loan-guarantee program to pay for other policies.  And the TGP, despite its effectiveness in addressing the lack of project financing, is set to expire at the end of the year."

And while Americans support renewable energy in the abstract, a majority are not willing to pay to develop renewable energy sources.  A recent New York Times/CBS News poll found that 71 percent of respondents would not be willing to pay $1.00 more per gallon of gas to develop renewable energy sources.  Of those respondents, 45 percent were unwilling to pay $0.50 more per gallon.

Another problem with renewable energy sources like solar and wind is reliability.  According to the article in Science, coal-fired, gas-fired, and nuclear power plants operate 75-90 percent of the time.  Coal- and gas-fired plants can be cranked up as needed.  In contrast, wind turbines are idle more often than not - 65-80 percent of the time.  And a solar power plant isn't generating electricity at least half the time (not counting cloudy days).

There is a solution to the problem of power continuity: storage.  But batteries and other storage technologies are expensive, even further adding to the already-high cost of renewable energy plants.

So really, the only reason to move toward renewable energy is to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases and to transition to energy sources that won't run out (while natural gas and coal are plentiful in the U.S., those supplies are not infinite).  I think that those are really excellent reasons to develop renewable energy technologies, but the hurdles in front of us give me pause.

Because our transition to renewable energy will necessarily require a lot of public investment, I think it's worth spending some more time on R&D.  Perhaps our current solar technologies aren't the best that we can do - perhaps we can invent a more efficient material to capture the sun's energy.  Perhaps we can invent a better way to store the power generated by the wind and sun to be used when it's not windy or sunny.

And let's not forget about renewable energy's ugly-duckling sister, conservation.  While energy conservation as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel consumption is far less sexy than a new solar power plant or wind farm, it can be very effective, and cheap.  While we're working on developing cost-effective renewable energy facilities, let's pick the low-hanging fruit - it's tasty, too.

 What's your take?  Write a comment below - no registration required.

Written on Thursday, 19 August 2010 15:47 by Gary Yaquinto

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