“Getting Real on Wind and Solar”

This is the title of an op-ed piece, by James Schlesinger and Robert L. Hirsch, which appeared in the Washington Post several weeks ago (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/23/AR2009042303809.html).  I have been pondering their words for several weeks now.  I believe their main points are correct, but their analysis is incomplete. Of course, an op-ed column is not a manuscript or treatise and not all can be said within the word limit.

In describing our demand for electricity, Schlesinger and Hirsch say,  “We expect the lights to go on when we flip a switch, and we do not expect our computers to shut down as nature dictates.”  And since the wind does not always blow, the sun does not always shine and storage is still very inefficient, we will continue to use hydrocarbons.  In their words:

“The United States will need an array of electric power production options to meet its needs in the years ahead. Solar and wind will have their places, as will other renewables. Realistically, however, solar and wind will probably only provide a modest percentage of future U.S. power.  Some serious realism in energy planning is needed, preferably from analysts who are not backing one horse or another.”

It is good to be reminded that we do expect electricity on demand.  But this is not the end of the story.  Some consumption can be shifted to when the wind does blow and the sun does shine.  It can be done through time of day pricing, i.e., peakload pricing.  This is hardly a new concept, but the electric industry has always been reluctant to try it.  We now have better technology to accomplish this goal through the “smart grid.”  Peakload pricing is not Nirvana.  It makes it harder to set rates and may create shifting peaks, which requires further rate analysis and correction.  It may be a cliche, but a journey of one thousand miles still starts with the first step, and the first step has been delayed by at least a half  a century.

Also, leaving the economics aside for a moment, the reason we use coal is that we can stack it up in a big pile (or leave it in railcars) and burn it when we need it.  Natural gas molecules are “stacked up” in a pipeline to be used as necessary.  So we can have our energy when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing.

However, there is no technical reason why we cannot pile up a supply of biomass for the same purpose.  Or waste products such as plastic bags.  Here the economics does really matter.  Although some would argue, probably correctly, that the price of our hydrocarbon fuels does not cover the cost of the negative externalities, they are currently cheaper than the biomass and waste alternatives, which also create negative externalities.  These alternative solutions are capable of being transported, stacked up and burned just as is done with coal and natural gas.  Reject them on economic grounds if you must, concern yourself with their negative externalities as you should, but do not exclude them from broader consideration as a potential part of the energy equation.

Nuclear power should be considered also.  In a broader sense it is “stacked up” and used when we need it.  I have seen much written about the spent fuel costs, but almost nothing on the environmental costs of mining uranium, which certainly cannot be zero.

As the authors say, some serious realism is needed.  That requires looking at all aspects of energy planning.


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