The Folly of Renewable Electricity

The Passover season is with us. And Governor Jerry Brown should have been content during his first term as governor merely to have delivered a huge blow to state finances by instituting collective bargaining for government unions. And then he should have been content merely to have delivered a huge blow to state infrastructure with his "small is beautiful" malarkey. We now can hope that he is finally content, having delivered a huge blow to California's competitiveness by signing a bill mandating that 33 percent of the state's electricity be obtained from wind and solar sources by 2020.

By then, Governor Brown will be safely out of office. The rest of us will have to deal with the high costs, low reliability, and environmental degradation attendant upon this latest exercise in the fantasies of renewable power.

The energy content of wind flows and sunlight is unconcentrated, which means that massive amounts of land and materials have to be employed to make renewable power even technically practical. A 1,000-megawatt gas plant needs about 10-15 acres; a 1,000-megawatt wind farm needs about 50,000 acres (78 square miles). A square meter of solar receiving capacity even in theory is only sufficient to power one 100-watt light bulb; a solar plant of only 100 megawatts would require about 1,250 acres (2 square miles).

Unlike conventional power plants, wind and solar facilities have to be sited where the wind blows and the sun shines with sufficient intensity. The upshot: higher transmission costs, estimated by the California Public Utilities Commission at $12 billion for the 33 percent requirement. Moreover, good sites are limited; as the production of renewable electricity is expanded, increasingly unfavorable sites will have to be used, and so the cost of renewable power will rise and its reliability will fall. This means, among other things, that future scale economies in renewable power production--promised so blithely by so many--are a mirage.

It gets worse: Wind and solar facilities are only about a quarter to a third as reliable as conventional power plants, because wind and sunlight cannot be scheduled, and neither can renewable electricity production. Therefore, conventional backup capacity must be built along with the wind farms and solar stations in order to prevent blackouts. A study done for the California Energy Commission estimates that this needed backup capacity will be almost 5,000 megawatts; estimates from the Energy Information Administration suggest that the capital costs alone will be well over $5 billion.

These are among the reasons that the EIA estimates that wind and solar power cost 100-300 percent more than conventional power. This is consistent with a recent finding by Professor Constant Tra that each percentage-point increase in a renewable requirement raises commercial and residential rates by 4-10 percent. The proponents' claim that the 33 percent requirement will increase costs by only 7 percent is a pipe dream.

A cleaner environment is worth it, you say? Not so fast. As counterintuitive as it may seem, increased reliance on wind and solar power will hurt the environment, not because of such phony issues as endangered cockroaches, used by the environmental left as a tool with which to obstruct the renewable energy projects that they claim to support. Instead, this damage will be real, in the form of greater air pollution. The conventional generators needed to back up the unreliable wind and solar production will have to be cycled up and down because the system operators will be required to take wind and solar generation when it is available. This means greater operating inefficiency and more emissions. That is precisely what a recent engineering study of the effects of renewables requirements found for Colorado and Texas.

So we have achieved the perfect leftist trifecta: higher costs, lower reliability, and more environmental degradation. Such plagues are hardly biblical, but neither are they trivial. Will Governor Brown finally be content? Obviously not, as he now wants higher taxes to feed a Sacramento monster utterly destructive in so many dimensions.

Benjamin Zycher is a visiting scholar at AEI.

 

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About the Author

 

Benjamin
Zycher
  • Benjamin Zycher is the John G. Searle Chair and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he works on energy and environmental policy. He is also a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute.

    Before joining AEI, Zycher conducted a broad research program in his public policy research firm, and was an intelligence community associate of the Office of Economic Analysis, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, US Department of State.  He is a former senior economist at the RAND Corporation, a former adjunct professor of economics at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and at the California State University Channel Islands, and is a former senior economist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology.  He served as a senior staff economist for the President's Council of Economic Advisers, with responsibility for energy and environmental policy issues.

    Zycher has a doctorate in economics from UCLA, a Master in Public Policy from the University of California, Berkeley, and a Bachelor of Arts in political science from UCLA.

  • Email: benjamin.zycher@aei.org
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