Friday, April 24, 2009

Dangerous Delusions

If you've read this blog for any length of time, you know that it's not my practice to single out individual officials or politicians for particular praise or criticism, preferring an even-handed and scrupulously non-partisan approach. So it is with some reluctance that I feel compelled to share my considerable alarm about the views expressed by the new Chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), Mr. Wellinghoff. His suggestion that "baseload capacity is going to become an anachronism" and that renewable energy can meet all our future energy needs represents a dangerous delusion, at least for the next several decades. I am not dismissing the vital contribution of renewables in addressing climate change, or the potential of a smarter electricity grid to accommodate a greater share of generation from renewable sources than would be feasible today. However, while I appreciate the benefits of visionary leadership in moving the country towards those goals, that vision must be grounded in reality, and not skewed by wishful thinking or the ingrained habits of a long career spent in advocacy for renewable energy.

My first recommendation to Mr. Wellinghoff would be to read today's Washington Post op-ed by Dr. James Schlesinger, the nation's first Secretary of Energy, and Dr. James Hirsch, a former official of that department's predecessor agency. More than 30 years ago, they were responsible for the early research initiatives that helped to develop many of the renewable energy technologies that Mr. Wellinghoff promotes. Their deeply informed comments on the inherent limitations of renewable energy lead to inescapable conclusions about the need to balance these intermittent and cyclical energy sources with the stability provided by large, central generating facilities capable of producing electricity around the clock, without daily or seasonal fluctuations.

My next suggestion to him would be to invest some time analyzing the electricity statistics of Denmark, which leads the world in deriving nearly 20% of its electricity needs from wind power. These data demonstrate the dramatic seasonal variance in Denmark's wind output. In 2008 alone, the country's 3,180 MW of wind turbines generated as little as 234 gigawatt-hours (GWh) per month (May) and as much as 1,050 GWh (Jan.), resulting in monthly effective capacity factors ranging from 10% to 44% of installed capacity. The monthly stats also demonstrate how this remarkable volatility can be accommodated without causing massive disruptions to the Danish economy. This is only possible through tight integration of the Danish electricity grid with those of its neighbors via robust interconnections--big power lines. When Denmark has more wind power than it needs, it is exported to Norway, Sweden and Germany. When its wind turbines are becalmed, it draws on the enormous hydroelectric reserves of Norway and nuclear and hydropower from Sweden. Because of the variability of wind power, Denmark's electricity import/export balance fluctuates daily, monthly, seasonally, and even from year to year. But the US isn't Denmark. We have 55 times as many people, and no neighbors with bigger power grids than ours.

We can't yet know the mix of central and distributed power, or of baseload and variable power that the US will ultimately need to power our economy and meet the emissions reduction targets we will take on. Improvement of the grid and the advent of "dispatchable demand", including smarter appliances and electric vehicles that could be preferentially recharged when renewable electricity is abundant will certainly increase the amount of renewable energy that can be absorbed usefully. However, that will not entirely obviate the need for large baseload power plants, and pursuing an agenda that makes it more difficult to build at least enough new nuclear power plants by the 2020s and 2030s to maintain nuclear's present 20% share of net generation would be disastrous for both US energy security and for our ability to reduce our contribution to climate change. I can only hope that Mr. Wellinghoff is open to modifying his views, as he adapts to his new role.

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