Americans Need a Balanced Energy Portfolio

Americans Need a Balanced Energy Portfolio
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

The growing presence of renewables in our energy mix is a development that’s helping companies, municipalities and ordinary people reduce their environmental impact and their energy costs. 

Nearly all 50 states have implemented renewable portfolio standards (RPS) in recent years, or adopting voluntary goals aimed at reducing their air emissions and carbon footprints by incorporating cleaner energy sources. Anyone who understands the changing landscape of energy technology knows this a positive step toward protecting our environment.  

Nevertheless, extreme activist groups don’t think that’s enough and have been pushing elected officials to shift their cities and states to 100 percent renewable energy sources without giving any thought to the higher costs this may bring. 

For example, the mayor of Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and an official from the Municipal Energy Agency of Nebraska reportedly signed an electric supply contract that will provide 100 percent renewable energy to all Glenwood Springs residents. 

Does this mean that Glenwood Springs clear-cut its trees and erected solar and wind farms in a valley of the Rocky Mountains? No. In fact, outside of a few home solar panels, there are no solar or wind installations in Glenwood, which is why we need to have a better understanding of where we get our energy and how we use it. 

That starts with understanding what electric supply contracts are and how they work.

Most of the 100 percent renewable pledges you read about happen through power purchase agreements. A PPA, in the shorthand of the energy business, is a contract in which a municipality or company agrees to buy energy at predetermined rates and volumes from the generator. In the case of a PPA involving renewable energy, the buyer gets renewable energy credits that are then used – in theory – to offset emissions from their actual power consumption. 

In reality, though, the PPA does not guarantee that the electricity consumed by receiving community is really carbon-free.

There’s one big reason what that happens – carbon-free energy like solar and wind isn’t always available, because the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun isn’t always shining. There are plenty of occasions in which the energy that is actually delivered comes from sources that aren’t carbon-free.  

There is no doubt that during periods of low demand, known as off-peak hours, solar and wind energy is capable of contributing power to the grid. The challenge, however, comes during the high-demand peak hours when these sources are inherently less effective or outright unavailable, and have to be supplemented by another clean source like natural gas or nuclear power to ensure consumers have uninterrupted electricity. 

A recent study from Stanford University’s Precourt Institute for Energy suggests “to guarantee 100 percent emissions reductions from renewable energy, power consumption must be matched with renewable generation on an hourly basis.” 

Let’s translate that into non-energy speak. That means that customers must either reduce their demand to meet only what wind and solar can provide at any given hour of any given day, or generation has to come from sources that aren’t carbon-free. 

The Stanford study went on to find that for a state like California, a hypothetical consumer with one megawatt of constant demand would really need to secure more than three times that amount of energy to truly be 100 percent renewable.

Great strides are being made in battery storage technology, which could help make solar and wind more reliable sources in the future by storing the energy until it is needed. But unfortunately, the technology is largely in its infancy and is prohibitively expensive for the scale of usage that is required to serve our energy needs. 

That is why we need energy delivery infrastructure like pipelines now and in the future, to provide the energy supply needed to smooth out demand bottlenecks and complement the transition to greater renewable energy use toward which many states are moving. 

The ambitions of cities like Glenwood Springs to reduce their carbon footprint is laudable. But the reality is they rely on critical energy infrastructure like pipelines that allow for the transmission of clean, reliable and affordable energy that heats homes, keeps the lights on in schools and hospitals and provides power for everyday life.

Pairing reliable and clean energy sources like natural gas and nuclear with expanded renewable resources is an example of how to build our energy future in a responsible way that benefits all consumers – families, small businesses and industry – and our environment. 

States including New Jersey must encourage a smart balance of traditional and renewable energy infrastructure expansion as they hope to reach their clean energy goals and ensure residents have reliable and affordable energy.

David Holt is President of the Consumer Energy Alliance. 

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