With the New Energy Reality, the Game Has Changed. Solar and Wind Alone Can't Meet Growing Power Demand.

With the New Energy Reality, the Game Has Changed.  Solar and Wind Alone Can't Meet Growing Power Demand.
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Demand for electricity in the U. S. has not materially changed over the last two decades. One reason is increased energy efficiency. The number of electronic devices has increased; however, each device uses less electricity. Also, the demand for electricity from industrial customers is slowly declining. However, if current climate policy proposals – electric vehicles and 100 percent electric homes – are adopted, electricity demand has the potential to rise steeply. 

Various organizations have predicted a substantial increase in electricity demand by 2050 if U. S. consumers switch from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles.  Additionally, If most homeowners change from natural gas to electric heat some analysts forecast that electricity generation must increase from 50 to 100 percent.  If this occurs, the grid that moves the electricity must substantially expand. Increasing electricity generation by 50 percent using wind and solar power is all but impossible.

If electricity demand does increase by 50 to 100 percent, then we must think in terms of adding generation that is reliable. This does not include wind or solar. Our baseload electricity generation must be reliable and affordable. Natural gas has been the recent choice and is responsible for the decline in carbon dioxide emissions in the U. S.  It is my view that a switch to small modular reactors is the optimal choice. 

Europe is currently providing an important case study on why increasing renewables can leave energy security and energy consumers in the lurch. Renewables are boom and bust energy sources. They can provide far more power than you need at some moments and then disappear for hours, days, or even weeks at a time if the weather is not cooperating. In Britain, where tens-of-billions of dollars have been spent erecting offshore wind turbines, often there has not been much of a breeze in the North Sea. Despite an enormous investment in renewable power, Britain is relying almost entirely on fossil fuels and nuclear energy to keep the lights on. With so much of the generating fleet unavailable, electricity prices in the U.K are soaring.

Sky-high natural gas prices are not helping either, but because the Brits have closed almost all of the nation’s coal capacity – which had met 40 percent of power demand as recently as a decade ago – there is no cheaper fuel source to absorb the price shock. Consumers are getting slammed and there is real concern the grid will be short of power this winter. Across continental Europe the story is much the same. We do not want similar outcomes in the U. S.

The U. S. has a diverse mix of reliable electricity generation – natural gas, coal, and nuclear – along with conventional hydroelectric that provides about 86 percent of electricity generation in the U. S. These generating technologies are the core strength of the U. S. electricity industry, which powers our economy and provides the standard of living we have come to expect. Any proposal to shift to a system dominated by wind and solar is irresponsible. 

Along with their unreliability, wind and solar power remain marginal players in the nation’s electricity mix, producing only 8 and 4 percent of the nation’s power, respectively.  Trying to ramp up these power sources at the speed and scale some are proposing not only poses technical challenges to the grid, but also runs into practical challenges as well.

Solar and wind projects, along with transmission lines needed to connect them to population centers, have run into resistance even from environmental groups, the very groups who maintain that reducing carbon emissions should be the nation's top priority. It is time to reconsider nuclear power, particularly small modular reactors (SMR).  The liquid fuel designs, especially the liquid fluoride thorium reactor design, provides the potential to supply a significant portion of our energy needs in the future and decrease greenhouse gas emissions.  Additionally, SMRs can be located at decommissioned coal plant sites, minimizing the need for additional transmission lines. 

Today, NIMBYism is widespread, particularly in New England, where attempts to site new wind turbines and solar farms have run into fierce opposition from people who consider them unsightly and a threat to property values.  The industrialization of once pristine areas is a political hurdle that cannot be overlooked.

These realities – technical, political and practical – underscore the fact that we need practical approaches to meeting energy demand while simultaneously reducing carbon emissions. We must move aggressively to reduce emissions, but we cannot force arbitrary targets that threaten affordability, weaken our energy security, and undermine grid reliability. With the potential surge in electricity demand driven by the electric vehicle revolution, now is the time to think about how we reinforce the grid, not weaken it. When it comes to the electricity system, there is nothing more important than energy reliability.

Dan Ervin, PhD, is a Professor of Finance in the Perdue School of Business at Salisbury University. 

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