Contrary to popular belief, electric power is not like ice cream. You cannot have any flavor you want whenever you want it. Because power generation equipment is expensive, the only way to keep rates reasonable is to amortize capital costs over generations, meaning that the equipment needs to be utilized and actually last that long.
We have been lucky that previous generations understood this and built robust systems that lasted for a half century, producing power at low cost. Hydro, coal, and nuclear technology served the world admirably. When problems arose, we corrected them and moved on. Fish kills from hydro, noxious sulfur dioxide from coal, and safety issues with nuclear were all competently addressed to perfect the sources of power that have kept the lights on at reasonable cost since Thomas Edison invented the technology.
Now a younger generation wants fashionable sources of electricity that are sold as ‘environmentally friendly’ and ‘practically free.’ But they are an illusion that counts on a rapid build-out before customers realize they have been sold sources that will never deliver on promises.
The New York Times (7/26/2016) carried a story about a hapless electrical engineer who was taken in by the solar electricity fad and sank $40,000 into photovoltaic panels that he figured would pay for themselves in twelve years and therefore provide “free electricity” for the remaining eight years of their life.
Indeed he did well for a couple of years until Pacific Gas and Electric in California realized that they could not afford to pay him retail rates for his surplus power (up to 36.4 cents per kilowatt hour) when wholesale prices for electricity run about one tenth of that. Furthermore, his solar power was not the premium power that they needed for their peak demand in the late afternoon and evening. By then his panels were unable to produce power.
When California regulators proposed a less lucrative rate schedule for solar system owners, they protested and rate adjustments were put off for a few years. That means that other customers will continue to foot the bill for the costly mistakes of this engineer and many others. If not heavily subsidized, owners will never break even with their solar panels. And all customers suffer from outrageous rates when utilities strike a compromise. The biggest net loser is the society as a whole.
What about the multistory million-dollar windmills now visible throughout once scenic areas of Oregon, Washington, and California? Have they proved economical? If you listen to the salesmen, the power is getting sooo cheap that they are competitive with conventional power plants running on natural gas, coal, nuclear, and hydro. But that is so dishonest as to defy imagination. Conventional power plants provide continuous power indefinitely. Individual windmills and even large arrays cannot provide anything close to continuous power. Two thirds of the time they sit idle and must be backed up by conventional sources. When the wind does blow at the required speed, it is often when least needed.
Then there is the issue of subsidies that run 2.3 cents per kilowatt-hour for the “Production Tax Credit” alone. That sum is comparable to the wholesale cost of electricity from conventional sources.
“Wind Welfare” pays producers for every kilowatt hour produced, whether needed or not. Utilities are forced to absorb the erratic production and sideline reliable sources. These sources are then forced into an expensive backup role that raises their costs and consumer rates. So customers find themselves paying twice, as a taxpayer and as a ratepayer. And for what? Poor quality power that decreases energy efficiency and increases carbon footprints. The biggest loser is again the society as a whole. Those who sell and build the windmills make out like the bandits that they are.
Is all of this leading us down the road to ruin? To answer that, we need only look to Europe.
Germany has half of the world’s installed solar capacity in a country as far north as Alaska. That means no appreciable sunlight in the winter and relatively low angle sunlight in the summer. Furthermore their summers have many cloudy days. With the promises made to homeowners who installed the largely worthless solar systems, German electrical rates are sky high. To avoid that hurting the competitiveness of their heavy industry, they give industrial users a big break, pushing rates still higher for everyone else.
As if that is not enough, Germany has built huge windmill arrays in the North Sea, where they occasionally get strong winds. When that occurs, they have more electricity available than they can use and face the possibility of their grid burning up in a brilliant flash.
How does Germany manage to keep the lights on? They once had nuclear reactors that provided a low cost and stable supply of electricity. But after the giant tsunami and nuclear power plant disaster at Fukushima, Japan, they precipitously shutdown their reactors. Never mind that they are not subject to such tidal waves, Germany now decides technical issues on a political basis. This is all the more amazing because German Chancellor Angela Merkel has a PhD in Physics and should know better.
Are there any consequences to the continuous stupidity? Absolutely! Someone has to pay, and that is the society as a whole, with the poor most susceptible. The latest news is that their largest energy company RWE is on the verge of bankruptcy. When it goes under, it will be the largest industrial failure in German history. And Germany will have come full circle, back to getting most of their electricity from the coal plants they wanted to close in the first place!
One of the reasons that the British voted to leave the European Union (Brexit), was the unrealistic behavior of their European partners, forever mired in elitist political schemes like Global Warming and supposed ‘cures’ like renewable energy. Britain’s new Prime Minister, Theresa May, has indicated she plans to reevaluate Britain’s energy supply to emphasize the practical. That is enormously good news and likely means Britain will develop her large reserves of natural gas, available with the American drilling technique known as “fracking.” Such domestic gas could power Britain and heat her homes responsibly for centuries. Yes, centuries!
As remarkable, the far-left leader of the British Labor Party, Jeremy Corbyn, is reported to be a skeptic of Global Warming. His brother, Piers Corbyn, is a friend of ours, an astrophysicist, and a skeptic of the climate nonsense. Whatever their political beliefs, the British seem to be finally shaking a severe case of climate hysteria.
They have been watching our “shale gas miracle,” where we have built a $200 billion dollar industry and added 800,000 blue collar jobs to the American economy by way of lower energy costs for manufacturing. Recent shipments of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) out of Louisiana to many countries, including two tankers to Kuwait and Dubai, demonstrated our newfound capabilities and substantial energy independence.
President Obama’s inability to stop such progress may signal that environmental extremism has reached its limits here too. Natural gas is among the cleanest, most dependable, and most economical of all sources of energy for electricity and for heating. Renewables do not even come close, despite endless claims.
Gordon J. Fulks lives in Corbett and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He holds a doctorate in physics from the University of Chicago’s Laboratory for Astrophysics and Space Research and has no conflicts of interest on this subject.
(Unless otherwise noted, the opinions expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Northwest Connection.)