Wind and solar renewables do present a problem when the sun don’t shine and the wind don’t blow. So what? America still has existing sources to maintain the power flow while research and development solve the problem. Wind and solar are clean and infinitely renewable. Fossil fuels are not. That is the crux of today’s energy argument, not cost or jobs or storage. Those arguments have been debated and fossil fuels lost (Here’s a state-by-state breakdown).
When the sun does shine and the wind does blow, renewables are clean and becoming less expensive every year. Collateral costs to public health, transportation, regulatory oversight, pollution, financing and insurance also decrease with renewables.
Take a look at the cost-benefit analysis for two potential Compressed Air Energy Storage Sites in the Pacific Northwest:
Boardman, Oregon Site
- Natural Gas power generation capacity: 207 megawatts
- Energy storage capacity: 231 megawatts
- Estimated levelized power cost: As low as 67.4 cents per Kilowatt-hour
- Continuous storage power reserve: Up to 40 days
- Emissions from gas combustion significantly reduced
Yakima Minerals Site in Yakima, WA
- Geothermal heat power generation capacity 83 megawatts
- Energy storage capacity: 150 megawatts
- Estimated levelized power cost: as low as 11.8 cents per kilowatt-hour
- No greenhouse gas emissions
Information provided by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
The Winds of Change Are Blowing
Cuts in funding for research and development for renewables and storage are a fool’s game. Trump’s 2018 budget proposes a 69.3 percent cut from the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s 2016 budget. This is despite the transition to renewables that is well underway. This is like speeding along on your brand new bicycle and having someone jam a stick into the spokes of your front wheel.
The majority of the electorate in many states are not aware how much electricity already comes to them from renewables. By the third quarter of 2017, more than 35 percent of Iowa’s power came from the wind. Some of the most conservative states are the greatest consumers of wind energy. More than 30 percent of the power in Kansas and 26 percent in Oklahoma comes from the wind. The state of Texas receives approximately 13 percent of its electrical energy from the wind at an expenditure of more than $38 billion.
Each of these states is ahead of the schedule set by President Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP). The electorate in each of these states voted for Donald J. Trump, who has canceled the CPP to promote fossil fuels. This paradox is difficult to explain without considering the spread of misinformation by conservative talk media and fossil-fuel-sponsored propoganda (read “Science Casts Down the Gauntlet to Corrupt Government Officials”).
If the U.S. continues fossil fuel power generation, it will threaten future U.S. competitiveness.
Energy is a primary overhead cost in manufacturing and industrial development. Think about this scenario: Country A provides an unstable and increasing energy cost to run your company; while Country B has a stable and consistently decreasing energy cost. Where would you want to locate your business?
The rest of the competitive world is transitioning to renewable energy. Renewables only require maintenance and upkeep once installed. Exploration, extraction, transportation, refining and redistribution to power generating stations are no longer required as they are with fossil fuels. Federal subsidies should not be going to fossil fuels, but the renewable sources of the future.
Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas are proven candidates for wind power generation. In these states and a dozen others, the overall cost of wind power is less than nuclear, coal or gas. In 2013, only twelve states captured 80 percent of U.S. wind energy utilization.
China and India are spending more on transitioning to renewables than the U.S. These two nations are America’s greatest future economic competitors in the global market. They have realized the economic benefit of renewable energy and are on a trajectory to surpass U.S. GDP by mid-century or before. To help this transition, China is spending $14.5 billion to help transition displaced workers to new jobs. They are spending more than $300 billion on sustainable technology and transitioning. This year, China will exceed its Nationally Determined Contribution under the Paris Agreement.
Cost-Benefit Analysis of Wind Power
The following figures used to calculate the cost-benefit of wind power generation projected to 2050 come from a compilation of analyses by the foremost experts on the subject as published in Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming — a best-selling book by Paul Hawken:
Cost-benefit analysis of land-based global wind power projected to 2050:
- Net cost today = $1.23 Trillion
- Net gain in energy cost savings = $7.4 Trillion
- Net reduction in CO2 = 84.6 Gigatons
Cost-benefit analysis of offshore global wind power projected to 2050:
- Net cost today = $572.4 Billion
- Net gain in energy cost savings = $274.6 Billion
- Net reduction in CO2 = 14.1 Gigatons
My youngest son and I used to play the computer game Oregon Trail. Once we were on the trail we were on our own. We faced droughts, floods, freezing temperatures and withering heat. There was little opportunity to correct poor planning or inadequate supplies. Sometimes food was abundant and sometimes we went hungry.
A key problem in planning was the choice of power to pull our wagon 2,000 miles over deserts, plains, rivers and the Rocky Mountains. Horses were abundant and cheap starting out. The sturdier and more dependable Oxen were initially expensive but worth much more down the road. Oxen value increased while horses lost value and were unpredictable. If we didn’t prepare properly or scrimped, something always ran out or an emergency would pop up at the worst possible moment. If our team gave out, no matter how prepared and well stocked our wagon was, that was the end… game over. Those better prepared simply left us behind.
Failing to think for the long haul always led to disaster.
The lessons of our pioneer ancestors also apply today. We are on a perilous journey to a very promising future. There is no going back once the train leaves. If we equip ourselves poorly, there will be little help down the road. Friends today may not be willing to help in the future. As we prepare for this journey, we have the financial resources and the technology. We have a check list of necessities provided by our wisest advisors. Will we choose the horse or oxen to sustain us? Should we choose short term expedience or outfit for the long haul?
W. Douglas Smith is an environmental scientist, environmental diplomat, explorer, educator and a retired Senior Compliance Investigator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where he worked for 36 years.