After the Green New Deal was introduced in Congress, critics quickly focused on its wide-ranging agenda and potentially massive costs. But many overlooked a more pressing concern: Is a future built solely on wind and solar power a realistic possibility?
It’s a question that should preoccupy Illinois, noting the Clean Energy Jobs Act (SB 2132) recently introduced in the General Assembly. The bill aims to make the states’ power sector 100 percent “carbon-free” by 2030. And that means Illinois would have only a decade to transition to an entirely wind and solar future.
While nuclear power serves as an emissions-free source of electricity — and currently provides more than half of Illinois’ electricity — it’s unlikely that the bill’s supporters envision it as part of a future power mix. Various nuclear stations around the state are already struggling to stay in business, and several plants in northern Illinois are facing early retirement.
If Illinois signs on to a renewable energy future, though, it will likely have to survive on just wind turbines and solar panels. But could such a system meet all of the state’s baseload power needs? And, could it still deliver electricity at a reasonable price?
The price issue is particularly relevant. Residential electricity in Illinois currently costs 12.30 cents per kilowatt-hour, just below the national average of 12.47 cents. But a country like Germany, which has already spent more than a decade pursuing a similar green agenda — and achieved only 29 percent wind and solar power generation — has seen its electricity costs climb to roughly 30 cents per kilowatt-hour, among the highest in Europe.
It’s not just rising surcharges, however, that are driving up Germany’s electricity prices. There’s also a fundamental inefficiency. Wind and solar perennially require back-up systems for when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. According to the Department of Energy, the most advanced wind turbines reach their full capacity only 42.5 percent of the time. And the highest-performing solar panels — ones in the southwestern U.S. that feature sun-tracking motors — reach their full capacity an even lower 30 percent of the time. Such intermittency issues explain why Germany must still keep coal plants cycling — to supply added power when needed.
Extended weather disturbances can also drastically reduce the output of renewables. During January’s polar vortex, utilities were forced to shut down wind turbines in the face of bitter cold that can freeze gears and shatter turbine blades. Bloomberg News reported that utilities providing electricity to the Chicago area were forced to meet escalating power demands by ramping up existing coal and natural gas plants.
Wind and solar power certainly hold great promise. But these intermittency challenges can’t be overlooked — even with potential developments in battery storage.
Illinois’ Clean Energy bill also would vastly increase the number of electric vehicles on the road — forcing a major increase in statewide electricity demand. And then there’s the land clearance and construction needed for an estimated 40 million solar panels and 2,500 wind turbines, plus new infrastructure and power lines to deliver electricity from rural areas.
It’s worth pondering the end goal. The Clean Energy bill aims to support global carbon dioxide reductions. But right now, energy use is growing worldwide, and coal remains the world’s leading source of electricity generation. In response, Japan and Australia are already building “HELE” coal plants (high efficiency-low emissions) that run hotter, cleaner and more efficiently. And China is embracing both HELE coal systems and advanced nuclear platforms like Thorium-based and “liquid salt” reactors.
Illinois can lead by example if it pursues similar advanced technologies to reduce emissions without abandoning the foundations of baseload power. Conversely, imposing enormous costs on consumers without guaranteeing grid reliability makes little sense. Illinois is the fifth-largest energy-consuming state in the nation, and it should follow an “all-of the-above” energy strategy to keep reducing emissions while preserving affordable, reliable power.
See the article here.
- On April 29, 2019