Markets, not 'renewable energy' magic, ensure the affordable supply of electricity

Markets, not 'renewable energy' magic, ensure the affordable supply of electricity

California is the home of the original Magic Kingdom — and magical thinking. The California legislature is deliberating whether to mandate 100 percent renewable energy for its electric grid by 2045.

In a recent op-ed, the Manhattan Institute’s Robert Bryce points out that simple math demonstrates the futility of this effort.

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Bryce explains that to fill all of California’s electrical needs with solar power would require about 219,000 megawatts, more than exists in the entire world today.

 

Similarly, relying on wind energy would fill up about 16,000 square miles of California with wind turbines, “a land area roughly four times the size of L.A. County.” In Texas, which uses significantly more electricity than California, wind turbines would cover 200 of Texas’ 254 counties to produce enough electricity to keep the lights on. 

Of course, that’s assuming the wind is always blowing.  Which it is not. This intermittency — which is also inherent in solar power — is what dooms efforts to mandate increased use of renewable energy. 

new paper by Charles McConnell shows that when we need power the most — during the hottest days of the year — wind power isn’t there.

It’s not a matter of capacity; Texas has more wind generation capacity than any other state, at a projected 29,000 megawatts by the end of the year. But there’s a big difference in the installed capacity of wind and the deliverability of reliable electricity when needed.

As McConnell writes, “during the four highest summer and three highest non-summer electricity peaks of the last three years, the vast majority of installed wind capacity was a ‘no-show’ for Texas.”

Let's take Sunday, July 22, as an example. The temperature in Austin reached about 105 on that sweltering day. Electricity use in ERCOT, the competitive portion of Texas’ electricity market that serves about 80 percent of Texans, topped out at about 71,444 megawatts. Yet wind produced only about 3,199 megawatts at peak, about 4.5 percent of demand. 

In short, the wind blows when we don’t need it, and doesn’t blow when we do. This isn’t a new problem. An 1883 article in Scientific American noted that one of the main problems with wind power is “gathering it at the time we do not need it and preserving it till we do.”

Almost 135 years later, after having moved from windmills to wind turbines, and after blowing through billions of dollars of investment in generation, transmission, and storage, i.e., batteries, we are still in the same position. 

What powered Texas on July 22 and other hot days? Natural gas, followed by coal and to a lesser extent nuclear. That mix provided affordable energy we could count on because it was determined by markets, not mandates or subsidies. 

And that’s the real issue here. Proposals at the federal level to provide subsidies to coal and nuclear generation move us no closer to an affordable, reliable, and secure source of energy than does California’s. And the reason for the failure in both instances is simple — they don’t rely on the market to help us get the job done.

While the day to day operation of the electric grid is better left to the states, there are things the federal government can do to improve the reliability of the grid. In fact, the Trump administration has already taken significant steps toward this by rolling back onerous EPA regulations that did nothing to improve air quality.

This week’s repeal of the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan is another positive shift toward energy markets.

Moving forward, the federal government could use its legitimate Interstate Commerce Clause authority to stop states like California from mandating the increased use of renewable energy. These mandates are causing significant reliability problems across state lines.

Most important of all, Congress could immediately eliminate the federal Production Tax Credit, which greatly distorts markets and will cost taxpayers another $50 billion dollars before it expires in 2029.

Of course, states could come to their senses and roll back harmful renewable policies without the “help” of Washington. Texas, for instance, could eliminate its version of California’s renewable mandate, end local tax abatements for wind and solar farms, and force renewable generation to pay for the billions of dollars of costs they impose on the electricity grid.

The only magic we need to achieve a secure grid that provides an affordable and reliable supply of electricity is to make some regulations, mandates, and subsidies go "Poof!" so that generators, grid operators, and consumers can use the market to meet our energy needs.

Bill Peacock is the vice president of research at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.