If you missed Keith Johnson’s “Six Myths about Renewable Energy” in The Wall Street Journal last month, it’s worth a look. The Journal is not typically all that supportive of renewable energy and tends to focus much of its reporting resources on the natural gas boom, but it took the time to speak honestly about the opportunities and challenges of renewable energy.
It was particularly refreshing to see Johnson note that there are hidden costs associated with coal and natural gas generated power beyond the narrow cents per kilowatt-hour metric, including air pollution, health impacts (asthma) and contributions to global warming. He actually quantifies the cost, though it’s not clear how exactly he does that (for example, with coal he tacks on 6 cents/kilowatt-hour to account for costs to society.)
He also takes a stab at the issues related to energy transmission and the problem of curtailment, when power must be dumped because there isn’t sufficient demand. This problem is often directly related to poor transmission infrastructure that can’t get power to where it’s needed. He writes:
That is the key to overcoming the natural variability of renewables such as wind and solar power. Individual wind farms may be very volatile. But scores of wind farms over thousands of square miles show less volatility—the wind is always blowing somewhere. As grid operators have added more wind in more locations to their systems, as well as the lines to carry that wind, integrating wind power into the electricity system has become easier.
Take Texas. Four years ago, facing severe transmission constraints, the state was dumping 17% of all the wind power it produced. In 2012, after adding more wind farms and almost 2,600 miles of transmission lines, curtailments were below 4%, and wind power provided 10% of the electricity in the nation’s biggest power market.
Texas has proven to be a leader in wind power and in such a geographically large state, getting wind from regions like West Texas to the cities where it’s needed require a robust transmission system. This is one of the challenges of renewables, that generation must be located where it’s optimal to produce wind or solar power. Significantly updating the grid’s transmission system remains a challenge, but doing so would further open up energy markets for renewables, a prospect that the fossil fuel industry isn’t always all that excited about.