Think tank researcher challenges benefits of renewable energy

Source: Umair Irfan • E&E • Posted: Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Renewable power generation from the wind and the sun promises higher energy costs, less reliable infrastructure and, ironically, more pollution, according to a report from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

These problems form “the perfect green trifecta,” according to the report’s author, Benjamin Zycher, a visiting scholar at the think tank. Speaking at AEI’s offices in Washington, D.C., last week, he presented findings from his study titled “‘Renewable’ Electricity Generation — Economic Analysis and Outlook.”

Zycher focused primarily on wind energy and concluded that despite widespread public support for renewables, the current technologies, subsidies and incentives make renewable energy untenable as a major energy source.

Solar and wind power have “inherent problems” that deter investors, according to Zycher. They are not concentrated, requiring large amounts of land. For example, a 1-gigawatt natural gas power plant would take up 15 acres, while a comparable wind farm would take up 48,000 to 60,000 acres, he said.

Another issue is siting, since windmills and photovoltaic panels need to be placed where the wind blows and the sun shines. These areas will become scarcer as more facilities are built, raising prices and reducing output. Renewables are also intermittent, making it difficult to schedule power usage and requiring backup power from fossil fuel plants. The entire process — from the amount of land to the number of generators needed to reserve power to grid upgrades — ends up producing more pollution than some of the more efficient fossil fuel-fired plants, according to Zycher.

In addition, Zycher said, many arguments in favor of funding renewable energy fall flat. He pointed out that on a per megawatt-hour basis, renewable energy is substantially subsidized, with wind receiving $52.48 per megawatt-hour and solar receiving $968.00 per megawatt-hour in 2010 while nuclear power and natural gas received $3.10 and 63 cents, respectively. Despite this investment, solar and wind energy prices have gone up in the past decade, Zycher observed.

Timothy Considine, a professor of energy economics at the University of Wyoming, also spoke at the panel and criticized the idea of “green jobs” as a reason for subsidizing renewable energy. He said jobs are mostly created when wind and solar farms are being built. “When you stop building, the jobs go down,” Considine said. Meanwhile, the increases in electricity costs to fund these projects end up dragging the economy down over the long term. He also said renewable portfolio standards — mandates for renewable energy production set by a number of states — should focus on improving energy technology instead of pushing unready and flawed systems onto the market.

2 panelists disagree; wind group claims ‘math error’

However, two other panelists questioned the findings. “Sixty thousand acres for a wind farm is asinine,” said Jimmy Glotfelty, Clean Line Energy’s vice president for external affairs. He said that wind farms are not exclusive in their land use, noting that farmers can continue to use land around turbines. He also attributed renewable energy price increases to increases in demand, not a problem with the supply chain or the technology, which has migrated to the United States over the past few years. He said now 60 percent of wind turbine components are manufactured domestically.

According to Glotfelty, wind’s main problems come from the electrical grid. Currently, wind farms are not sited in optimal places like the central Plains states because utilities don’t have the resources to get that power from rural hilltops to dense metropolises. “What we need to do as a country is to build that transmission infrastructure,” he said. Since these wind farms are more productive, they will also need less backup power, reducing their integration costs.

Kate Gordon, vice president for energy policy at the Center for American Progress, added that renewable energy subsidies are also needed because fossil fuels were subsidized when their infrastructure was being built up almost a hundred years ago and they’ve been subsidized continuously since. Wind and solar need more money to build up their capacity, but the government funding can be eliminated once the groundwork is laid, she said.

Renewable energy also creates far more diverse jobs than fossil fuels. Gordon pointed out that the majority of jobs in oil companies are for clerks in gas stations. On the other hand, 25 percent of clean technology jobs are in manufacturing, along with substantial employment in research and sales. “You keep getting jobs in an industry through innovation,” said Gordon. Even during the most recent economic recession, investments in clean technology have increased around the world, with the United States leading the way, she noted.

The American Wind Energy Association also released a statement challenging Zycher’s findings. It said the numbers for his calculations are inaccurate, stemming from outdated estimations and a “math error.” The statement said that backup generation would only increase wind energy’s costs by 2 percent, not 250 percent as Zycher noted, based on information from the Department of Energy.