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Wind and solar power, once viewed as our best hope for abundant supplies of zero-carbon energy, are distracting us from what might be the real solution: nuclear power.
The time has come for states to reconsider their mandates requiring that a share of electricity come from renewable energy sources, and instead consider a more direct and sensible policy in support of nuclear power.
Currently 30 states have renewable power standards designed to promote the use of wind and solar power, which are carbon-free, non-polluting sources of energy. Among the most ambitious, California’s standard mandates that the state generate one-third of its electricity from renewables by 2020.
But the hype over wind and solar power as clean and renewable is undermined by their fatal flaw — intermittency.
Realistically, you can’t produce wind and solar power when people need it. Electricity from both is only available when nature cooperates. Power production fluctuates wildly, depending on the weather.
The amount of energy that the average wind turbine produces annually is equal to just 20% to 30% of the amount of energy that would result from year-round operation at full capacity, and there is no proven storage technology that would make wind an around-the-clock base-load provider.
The capacity factor for solar power runs closer to 20%. Together, wind and solar power contribute only marginally to U.S. energy supplies, accounting for just over 4% of U.S. electricity production in 2013, despite billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies.
And they cannot come close to replacing conventional sources of base-load power generation.
Most renewables collect extremely diluted energy, requiring large areas of land. Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University has estimated that a wind farm equivalent in output and capacity to a 1,000-megawatt nuclear plant would occupy 298 square miles.
The solar photovoltaic equivalent would occupy 58 square miles. And wind turbines cause visual and noise pollution and kill huge numbers of birds.
Furthermore, as intermittent electricity sources, wind and solar power must be backed up by standby generation that can be dispatched on demand — usually from natural gas.
To use more wind and solar increases the need for backup power, and the associated emissions that come with it will largely cancel out any emissions savings from renewables.
In short, wind and solar production won’t make much of a difference in reducing emissions, and meaningful levels of production have, at best, a negligible positive impact.
By contrast, nuclear power — which is not eligible for mandatory use under the renewable power standards — supplies nearly 20% of the nation’s electricity.
The clean little secret of recent years is that nuclear power has performed very well. Nuclear power is our zero-emission energy workhorse, providing 64% of the nation’s zero-carbon energy.
Over the last decade, the U.S. fleet of around 100 nuclear plants has generated electricity about 90% of the time.
Thus, a 1,000-megawatt nuclear plant produces three times more electricity than 1,000 megawatts of wind turbines and four times more electricity than solar panels.
Policymakers and politicians have routinely ignored the impact that the mandate for renewable power has had in more than half the country where electricity markets have been deregulated.
And the result has been a catastrophe for nuclear power, with safe and efficient reactors either being shut down prematurely or at risk of being shuttered for no good reason.
In states where power is deregulated, the wholesale price of electricity is set by auction, and when there is an oversupply, the price naturally drops. When that happens, nuclear power plants operate at a loss, and often end up having to pay to generate electricity.
The market distortion caused by negative prices makes it difficult for nuclear power plants to recover their costs and discourages investment in new generation.
As a result, 30% of the U.S. nuclear fleet might be forced to close within several years, and it’s not because of their production costs, which are competitive with natural gas, but because of the state energy mandates.
The Energy Information Administration forecasts a 28% increase in U.S. power demand through 2040. Those who claim that solar and wind can meet all of our electricity needs by then are engaged in fantasy. Renewables cannot get us even halfway there.
In fact, the renewable sources added in recent years have made the electric system more fragile, because of their intermittency problems.
We would be remiss if we did not consider the impact that the post-Fukushima shutdown of nuclear plants in Germany is having on electricity prices, which have jumped 50%.
Today electricity prices in Germany are nearly three times the U.S. average. The risk is the U.S. could go down the same road.
What could turn this situation around? The answers are clear.
First, states have to recognize that wind and solar power are mature industries that can now compete on their own without the mandates.
Second, we have to give nuclear power an opportunity to demonstrate its economic and environmental value. If nuclear power fails, the loss of fuel diversity will increase the price of power production.
In the increasingly competitive global economy, the availability of reliable and low-cost power is becoming more important.
The fact is, during the nation’s recent economic recovery, the gain in manufacturing jobs was greatest in the 15 states with the lowest electricity prices, while the 15 states with the highest electricity prices lost manufacturing jobs.
The evidence is clear — low-cost power translates into jobs. And fuel diversity matters.
Overlooking nuclear power as part of our country’s energy diversity would be a big mistake.
Perry is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, professor of economics and finance at the University of Michigan’s Flint campus, and creator and editor of the economics blog Carpe Diem.
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