Fossil fuel, not nuclear, is the real enemy among energy sources

Fossil fuel, not nuclear, is the real enemy among energy sources

Mr. Mellor’s recent opinion piece suggested we are well on our way to meeting state energy goals with wind and solar. Mellor looks at cost and feasibility, but the issues are more complex than he suggests.
When solar panels are in full sun — and if the electricity they produce is consumed during that time — the cost of solar is relatively cheap. That’s true. However, solar power is intermittent. Over the course of a year, a solar farm in the northeast generates just 14% of the energy that it could if the sun shone 24X7X365. That means we must build six or seven times more solar capacity to produce the same amount of energy as a baseload gas or nuclear power plant. But that’s not all. The intermittency of solar generation challenges the health of our electric grid. Getting useful energy when it’s needed with solar requires battery storage—lots of it. Wind has a somewhat better capacity factor (29% onshore), but it requires storage, too. Furthermore, the relatively random nature of intermittent generation means that anything less than an infinite-sized battery — big enough to carry months of summer sunshine through a New York winter — may not be enough. Consequently, even with storage in the mix, intermittent renewables require ‘firm’ generators of electricity as back-up to ensure reliability. To move electricity around from wind and solar installations distributed across the state will require lots more transmission infrastructure, too.

Once all expenses for solar and wind are tallied — overbuild and curtailment, transmission, storage, and backup generation — the cost picture changes significantly. Because different generating sources have dissimilar performance characteristics, comparisons involving the Levelized Cost of Electricity are usually poor indicators of the true value of those resources within an energy portfolio. To understand levelized cost, readers might read the discussion by the Energy Information Administration (www.eia.gov/outlooks/aeo/pdf/electricity_generation.pdf) or Energy for Humanity (www.energyforhumanity.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/EFH-Nuclear-Fact-Sheet.pdf).
Mellor cites the New York Independent System Operator in his commentary. However, he fails to discuss NYISO’s estimates of how much wind, solar, storage, and back-up generation the state would actually need. According to NYISO’s recent Phase 2 Climate Change and Resiliency Study, to meet the CLCPA goal of carbon-free electricity by 2040 with a plan that focuses on renewables, New York would have to install 21,000 MW of offshore wind — more than twice what has been proposed by former Gov. Cuomo. We would also need 35,000 megawatts of onshore wind. This corresponds to a new 5-MW turbine being built every single day for the next 20 years. This would occupy millions of acres of our upstate farmland and forest. But there’s more. We would need an enormous amount of grid-connected solar — hundreds of square miles of it — to generate the 40,000 MW that NYISO says would be needed. That’s the equivalent of plastering an area the size of Binghamton with a solid sheet of glass and metal each and every year for two decades. For behind-the-meter solar, we would need to install about as many solar panels each year as currently sit on New York rooftops.

As for storage, NYISO says we would need 15,600 MW x 8 hours, or 125 GWh. That corresponds to a hundred facilities equal in size to the Moss Landing plant in California — the largest battery in the world. Maybe we could use pumped hydro, but that would require a dozen facilities like Blenheim-Gilboa. Should we really be constructing dams, flooding forests, and building transmission lines throughout the Catskills and Adirondacks?

Mellor correctly states that the most effective intermittent generation should be located near transmission corridors. But he fails to mention Cuomo’s 2020 gift to industry: accelerated siting legislation that fast-tracks massive industrial solar and wind projects. The new law allows corporations to bulldoze farms and forests; it sidelines local zoning and public input, even as it skirts proper environmental review. Remember when the Sierra Club used to care about protecting nature? Perhaps destroying nature in the name of “energy sprawl” doesn’t matter. To their credit, a number of towns and bird conservation groups are taking the state to court.

Sadly, even if we agreed to sacrifice upstate New York and somehow built the absurd amount of wind, solar, storage, and transmission infrastructure described above, it would not be enough. As determined by NYISO, the state would still need to build and maintain 32,000 MW of dispatchable carbon-free generation from ‘firm’ resources yet to be determined. That’s 8,000 MW more than the total capacity of all the fossil-fuel power plants in the state.

Mellor seems to believe that we should just start building whatever solar and wind we can, because we’ll have time to deal with the pesky details of making things work later. However, as confirmed in the most recent U.N. report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we have no more time. Despite all of its investments in wind and solar, after closing its San Onofre nuclear plant in 2012, California has barely managed to offset lost carbon-free power as it relies on electricity from fossil fuels, in-state and imported, to make sure that the lights don’t go out.

The barriers to powering a grid with low-energy-density, intermittent renewables become increasingly formidable as more of it is deployed. If New York foolishly shutters nuclear power the fast-ramping dispatchable energy that NYISO says we need will be lots more fracked gas. Perhaps the state is already planning on this: there are several thousand megawatts of new or repowered gas plants in the queue.
Engineering principles, not failed experiments, should guide our energy policy. The sensible thing would be to shut down fossil-fuel power plants, not carbon-free nuclear.

Dennis Higgins
Otsego


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