A National Renewable Portfolio Standard? Not Practical: Legislation That Mandates Specified Electricity Production from Renewable Sources Paves a Path to Costly Mistakes Because It Excludes Other Sources That Can Meet the Country's Goals

By Apt, Jay; Lave, Lester B. et al. | Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

A National Renewable Portfolio Standard? Not Practical: Legislation That Mandates Specified Electricity Production from Renewable Sources Paves a Path to Costly Mistakes Because It Excludes Other Sources That Can Meet the Country's Goals


Apt, Jay, Lave, Lester B., Pattanariyankool, Sompop, Issues in Science and Technology


A discussion of renewable energy seems to addle the brains of many sensible people, leading them to propose policies that are bad engineering and science or have a foundation in yearning for utopia. For example, Michael Bloomberg, self-made billionaire and mayor of New York City, proposed putting wind turbines on the tops of skyscrapers and bridges. No need to ask the engineers whether the structures could bear the strain or whether there were good wind resources. Disagreeing with the mayor, the Alliance for Clean Energy New York said, "New York is really a solar city." Like Mayor Bloomberg and the Alliance, 25 governors, and more than 100 members of Congress, we love renewable energy. However, even this wonderful idea requires a hard look to see what is sensible now and why some current and proposed policies are likely to be costly, anger many people, and undermine the reliability of our electricity system. Congress needs to understand some facts before voting for a national renewable portfolio standard (RPS).

We share the goals of reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, enhancing energy security, maintaining electric supply reliability, and controlling costs. The mistake is to think that a blinkered emphasis on renewable energy sources is the best way to achieve these goals. Unfortunately, this mistake has swept through 25 state legislatures.

These states have indicated their dissatisfaction with the current electricity-generation system by enacting binding RPSs, which require that wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, waste, or other renewable resources be used to generate up to 30% of the electricity sold by 2025. At the federal level, H.R. 969 was introduced in the 110th Congress to require that 20% of the nation's electric power be generated by renewable energy sources. Organizations ranging from MoveOn.org and the Union of Concerned Scientists to the American Wind Energy Association urged its passage as a way to fight global warming, promote energy independence, increase wind-lease payments to farmers, and move the country toward a clean energy economy based on solar and wind power. H.R. 969 was not enacted, but a national RPS will certainly be reconsidered after the election.

A national RPS is a bad idea for three reasons. First, "renewable" and "low greenhouse gas emissions" are not synonyms; there are several other practical and often less expensive ways to generate electricity with low [CO.sub.2] emissions. Second, renewable sources such as wind, geothermal, and solar are located far from where most people live. This means that huge numbers of unpopular and expensive transmission lines would have to be built to get the power to where it could be used. Third, since we doubt that all the needed transmission lines would be built, a national RPS without sufficient transmission would force a city such as Atlanta to buy renewable credits, essentially bribing rural states such as North Dakota to use their wind power locally. However, the abundant renewable resources and low population in these areas mean that supply could exceed local demand. Although the grid can handle 20% of its power coming from an intermittent source such as wind, it is well beyond the state of the art to handle 50% or more in one area. At that percentage, supply disruptions become much more likely, and the highly interconnected electricity grid is subject to cascading blackouts when there is a disturbance, even in a remote area.

Renewable energy sources are a key part of the nations future, but wishful thinking does not provide an adequate foundation for public policy. The national RPS that gathered 159 cosponsors in the last Congress would be expensive and difficult to attain; it could cause a backlash that might doom renewable energy even in the areas where it is abundant and economical.

Consider the numbers. Past mandates and subsidies have increased wind's share of generated electric energy to 0.

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