Dirty Secrets of Renewable Energy

Article excerpt

One of the centerpieces of the environmentalist agenda long has been the regulation of fossil-fuel consumption, Although anti-pollution controls are the accepted short-term solution to a number of the environmental problems posed by fossil fuels, many people believe that the long-term answer is gradual replacement with other, less environmentally threatening fuel sources. That philosophy perhaps can be described best as eco-energy planning, the belief that government intervention in the energy economy is necessary to maximize environmental protection and, in the end, the nation's economic vitality.

Renewable energy -- power generated from the nearly infinite elements of nature such as sunshine, wind, the movement of water, the internal heat of the Earth, and the combustion of replenishable crops -- is widely popular with the public and governmental officials. The prime reason is because it is thought to be an inexhaustible and environmentally benign source of power, particularly compared with the environmentally problematic alternative of reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear power. Yet, all renewable energy sources are not created equal. Some are more economically and environmentally viable than others. The list of renewable fuels that once were promising, but now are being questioned on economic or environmental grounds, or both, is growing.

Wind power currently is the environmentalists' favorite source of renewable energy and is thought to be the most likely to replace fossil fuel in the generation of electricity in the 21st century. Hydropower has lost favor with environmentalists because of the damage it has done to river habitats and freshwater fish populations. Solar power, at least when relied on for central-station or grid power generation, has infrastructure that is very energy-intensive (and thus fosters the air pollution situation it is intended to solve). Moreover, it is highly uneconomical, land-intensive, and thus a fringe electric power source for the foreseeable future. Geothermal has turned out to be depletable, with limited capacity, falling output, and modest new investment. Biomass is uneconomical and an air pollution-intensive renewable.

This leaves wind power, beloved as a renewable resource with no air pollutants and considered worthy of regulatory preference and open-ended taxpayer and ratepayer subsidies. Despite decades of liberal subsidies, though, the cost of generating electricity from wind remains stubbornly uneconomical in an increasingly competitive electricity market.

On the environmental side, wind power is noisy, land-intensive, materials-intensive (concrete and steel, in particular), a visual blight, and a hazard to birds. The first four environmental problems could be ignored, but the deaths of thousands of birds -- including endangered species protected by Federal law -- has created controversy and confusion within the mainstream environmental community.

Relative prices tell us that wind power is scarcer than its primary fossil fuel competitor for electricity generation -- natural gas, used in modem, state-of-the-art facilities (known in the industry as combined-cycle plants). That is because wind power's high up-front capital costs and erratic opportunity to convert wind to electricity (referred to as a low-capacity factor in the trade) more than cancel out the fact that there is no energy cost for naturally blowing wind. In California, for instance, where about 30% of the world's and more than 90% of U.S. wind capacity is located, wind power operated at only 23% realized average capacity in 1994. That compares with nuclear plants, with about a 75% average capacity factor; coal plants, with a 75-85% design capacity factor; and gas-fired combined-cycle plants, with a 95% average design capacity factor. All those plants produce power around the clock. Wind does not blow around the clock to generate electricity, much less at peak speeds. …

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