Green energy is getting a bit of a tail wind now that a major grid operator is saying that the power source can provide clean power without jeopardizing reliability. Critics, though, immediately pounced on the study, saying that it was performed by GE Energy Consulting, whose parent has high stakes in wind production.
Specifically, the PJM Interconnection that operates the transmission network over a 13-state region primarily in the eastern United States says that if 20 percent of the area’s electricity came from wind or solar then it would cut energy prices by $9 billion. And, if 30 percent came from those same fuels, it would reduce those costs by $13 billion and that it would not have any affect on grid reliability.
Meantime, under the 20 percent scenario, carbon dioxide releases are cut by 18 percent while under the 30 percent case study, those emissions are reduced by 29 percent. The study also said that investments would need to be made in the transmission system: If the region obtained 20 percent of its energy from wind and solar then 820 miles of wire would have to be installed for around $3.8 billion. If 30 percent then as much as 2,946 miles of new transmission would need to strung for as much as $14 billion.
However, “Expansion from 20 percent to 30 percent does not appear to be economically attractive,” says GE’s findings.
Skeptics of green power remain dubious given that wind and solar are intermittent sources. That makes it difficult for the “traffic cops” to schedule those fuels so that the electricity keeps flowing. Those grid managers’ task is to maintain reliability with the lowest-priced fuels.
Consider California: It now has 3,000 megawatts of wind. In a few years, that will be 7,000 megawatts. A few years later, it will be 10,000 megawatts. By 2020, the goal is to have 33 percent of electricity generated from renewable energy. To that end, the wind does not blow on demand.
“In addition to the costs of wind power capacity to project developers, there were other costs to be considered when evaluating wind energy in a policy context,” says Michael Giberson, an economic professor at Texas Tech, writing for the Knowledge Problem. Among them: new transmission and grid integration, and added cycling costs.
Wind and solar need backup generation if they are not available. But such “firming” is expensive, and potentially dirty. If coal plants are “cycled” up and down, they will release more pollutants per unit of output than if they ran full steam ahead.
The American Wind Energy Association is applauding the GE exam while pouring cold water on the Professor Giberson’s comments, noting that his studies are underwritten by fossil-fuel interests. It says that 74 utilities bought wind energy last year and that numerous ones have explained that they are making these purchases because the fuel is least-cost option to consumers.
It is pointing to a U.S. Energy Information Administration analysis that says the states with most wind energy have their electricity prices lower than those that have not developed such programs.
“All data indicate that wind energy is keeping electric bills low for consumers,” says Michael Groggin, an analyst with the wind group. “Adding wind energy to the grid displaces the most expensive power plants first, so even modest additions of wind energy cause significant reductions in the electricity prices paid by homeowners and businesses.”
In the coming days, PJM will formally showcase its study and thereby better enunciate the assumptions that have been used while defending the conclusions that have been reached. That’s vitally important, given that the results are presented in its name -- an independent authority on all matters tied to transmission operation and grid integration.