Technology lags the desire for alternative-energy sources

As a La Plata Electric Association bill payer, I was disturbed by Jeff Berman’s rambling expose’ “Blowing Smoke” (Herald, April 8), claiming that LPEA and its board are woefully short in supporting renewable energy. My concern is that he provided no evidence that would support his assumption that more alternative energy usage will provide useful benefits.

We LPEA customers need to know how much reduction in carbon emissions will be achieved from any increase in the wind and solar power that Berman wants LPEA to support, and at what cost? Only with that information can we judge if the co-op is doing enough to promote alternative energy sources.

I am unaware of any cost-benefit calculations for using wind and solar generated electricity in the LPEA system. But there are calculations from other locations that are applicable to this co-op. The most recent is reported in the National Academy of Sciences peer-reviewed journal Issues in Science and Technology spring 2012 issue. The article describes the results from a study to find ways to radically reduce carbon emissions in California. Those results show that, contrary to Berman’s contention, LPEA management should be very cautious about supporting more alternative energy usage.

The mistake Berman makes in his accusations, and others in their single-minded promotion of alternative energy, is addressing only the generation of electricity while ignoring the difficulties and costs of integrating those outputs so as to provide reliable electricity for customer use. They make the assumption that all electricity generated from carbon-free sources, even if intermittent, will always reduce carbon emissions. The California study explains why that assumption is wrong.

Intermittent electricity needs load balancing to be reliable for use by customers. That load balancing requires additional electricity, and the cost of that electricity, as well any carbon dioxide emitted from its generation, must be added to alternative energy outputs to fairly apportion costs and benefits. Those extra costs make electricity from wind and solar much more expensive than proponents claim. And the CO2 emitted if generated from fossil fuels will largely nullify carbon emissions saved from the use of alternative energy sources.

When confronted with these types of results, proponents usually point to Denmark and Germany as places where wind and solar power have been used successfully to produce 20 or 30 percent of their electricity. But both countries have cheap carbon-free additional electricity for use in integrating intermittent sources. Denmark buys its additional electricity from Norway and Sweden, where it is generated from a combination of hydro and nuclear power. Germany buys its from France, where 80 percent is generated from nuclear power. The electricity that LPEA must use for load balancing is generated by Tri-State from carbon-emitting coal and natural gas.

There is also the fallacy believed by many alternative-energy proponents that developing enough intermittent sources in a variety of places will provide consistency and eliminate the need for additional load balancing. That belief has been proven wrong both through statistical analyses, and from places that have tried to eliminate intermittency through redundancy. Spain and Texas are notable examples, where the redundancy has increased electricity costs but has not prevented occasional but very detrimental rolling brownouts and even blackouts.

The California study also dismisses two other popularly proposed mechanisms to assist smoothing out intermittency – electricity storage and smart grids – because their practical application is still years in the future.

Finally, the article explained that a single focus on expanding alternative energy has the cart before the horse. The most effective way to reduce carbon emissions is to reduce the emissions for generating base load electricity because that accounts for three quarters of all electricity used. Furthermore, the study concludes that wind- and solar-generated electricity will not help California reduce carbon emissions unless the additional electricity used to load balance the intermittency is generated from carbon free sources, or nearly so. Those conclusions surely apply to LPEA as well as California.

Ironically, the proponents of wind and solar are often those who are vehemently apposed to nuclear power, which the National Academy article explains is the only practical power source available to generate carbon-free base-load electricity. That conundrum is what the LPEA management and board of directors will face increasingly in future deliberations. It will not help in reaching economic and technically valid recommendations if some members of that board join Berman’s misguided tirade and persist in a single-minded promotion of alternative energy. If they are successful, we co-op members can expect electricity rates to increase as wind and solar installations proliferate, without any measurable reduction in carbon emissions.

Garth Buchanan holds a doctorate in applied science and has 35 years of experience in operations research. Reach him at gbuch@frontier.net.