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My Turn: Renewable energy mandates are risky

The premature shutdown of coal and nuclear power plants is sobering evidence that some parts of the country could face an electric-power crisis.

New England is especially hard put to keep up with the demand for electricity from industrial and commercial customers who need “big data” to stay competitive. On top of that are the growing power demands of social media.

In the last three decades, computing speeds have risen more than 200,000-fold, but there is scant awareness of the enormous amount of electricity needed to power the digital revolution. Thousands of data centers are being built across the country, each needing as much electricity as a large factory.

Not surprisingly, the electric power grid is being tested as never before. More than anything else, commercial customers require resiliency and reliability from the grid, with power delivered on demand, without any interruption. A “hiccup” in power deliverability lasting less than a second can cost a company hundreds of millions of dollars.

The integrity of the power grid depends on a diverse portfolio of generating options that, in turn, can serve against possible supply disruptions and spikes in electricity prices. But this diversity may be at risk, and it could lead to higher consumer costs. In New England, pipeline constraints on natural gas have produced problems with fuel availability and volatility in electricity prices. Yet there is no longer any hedge against events such as those experienced last winter.

Nationally, since 1995, the United States has built some 350,000 megawatts of gas-fired power capacity, approximately 75 percent of all electricity additions. Coal and nuclear, the two sources that can produce electricity around the clock with no price volatility represent a mere 6 percent of the total.

Worse still, no coal plant planned for future use can meet EPA’s proposed standards for greenhouse gas emissions, and the new requirement to curb carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal plants is putting further pressure on coal. Together, the rules could lead to coal’s demise.

In addition, the premature retirement of Vermont Yankee at the end of this year and four other nuclear plants across the country underscore the lack of investment in base-load power capacity.

Solar and wind energy, although valuable in supplying peak power, do not have the capability to provide large-scale energy storage needed for base-load power, delivered 24/7. How to reconcile this with the unfortunate fact that 30 states have adopted renewable electricity standards to encourage the addition of solar and wind power?

New Hampshire’s standard, established in 2007, requires the state’s electricity suppliers to produce nearly a quarter of New Hampshire’s power from renewable sources by 2025.

Clearly, the time has come for solar and wind to compete on their own with coal and nuclear power, without state mandates or subsidies. Ohio recently rolled back its renewable mandate, freezing the phasing in of power that utilities must buy from renewable energy sources. New Hampshire should do the same.

Environmental groups should have no objection to this idea, if their objective really is to reduce greenhouse emissions to acceptable levels. Clean coal and nuclear power need to be part of the energy mix. Advanced coal combustion technologies with greater efficiencies have the potential to achieve significant reductions in carbon emissions, and carbon capture-and-storage systems are being tested. Nuclear plants such as Seabrook and Pilgrim are carbon-free.

What must be avoided is plunging down the road toward increased reliance on renewable energy sources without considering the economic and environmental ramifications. Witness what has happened in Germany.

After the Fukushima nuclear accident, Germany shut down its fleet of nuclear plants and ramped up the use of wind and solar power. But renewables couldn’t replace nuclear power, so to avoid a power shortage, Germany burned a lot more coal. Not surprisingly, greenhouse emissions soared and electricity prices doubled. Today Germany’s electricity prices are three times those in the United States.

(V.K. Mathur is professor emeritus in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of New Hampshire.)

Legacy Comments13

Okay class, this is YOUR chance to grade the good professor emeritus’s credibility. He says “the time has come for solar and wind to compete on their own with ... nuclear power, without STATE mandates OR SUBSIDIES.” (Emphasis mine) Hmmm... Does anyone know why he only wants to talk about state subsidies? Very good: Nuclear power would be nothing more than a carcinogenic gleam in a mad professor emeritus’s eye without the massive multi-billion dollar annual federal subsidies it has always enjoyed. I don’t know about you class, but if ol’ V.K. were willing to bestow equal federal dollars upon wind and solar, I’d be willing to bet they would be MORE than able to “compete on their own”!

And what do you propose to use when wind and solar are not producing electricity...sit in the dark?

Actually, leading innovators like Google and Facebook are investing in renewable energy to power their data centers, save money, and do their part to protect the environment. But you don't need to be Google or Facebook to be able to afford to do your part to support renewable energy. In fact, a 2011 review of New Hampshire's renewable portfolio standard policy found that the cost to the typical residential ratepayer to be just 85 cents per month in 2010. Innovation has always driven economic growth. The transition to clean energy is nothing to fear. Dave Anderson Portsmouth, NH

If you check the facts Google and Facebook are not actually running data centers on renewable energy as they need power 24/7 and renewable energy can't be depended on to produce electricity on demand.

If you dont know the number of dead or dying windmills in the USA alone then consider yourself a LIDV - Hint it is 5 figures

......In fact Germany is on schedule to have 10 new coal plants operating within 3 years - the former leader in renewables has given up on the hoax as has Australia

Not exactly the truth there, is it, BestPres? The new coal plants are an admittedly bad stopgap to replace the NUCLEAR plants that are being closed. Not surprisingly, even when you get one fact right (new coal) you get the bigger point entirely wrong.

poor poor poor gracchus - please tell us all about the massive reduction in Germany providing subsidies for renewables

Well even with cuts to subsidies Germany still produces 24% of it's power from renewable energy sources including, yes solar. It is on track to reach it's 2020 goal of 30% power generation by renewable sources. Where are we? Still talking coal and nuclear and thinking solar/renewable is a democratic plot? poor poor poor PBR.

Well considering Germany is the size of Nebraska and Oklahoma combined total area, that is not surprising. Just like health care, much smaller.......of course they have a real leader in Germany.

And of course Germany has socialized medicine which reminds me, weren't you going to tell us the names of all the countries that hate their socialized medicine?

Sweden has admitted that socialized medicine has failed. Today, 30% of the Swedish system is free market. They are going the other way. Moreover, 100% of their medicines were controlled by the government run pharmacies. Now, there are 360 public pharmacies. In Great Britain, the wait time once you have been diagnosed with urgent Caner is 62 days. Like those odds?

This is nonsense..just the other day on the Franklins talking facebook page, it was noted we could give everyone free no emission power broadcast delivered with Tesla coils. Seriously, this is what you are up against..

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