Renewable Energy Offers Best Hope, Not Threat

A recent LA Times article raises fears that clean energy might make the electric grid less reliable.  The article gets some key facts wrong.  Clean energy, key to fighting dangerous climate change, is manageable and getting cheaper all the time.

UPDATE: The LA Times published my letter to the editor on the article.

First, clean energy is not just the whim of some special interest group: there is a global scientific consensus that we must cut our use of fossil fuels in order to reduce dangerous carbon pollution.  Renewable energy is one of the keys to doing so: it is available now and costs are coming down fast.  There is good news on this front: utilities in Colorado and New Mexico recently got regulatory approval to purchase the equivalent of several large power plants of wind and solar power because it is cheaper than any alternative, including dirty fossil fuels.

Second, while it’s hard to predict weather months in advance, three and five day forecasts are pretty accurate, and are steadily improving. These predictions, sufficient for power system planning, make managing renewable energy easier all the time. The challenges are different from the old way of doing business, but not necessarily harder. No one predicted the major outage at the huge San Onofre nuclear plant and the hundreds of outages at gas and coal plants every year from mechanical failures can be impossible to predict. The nation's old fossilf fuel fleet makes this problem even worse. Imagine asking a mechanic to anticipate every problem with a 40-year old car.

In fact, the grid is already accommodating renewables in fairly large quantities. California sets new records for renewable use every few months: this summer it broke a record with the use of the equivalent of 5 large (500M) plants from solar power alone: more than enough to power San Francisco two and a half times over. The largest Utility in Colorado, Xcel, broke a new record this just last month, at one point powering over 60% of its system with wind power.

Third, the electrical transmission and distribution system requires constant maintenance, oversight and investment regardless of the source of the energy. Almost all big outages are caused by extreme weather, a problem getting worse with climate change. 

Indeed, clean energy is part of the solution for keeping the grid working at the lowest cost: A recent study by grid managers in the east found that a low-carbon investment plan that emphasized the use of renewable energy and energy efficiency would cost less than their business-as-usual fossil-heavy plan.