Wind and Solar Power Require MORE Fossil Fuels

Ralph Vartabedian. 9 Dec 2012.  Rise in renewable energy will require more use of fossil fuels. Los Angeles Times.

As California attempts to reach the goal of producing one-third of its electricity from wind and solar sources by 2020, more reliable sources of fossil fuel power will be needed as a backup.

Fossil Fuels fill in when wind not blowing and sun not shining

There are times when the wind isn’t blowing, so less than “1% of the potential from wind farms capable of producing 4,000 megawatts of electricity” is produced some days.

Ditto for solar power when there are cloudy skies, which lead to “…multibillion-dollar investments in wind and solar energy plants … filled by gas-fired plants.”

Even more fossil fuel required as more wind and solar added to grid

“One of the hidden costs of solar and wind power — and a problem the state is not yet prepared to meet — is that wind and solar energy must be backed up by other sources, typically gas-fired generators. As more solar and wind energy generators come online, fulfilling a legal mandate to produce one-third of California’s electricity by 2020, the demand will rise for more backup power from fossil fuel plants.”

Fossil Fuel Turbines Spin to be ready when wind and solar die – but don’t make electricity — a waste of energy

“Within minutes of wind or solar disappearing, a thousand megawatts of electricity — the output of a nuclear reactor — can disappear and threaten stability of the grid. To avoid that calamity, fossil fuel plants have to be ready to generate electricity in mere seconds. That requires turbines to be hot and spinning, but not producing much electricity until complex data networks detect a sudden drop in the output of renewables. Then, computerized switches are thrown and the turbines roar to life, delivering power just in time to avoid potential blackouts. The state’s electricity system can handle the fluctuations from existing renewable output, but by 2020 vast wind and solar complexes will sprawl across the state, and the problem will become more severe.”

Just how much added capacity will be needed from traditional sources is the subject of heated debate by utility officials, government regulators and policy experts. The concerns are expected to come to a head next year when the state must adopt a 10-year plan for its energy needs.

“This issue is someplace between a significant concern and a major problem,” said electricity system expert Severin Borenstein, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. “There is definitely going to be a need for more reserves.”

Borenstein said state legislators and the governor did not consider all of the details, such as unleashing this new demand for fossil fuel generators, when they set the 33% mandate for renewable energy. The state now gets 20% of its power from renewables, in part from older hydro and geothermal energy. Gov. Jerry Brown has advocated upping the goal to 40%.

The cost to consumers in the years ahead could be in the billions of dollars, according to industry experts. California’s electricity prices are already among the highest in the nation and are projected to rise sharply in coming years. At the moment, the need for reserve power isn’t considered a cost of renewable power, though consumers have to bear its costs as well.

The California Independent System Operator, the nonprofit company that runs the grid, estimates that by 2020 the state will need to double its reserve capacity. California now maintains a margin of 7% to 8% above projected daily demand, in case a nuclear power plant goes offline or outages occur. But when 33% of the state’s power comes from renewables, that margin will have to rise to 15%. 

Nobody knows how much the added capacity will cost. By 2017 California “will be short by about … what three nuclear reactors produce (3,100 megawatts)”.

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