Renewable Energy Ruminations

The article linked above provides a nice, short introduction to the major categories of renewable energy. The authors believe that renewable energy will inevitably become the predominant source of electricity around the world. However, it ain’t necessarily so if it means trading reliable for renewable. Regardless of how much the power grid needs maintenance and updating, if the energy sources are not reliable and available, in aggregate, 24/7 we will have blackouts and brownouts, not to mention the problem of coming up with enough electricity to charge everyone’s electric car. And, as you might expect, there are some additional questions lurking behind our utility bills:

Since we were talking about reliability, let’s ask which of these five types of renewable energy are available on demand at any hour of the day or night, any time of year. Without some way to store energy for when it is otherwise unavailable, it looks like wind and solar don’t measure up. Biomass and hydro might be limited by available resources, but geothermal seems the most likely choice if we want reliable energy availability. Meanwhile, we need ways to store truly large amounts of energy, whether centralized, distributed, or both, to get us past the hours or days when our preferred renewable source is unavailable..

Next, let’s look at costs. As we noted in a post several months ago, it is notoriously difficult to calculate complete life cycle costs for energy generation. It can be helpful to let the marketplace help sort out the options, although the state and federal energy agencies have gone to some length to impede this sorting process. Nevertheless, the linked article does try to rack up a cost per megawatthour for each of the five types of renewable energy generation. However, their “levelized cost of energy” number is incomplete since it does not include things like siting costs (price and amount of land needed), the cost of decommissioning and dismantling at the end of the generating system’s useful life cycle, or the admittedly even more difficult to estimate cost of environmental impacts.

None of this is to say we should avoid renewable energy or stop its continued development. Instead, think of this as a call for market-informed development that is a little smarter than what we have seen so far from the special interest groups and the government agencies.

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