Marc Peterson: Renewable energy is not a failed path

Professor who spoke to the Utah Legislature is wrong about the costs of renewables.

I am writing in response to the Salt Lake Tribune article, “Renewable energy is a failed path”, scientist tells Utah legislators. This is an incorrect argument, but not new.

It is true that Professor William Hayden Smith’s argument that “Levelized Cost of Electricity” (LCOE) does not cover the full cost of an energy generation system. However, it is true for fossil fuels as well as for renewables.

Electrical demand in any system is not constant, it varies throughout the day. Coal, and combined cycle gas generation are considered base load technologies. This means they are intended to be turned on and left on. They are very inefficient at following demand because if they are operated at less than full load their cost per megawatt significantly increases.

So, in every generation system, a technology able to follow the demand has been included in the generation mix. That technology has historically been a simple cycle, or “peaker” gas turbine which operates at a much higher cost per megawatt than the base load technologies.

Smith argues the cost of an on-demand generation source (like battery storage), required to fill in the gaps for wind and solar, be added to the price of renewables. To follow his logic, the cost of the peakers should be added to the cost of the coal and/or combined cycle base load technologies. Meaning, if you increase the cost of wind and solar, you also must increase the cost of base load generation.

Smith wrongly claims the cost of maintenance and life cycle replacements has not been included in the LCOE analysis. LCOE has been used by the U.S. Department of Energy and nearly everyone else because it includes the total life cycle cost of energy for a given technology. It includes the maintenance and life cycle replacement costs.

Regardless of the discussion about LCOE being an accurate measure of the cost of electricity, the best analysis is how utilities analyze the reliability and cost of renewable resources. As The Tribune article states, “PacifiCorp’s 20-year planning document, the Integrated Resource Plan shows their intent to use renewables to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 74% over 2005 levels by 2030.” And they intend to move to zero emissions before 2050.

PacifiCorp is not unique. All of the major utilities that I have looked at in the U.S. have a similar strategy. PacifiCorp uses an extraordinarily complex model that looks at many variables associated with their total system reliability and cost. They run thousands of iterations of that model resulting in a recommended solution.

Smith’s statement that Germany’s electricity supply and price issues are the result of renewables is simply wrong. Germany is in the process of transitioning to renewables. But they are far from the end of that transition. They do not have enough renewable generation assets to cover all of their electric demand yet. As the amount of Russian natural gas has been reduced significantly, they’ve an electrical generation shortfall. One of the actions they are taking is to delay the shutdown of their nuclear plants.

Smith’s statement that there “is not enough land available for wind and solar farms to produce what fossil fuels do now” is a common false statement proposed by renewable opponents. There are already more than two times enough clean energy projects in early stages of development to get PacifiCorp to zero greenhouse gas emissions. This is likely the case for the rest of the country as well.

According to PacifiCorp’s IRP, they intend to add around 15GW’s of clean electrical generation and storage to enable them to get to zero greenhouse gas emissions prior to 2050. Currently there are over 40GW’s of clean energy projects where developers have requested access to PacifiCorp’s transmission system. This means more than two times the land required for PacifiCorp’s clean energy transition has already been secured.

Tribune reporter Tim Fitzpatrick did a great job of citing sources that prove Smith’s statements are wrong. You have to read his entire article to get to the truth.

I ask the Public Utilities, Energy and Technology Interim Committee to consider hearing from additional experts in this area.

Marc Peterson

Marc Peterson is a retired electrical generation industry executive living in Sandy.