Renewable energy fails to deliver


Renewable energy fails to deliver

By Ann Chambers, Assistant Editor

Renewables can`t compete with coal or gas at today`s prices. With coal and gas fueling electricity generation at about 4 cents/kWh, even wind, renewable energy`s low-cost leader, falls short at 5 to 8 cents/kWh. It will take more than tax incentives to rescue renewables in a competition-based market.

These sentiments were echoed in a new study released by the Center for Energy and Economical Devel op ment (CEED), a non-profit organization based in Alexandria, Va., which says its purpose is to educate the public on the benefits of coal-fired electricity generation and other coal uses.

The study, “The Role of Renew able and Traditional Energy Re sources in America`s Electricity Generation Mix,” projects the growth of several electricity generation technologies through 2010. “Coal will remain the baseload fuel of choice,” the study states, “supplying more than half of all electricity generation in 2010, even assuming aggressive subsidies for renewables.”

The CEED expects renewable energy (excluding hydro power) to grow from 2 percent to 4 percent of all U.S. electricity generation by 2010. Because renewables enjoy tax incentives and regulatory support, the study predicts that the 2-percent increase will come with a $52 billion (1995$) price tag in “above-market costs.”

Above-market cost reflects the differential between the levelized cost of the least expensive generation and the projected mix of renewables.

Boosting subsidy levels to 50 percent increases renewables` share to 11 percent in 2010, but above-market costs rise to $203 billion. Open and direct competition would shrink renewables` share to 1 percent by 2010, according to the study.

To secure a place in the generation mix, renewables must deliver electricity reliably. As yet, utilities cannot rely on these technologies because their capacity factor falls below 30 percent. In comparison, new coal plants achieve capacity utilization as high as 85 percent.

Until renewables can deliver in a similar manner, utilities will not embrace their use on a large scale.

Another drawback for renewables is their confinement to areas rich in renewable resources (see map below). Biomass fuels are transportable, but their low heat content does not allow economic transport beyond 50 miles.

On the other hand, states the study, coal is distributed to 47 of the 50 states for conversion into electricity. CEED`s study also undermines renewable energy`s foundation: environmental benefits.

It says that renewable combustion technologies are no better than conventional technologies in terms of air pollution. Emissions of heavy metals and other toxic elements are higher from municipal solid waste combustion than from any other combustion technology, according to the study.

Even non-combustion renewable technologies are not “impact free.” The photovoltaic cell manufacturing process can require hazardous chemical disposal; flash design geothermal systems release hydrochloric acid and hydrogen sulfides; and wind power, a seemingly benign technology, requires vast land space and kills a significant number of birds.

The study concludes that while renewables` niche technologies can work in specific situations, none offer a means to replace traditional generating technologies under current market conditions.

“Despite government incentives and private sector subsidies,” the study states, “renewable resources cannot replace fossil fuels in the nation`s generation mix. … Continued favorable economics and dramatically improving environmental controls promise to reinforce coal as the fuel of choice, especially for baseload generation, well into the twenty-first century.”

M By Timothy B. DeMoss

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