Replace expensive, unreliable wind power with natural gas

By Kevon Martis/ Senior Policy Analyst for the Interstate Informed Citizen’s Coalition
The original article can be read on Bridge: News and Analysis from the Center for Michigan

Michigan voters recently defeated a renewable energy mandate by a nearly 2 to 1 margin. Since Michiganders desire cheap, clean, abundant electricity, should we try again to mandate higher percentages of renewable energy? Or is there a wiser path?

Industrial wind facilities are similar to that disappointing Christmas toy, the one that says “batteries not included” – only worse. While our parents could scramble to purchase batteries necessary to restore household tranquility, no practical means exists to store wind energy’s volatile energy production.

In Michigan and elsewhere, fossil fuel plants play the role of storage batteries to stabilize wind’s erratic output. German grid operator E.ON Netz explains:

“Wind energy is only able to replace traditional power stations to a limited extent. Their dependence on the prevailing wind conditions means that wind power has a limited load factor even when technically available . Consequently, traditional power stations with capacities equal to 90 percent of the installed wind power capacity must be permanently online [and burning fuel] in order to guarantee power supply at all times.”

Nuclear power plants are not permitted to cycle up and down to balance wind’s variability. So Michigan wind facilities must have fossil-fired plants spinning at nearly 100 percent of wind’s theoretical output online at all times to ensure grid stability: 900 megawatts for every 1,000 MW of wind.

This means there is no such thing as wind energy machines by themselves. Wind plants cannot replace coal, gas or nuclear plants. At best, they can reduce small amounts of fossil fuel generation. So the more correct phrase for wind energy is fossil/wind.

Consequently, despite much-ballyhooed claims that wind energy is gradually becoming cheaper than coal,  such cost comparisons are intentional distractions. The federal Energy Information Agency concurs:

“The duty cycle for intermittent renewable resources, wind and solar, is not operator controlled, but dependent on the weather or solar cycle … and so will not necessarily correspond to operator dispatched duty cycles [consumer demand]. As a result, their levelized costs are not directly comparable to those for other technologies.”

Because wind cannot stand alone, the cost of wind energy production must be added to fossil generation costs. No matter how cheap wind becomes, it is a surcharge on top of fossil generation.

So what then is a wise energy policy for Michigan’s future?

Nationally, coal generation is most affordable. But Michigan has no useable coal resources. Because Michigan must transport coal long distances, it is at regional disadvantage for cheap coal generation.

But Michigan is uniquely positioned to extract natural gas from its own abundant Antrim Shale. And the great news is that, if one is serious about reducing emissions, converting coal generation to gas generation results in at least 60 percent greater emissions reduction per dollar spent versus adding intermittent renewables like wind. Perversely, increasing the percentage of wind penetration beyond a certain point actually increases emissions.

Electricity is an overhead cost for all industry. The U.S. steel industry consumes $18 billion of electricity annually. With 100,000 steel-making employees, just a 10 percent increase in electricity costs adds a $1.8-billion surcharge – the equivalent of 20,000 (former) employees earning $90,000 a year. This demonstrates how critical low cost electricity is to Michigan’s heavy manufacturing economy.

Near term, given its geography, a wise policy for Michigan would abandon renewable energy mandates and focus on gas extraction for electricity generation, transportation, job creation and government revenue generation.

Long term, acknowledging that fossil fuels may be finite, and absent a technological breakthrough that would provide useful capacity from other energy dense fuels, nuclear power is the only carbon-free generation that can be scaled sufficiently to provide reliable, clean, abundant, affordable electricity.