Decarbonization Now? (No, not yet.)

Paul Krugman’s recent opinion column in the New York Times ran under the headline, “Salvation Gets Cheap.” At first I though Krugman was making a snarky comment on ex-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s claim that the ex-mayor’s work on restricting access to guns, and efforts on obesity and smoking would ensure a place in heaven. But no, Krugman is opining that technology is providing an easy way forward on climate change:

The climate change panel, in its usual deadpan prose, notes that “many RE [renewable energy] technologies have demonstrated substantial performance improvements and cost reductions” since it released its last assessment, back in 2007. The Department of Energy is willing to display a bit more open enthusiasm; it titled a report on clean energy released last year “Revolution Now.” That sounds like hyperbole, but you realize that it isn’t when you learn that the price of solar panels has fallen more than 75 percent just since 2008.

Thanks to this technological leap forward, the climate panel can talk about “decarbonizing” electricity generation as a realistic goal — and since coal-fired power plants are a very large part of the climate problem, that’s a big part of the solution right there.

It’s even possible that decarbonizing will take place without special encouragement, but we can’t and shouldn’t count on that. The point, instead, is that drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are now within fairly easy reach.

The “Revolution Now” report, which was linked in Krugman’s column online, is surprisingly weak sauce. The U.S. Department of Energy report (your tax dollars at work) purports to describe “four technology revolutions that are here today” and “have achieved dramatic reductions in cost” and “a surge in consumer, industrial and commercial deployment” in the last five years. The four “revolutions” are onshore wind power, polysilicon photovoltaic modules, LED lighting, and electric vehicles.

Each “revolution” gets a two-page summary and a colorful chart showing declining costs and rising use. The summaries are footnoted, just like real research, and studded with more factoids than the front page of USA Today. Here’s a fun fact: the ratio of empirical claims to footnotes in the article’s two pages on wind power is 4-to-1.

You can get a sense of the quality of the report by considering the claims strung together on electric vehicles: First it is reported “more and more drivers are abandoning the gas pump for the affordability and convenience of in-home electric charging,” then that 50,000 EVs were purchased in 2012 and the rate of purchase doubled in early 2013. Next we are told “to maintain this momentum the most critical area for cost reduction is batteries.” A paragraph later the report said, “In many senses, EVs are already competitive with traditional cars.” In the final paragraph, however, a sober note: it will take “further progress on reducing the cost of EV batteries” to make “these benefits available to a larger audience.”

The sober note referenced a DOE battery cost target of $125/kwh by 2022, at which point the DOE expects ownership costs for a EV will be similar to a standard vehicle. A glance back at the chart suggests current battery costs nearer five times that level, leaving at least this reader wondering in which sense “EVs are already competitive with traditional cars” and part of the “technology revolutions that are here today.”

The revolution is here today! Or maybe in 2022!! Or maybe whenever “further progress” is made!!!

Overall the report is more enthusiasm than analysis, and not sufficient to justify changing beliefs on the cost of decarbonizing energy supplies.

Looking for renewable policy certainty in all the wrong places

From EnergyWire comes the headline, “In Missouri, industry wants off the ‘solar coaster’.” (link here via Midwest Energy News).

A utility rebate program authorized by voters in 2008 is making Missouri into a solar leader in the Midwest. But $175 million set aside to subsidize solar installations is [nearly] fully subscribed … and the same small businesses that scrambled to add workers last year to help meet surging demand are facing layoffs….

Heidi Schoen, executive director of the Missouri Solar Energy Industries Association, said the industry, which has generated thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in new taxes for the state, is just looking for certainty.

“We want off the solar coaster,” she said. “We don’t want to be in this boom-and-bust situation.”

It is a patently false claim.

If they wanted off of the boom-and-bust policy ‘solar coaster,’ they’d get off. They could go do unsubsidized solar installations for example, or if (when?) that proves unprofitable get work doing something else. By their actions they signal that they prefer the booms-and-busts that come with reliance on politicians for favors.

Saving the elephants and World Wildlife Day

The United Nations has declared March 3 to be World Wildlife Day. It’s a good opportunity to reflect on the problems of wildlife poaching, which, as Ashok Rao wrote recently, is a moral, social, and political problem.

But, as Virginia Postrel pointed out in her then-NYT Economic Scene column in 2000, it’s also an economic problem, a problem of institution-driven misalignment of incentives. The challenge is to have local community-based institutions that create long-run economic incentives to preserve, or even increase, the wildlife population:

Institutional experiments that give local people a financial stake in wildlife have had some striking successes, particularly in Zimbabwe. There, the government in the mid-1980′s began the Communal Areas Program for Indigenous Resources, better known as Campfire. The program gave local districts wildlife-management authority in communal areas outside the national parks. In some cases, the local districts devolved control further, down to groups as small as 200 villagers. …

Under Campfire, the local authorities worked with outside experts to determine, for instance, that the area could maintain a sustainable elephant population by hunting two elephants a year. Residents would then contract with a safari operator and split the fee of around $25,000 an elephant paid by the hunter. In most cases, the villagers also got the meat from the elephant.

But even such innovative economic thinking has its limits. Both neoclassical and institutional conservation models share an underlying assumption: that the government respects the rule of law and the goal of conservation.

Along the same lines, Arancha Gonzalez writes in today’s Wall Street Journal that Legal Trade Can Save Endangered Wildlife:

Giving rural communities the right economic incentives is critical to protecting wildlife. This is difficult in countries with weak governance and high levels of poverty. Trade bans are often undermined by strong incentives to supply the market demand for the animals and the products that can be harvested from them. Bribes and intimidation from poachers and illegal wildlife traders erode such incentives even further.

And, as Doug Bandow observed in The Freeman last week, a legal market for ivory may be the best way to maintain elephant populations, by creating incentives for people to have elephants around:

Some activists appear to believe that it simply is morally wrong to trade in animals, or at least elephants. But markets have been used elsewhere to help save endangered species.

CITES points to a number of examples. Once-endangered vicunas “are managed through captive breeding and non-lethal harvests from wild populations.” In China, “tigers are being farmed with the intention of supplying tiger parts in the future.” Moreover, “The legal trade in crocodiles is one of the success stories in CITES history which shows species recovery as a result of trade.”

Why not elephants too?

The current system formally treats elephants as sacred, thereby leaving them for dead. Markets would treat elephants as commercial, thereby keeping them alive.

Interpreting Google’s purchase of Nest

Were you surprised to hear of Google’s acquisition of Nest? Probably not; nor was I. Google has long been interested in energy monitoring technologies and the effect that access to energy information can have on individual consumption decisions. In 2009 they introduced Power Meter, which was an energy monitoring and visualization tool; I wrote about it a few times, including it on my list of devices for creating intelligence at the edge of the electric power network. Google discontinued it in 2011 (and I think Martin LaMonica is right that its demise showed the difficulty of competition and innovation in residential retail electricity), but it pointed the way toward transactive energy and what we have come to know as the Internet of things.

In his usual trenchant manner, Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic gets at what I think is the real value opportunity that Google sees in Nest: automation and machine-to-machine communication to carry out our desires. He couches it in terms of robotics:

Nest always thought of itself as a robotics company; the robot is just hidden inside this sleek Appleish case.

Look at who the company brought in as its VP of technology: Yoky Matsuoka, a roboticist and artificial intelligence expert from the University of Washington.

In an interview I did with her in 2012, Matsuoka explained why that made sense. She saw Nest positioned right in a place where it could help machine and human intelligence work together: “The intersection of neuroscience and robotics is about how the human brain learns to do things and how machine learning comes in to augment that.”

I agree that it is an acquisition to expand their capabilities to do distributed sensing and automation. Thus far Nest’s concept of sensing has been behavioral — when do you use your space and how do you use it — and not transactive. Perhaps that can be a next step.

The Economist also writes this week about the acquisition, and compares Google’s acquisitions and evolution to GE’s in the 20th century. The Economist article touches on the three most important aspects of this acquisition: the robotics that Alexis analyzed, the data generated and accessible to Google for advertising purposes, and the design talent at Nest to contribute to the growing interest in the Internet-of-things technologies that make the connected home increasingly feasible and attractive to consumers (and that some of us have been waiting, and waiting, and waiting to see develop):

Packed with sensors and software that can, say, detect that the house is empty and turn down the heating, Nest’s connected thermostats generate plenty of data, which the firm captures. Tony Fadell, Nest’s boss, has often talked about how Nest is well-positioned to profit from “the internet of things”—a world in which all kinds of devices use a combination of software, sensors and wireless connectivity to talk to their owners and one another.

Other big technology firms are also joining the battle to dominate the connected home. This month Samsung announced a new smart-home computing platform that will let people control washing machines, televisions and other devices it makes from a single app. Microsoft, Apple and Amazon were also tipped to take a lead there, but Google was until now seen as something of a laggard. “I don’t think Google realised how fast the internet of things would develop,” says Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies, a consultancy.

Buying Nest will allow it to leapfrog much of the opposition. It also brings Google some stellar talent. Mr Fadell, who led the team that created the iPod while at Apple, has a knack for breathing new life into stale products. His skills and those of fellow Apple alumni at Nest could be helpful in other Google hardware businesses, such as Motorola Mobility.

Are we finally about to enter a period of energy consumption automation and transactive energy? This acquisition is a step in that direction.

Adapting to technological change: solar power and fire

Here’s an important tradeoff I never really considered until reading this article: rooftop solar panels can be hazardous for firefighters. It’s an interesting example of how wide and varied the adaptations are to innovation. In this case the potential lethal electrocution from the traditional means of venting a roof on a burning building (creating holes in the roof with an axe) has meant that both firefighters and the solar industry have had to think about fire risk and how solar installations change firefighting and the expected cost of a fire. I wonder how many benefit-cost analyses of solar take into account the higher expected cost of a fire, and the logical associated higher fire insurance premium.

“That—that—is what we are for: voluntary associations, in all their richness and bewildering complexity”

The above is a quote from Duke political economist (and friend of KP) Mike Munger, who also blogs at Kids Prefer Cheese and Euvoluntary Exchange, and is a frequent guest on EconTalk. Mike’s written a thoughtful and interesting reflection in the Freeman on what libertarians stand for. In many ways it’s a riff on Toqueville and his analysis of American society, which remains fresh and relevant today in Mike’s view (and mine). While it’s eminently quotable, please do read the whole thing, especially if you don’t identify as a libertarian. Mike’s insights might change your thinking about what libertarians do stand for.

Why is he bothering to reflect on what libertarians stand for?

The government is not providing the basic services that our more idealistic fellow citizens expect, and they want to know why. The things they think they wan [sic]—healthcare, pensions, schools, the war on terrorism, and the war on drugs—are a litany of failures. We don’t need to pile on and say we’re against those things. We need to offer an alternative.

In other words: What positive, optimistic alternative vision of society (yes, of society, the social thing, where you actually talk to other people and work together) can we offer? Unless we can answer that, the next question will be, “Why don’t Libertarians care about real people?”

I have been making this argument to my colleagues with respect to energy and environment policy for some time. I team-teach a sustainability course with a geologist and a philospher, both of whom are politically Progressive and have typically advocated large-scale top-down regulation and government control to address global warming. As they have seen the reality of using political institutions to make collective decisions, they have expressed frustration; as they have heard my lectures on public choice and political economy and read some of the political economy literature on environmental regulation, they have expressed some ideas similar to what Mike said above.

So I’ve been focusing on alternatives — liberty allows for experimentation and for individuals to make choices that express their environmental values. The more of those experimentation and expression processes we foster, the more likely we are to devise lower-carbon ways to achieve what we want to achieve. That’s one application of the vision that Mike describes.

But a lot of people don’t think about the connection from liberty to experimentation to thriving, and default to expecting “the government” to solve collective problems. In general, people pay too much attention to politics:

If citizens ignored politics, things wouldn’t be so bad. But we are worried that our excessive focus on politics will cause us to ignore society and each other. If we fail to connect as social beings in complex reciprocal exchange relations, modern “democratic” life becomes anomic and mean, just as Tocqueville foresaw.

That—that—is what we are for: voluntary associations, in all their richness and bewildering complexity.

If you want to go out and persuade some people to work with you, and all voluntarily work for the benefit of each, then that is libertarian social change. If someone wants to opt out and form a different association, they are free to do so. And that’s a good thing because you get diverse experimentation in problem solving.

And I really like his conclusion, which makes me feel happy, large, empowered, and connected (four feelings I never experience in political collective action):

Libertarians are for voluntary action, always. It is because we are for society—a vibrant, active society—that we resist the expansion of state power.

It is because we are for giving people a chance to reach their full potential that we doubt the motives and effectiveness of government. Political coercion corrupts the human spirit; political leaders tell us they take our wealth for our own good, and political processes straitjacket independent thought—the essence of liberty.

We are for individuals, working together in complex, interconnected organizations they have designed in their efforts to solve problems.

We are for liberty, for celebrating the infinite and infinitely varied capacities of the human mind. Libertarians are for a limitless sense of the possible, for the idea that for a society of truly free and responsible citizens, nothing is impossible.

Economist debate on solar power

The Economist often runs debates on their website, and their current one will be of interest to the KP community: Can solar energy save the world?

The debate is structured in a traditional manner, with a moderator and a proposer and a responder. Guest posts accompany the debate, and readers are invited to comment on each stage of the debate. The two debaters are Richard Swanson, founder of SunPower, and Benny Peiser of the Global Warming Policy Foundation. Geoff Carr, the Economist’s science editor, is moderating the debate.

One common theme among the debaters, the moderator, and the commenters is the distortions introduced due to decades of energy being politicized, which means (among other things) that the complicated web of subsidies across all fuel sources is hard to disentangle. Given the thorough and valuable discussion that Mike’s provided of his recent analysis of wind power cost estimates, this solar debate is a good complement to that discussion.

Wind energy’s price suppression effects (Debating wind power cost estimates – 6)

[Series header: On the Morning of October 15 the Institute for Energy Research in Washington DC released a report I’d written about the federal government's wind power cost estimates. (Links available here.) Later that day Michael Goggin of the American Wind Energy Association, the lobbying organization in Washington DC that represents the wind energy industry, posted a response on the AWEA website: “Fact check: Fossil-funded think tank strikes out on cost of wind.” I’m considering points made by the AWEA response in a series of posts.]

Goggin objects to my report’s emphasis on the high cost of wind energy. He said, “The reality is that wind energy is driving electricity prices down, thanks to large recent reductions in its cost.” I agree with Goggin, as I said earlier in this series of replies, at least on price suppression: “Wind power is responsible from bringing down average prices in regional power markets, a consequence of subsidizing entry of generation with high capital costs but low marginal operating costs.”

But the effect of wind energy on prices is only obviously negative in the short run. Longer term the cost of energy could rise. More importantly, the price suppression effect is only tangentially related to the overall benefits and costs of wind power policy and so of only modest policy relevance.

The basic short-run “price suppression” effect is explained various places–here is a bit from a short report produced by the staff of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, “Renewable resources and wholesale price suppression” (August 2013):

Price suppression is a widely recognized phenomenon by which renewable resources produce lower wholesale market clearing prices. The economic theory that drives price suppression is actually quite simple. Renewable resources such as solar and wind are essentially zero marginal cost generators, as their “fuel” costs (sunlight and wind) are free. As such, they will always be dispatched first by the grid operator, thereby displacing units with higher operating costs. This results in lower wholesale market clearing prices than would have been experienced in the absence of the renewable resources.

A simple graphical representation appears below. The new renewable resources (depicted by the red line) are added to the dispatch stack, shifting the supply curve out and to the right. This results in a lower cost unit setting the market clearing price, shifting the equilibrium price down from Po to P1.

PUCO, Renewable Resources and Wholesale Price Suppression,” August 2013.

The above analysis, so far as it goes, adequately shows the simple short-run impact of adding low marginal cost resources to a supply curve. The marginal cost of producing wind energy isn’t zero–wind turbines experience wear from operation and non-zero maintenance costs. But the marginal costs are low relative to most other power plants and the short-run impact on spot prices is to push prices down. In the simulations for Ohio analyzed by the PUCO staff, the effect is a price suppression of between $0.05 and $0.20 per MWh (or, to put it in residential consumer terms, a reduction in energy cost of 0.02 cents per kwh).

But, as the staff of the Public Utilities Commission explain in their report, observing a tiny tiny price suppression effect doesn’t indicate anything about overall costs and benefits or about least-cost capacity expansion. The above analysis is a short-run assessment that ignores longer term effects on investments and retirement of assets. A more complete assessment, they said, would need “to consider additional variables such as capital and capacity costs, renewable energy credit (REC) prices, and transmission upgrade expenses.”

And that is among the problems with Goggin’s simple-minded trumpeting of a price suppression effect as some sort of renewable energy triumph: it ignores the future consequences of the policy. Other things being equal, as intermittent low-marginal-cost resources are added to a power system, less-flexible medium-low marginal cost baseload power plants tend to be most disadvantaged and most likely to be retired. At the same time, the resulting increased need for flexible, dispatchable resources will tend to support investment in responsive natural gas generators that have lower capital costs but medium to high marginal costs.

These changes to the generation portfolio in a market will also shift the shape of the supply curve. It is an empirical question, or will be in five or ten years when energy markets have finished adjusting to the 2018-2013 wind energy construction boom in the United States and data is available, whether the overall effect has been to reduce or increase average prices to consumers.

But there is at least on more point: public policy analysis ought to involve a careful counting of projected benefits and costs. It is hardly surprising that subsidizing entry of production capacity would tend to drive down market prices in the short run, but that says nothing about either the short-run or long-run overall benefits and costs of the subsidy policy. The high capital costs of wind energy are one big signal that the steel, concrete, rare earth magnets, other component parts and manufacturing expertise that are drawn into wind energy production all have valuable potential other uses in the economy. We forgo these other potential contributions when policy steers these resource into electric power generation.

Are consumers better off when public policy pulls some of these resources from the manufacture of other goods and services and pushes these resources into electric energy supply? Maybe yes and maybe no, but the price suppression effect is mostly about the division of the spoils of wind power policy, and has little to do with the overall benefits and costs of the policy.

PJM region could handle substantially more renewable generation, study says

PJM Interconnection has been studying, with the help of GE Energy Consulting and other groups, the consequences of adding significantly more wind energy and solar energy to its transmission grid. The “headline result” of a preliminary report, presented to PJM stakeholders recently, is that the system could handle renewable power generation capacity at a 30 percent penetration rate in 2026.

Here is how EnergyWire summarized the preliminary results (may be gated):

The eastern Great Lakes and mid-Atlantic region could rely on wind and solar power for as much as 30 percent of their generation capacity without threatening electricity delivery with net benefits even after additional transmission lines and reserve resources are added, according to a preliminary study released by the PJM Interconnection, the region’s grid operator.

The study, by GE Energy Consulting, investigates several scenarios for additions of wind and solar generation to the PJM grid, which extends from New Jersey to northern Illinois. It calculates the amount of new transmission lines needed to deliver the renewable energy and the required backup generation to support the variable wind and solar power.

The main impacts it reports are lower emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases; no power outages and minimal curtailment of renewable energy; lower systemwide energy production costs; and lower wholesale customer power costs with the additional wind and solar resources.

“Even at 30 percent penetration, results indicate that the PJM system can handle the additional renewable integration with sufficient reserves and transmission build out,” GE said.

GE Energy Consulting is one corporate unit in the General Electric family, other corporate units make and sell generation equipment including wind turbines, solar pv products, natural gas turbines, etc. We can probably assume that GE Energy Consulting had access to good information in preparing their analysis.

Scanning through the 149-slide presentation reveals a bit about what GE Energy Consulting understands concerning intermittent renewable generation. For example, slides 49-55 discussed the transmission additions needed under the various scenarios studied. Slide 15 summarized the added transmission costs, which ranged from $3.70 to $13.7 per MWh depending on scenario.

On the question of whether adding intermittent renewable generation increases reserves requirements, the report concludes at slide 67, “The study identified a need for an increase in the regulation requirement even in the lower wind penetration scenario (2% BAU), and the requirement would have noticeable increases for higher penetration levels.” Regulation, as the term is used in power systems, refers to a fast-responding reserves service that dispatchable generators can provide to the grid.

Power plant cycling costs are discussed at slides 78-93; the report indicates that adding renewable power results in more cycling operations for dispatchable power plants, higher cycling costs for dispatchable power plants, and less time spent operating in more efficient stable-output baseload conditions. Cost estimates for cycling range from $0 to as much as $21.90 per MWh of renewable output, depending on the scenario studied and the type of unit forced into additional cycling.

Power plant cycling emissions are discussed at slides 94-101; the report indicates that added cycling of fossil fuel plants does offset some of the emission reductions that might otherwise be expected from using wind energy or solar energy, but the effect is pretty small.

The report estimates the overall value of the renewable energy delivered to the system at about $50 per MWh.

The GE Energy Consulting analysis is interesting, in part, because of how their projections relate to my recently released report on wind energy cost estimates. I observed, among other things, that in addition to the costs of wind power capacity to  project developers, there were other costs to be considered when evaluating wind energy in a policy context. Among the factors noted: transmission additions, grid-integration costs (mostly added reserves), some partial offsetting of renewable’s emission benefits due to increased cycling of dispatchable power plants, and added cycling costs imposed on the owners of these dispatchable units.

Michael Goggin of the American Wind Energy Association attacked my report on Into the Wind, the trade association’s blog, for “rely[ing] on obsolete data” and “regurgitat[ing] anti-wind myths that have already been debunked.” (I’ve responded to Goggin in a series of posts.)

I am now looking forward to Goggin’s attack on GE Energy Consulting for perpetuating these anti-wind myths.

NOTE: Here is Goggin’s actual reaction to the GE report, where instead of accusing GE Energy Consulting of failing to understand how the power grid operates, he chooses to accentuate the positive: “Independent grid operator study confirms wind power’s economic, environmental value.” (I guess it would have been awkward to complain too much about the report since GE Energy is an AWEA member.)

Debating wind power cost estimates – 5

[Series header: On the Morning of October 15 the Institute for Energy Research in Washington DC released a report I’d written about the federal government's wind power cost estimates. (Links available here.) Later that day Michael Goggin of the American Wind Energy Association, the lobbying organization in Washington DC that represents the wind energy industry, posted a response on the AWEA website: “Fact check: Fossil-funded think tank strikes out on cost of wind.” I’m considering points made by the AWEA response in a series of posts.]

In the final section of Goggin’s detailed criticisms of my report he takes on my claims with respect to various additional costs associated with the addition of wind power to the grid, including grid integration costs, indirect pollution effects, transmission expenses, and negative prices. He writes:

After starting with a baseline wind cost that is 100% too high, IER compounds the error by claiming that the actual costs of wind are even higher based on obsolete data and a flawed understanding of how the power system works.

IER incorrectly alleges that wind energy imposes large “integration costs” on the power system. In reality, it is far more costly to integrate the unexpected and instantaneous failures of large fossil and nuclear power plants than to accommodate the gradual and predictable changes in wind energy output.

I’m note sure just where the report “alleges that wind energy imposes large ‘integration costs’ on the power system.” All that my report does is (1) observe that grid integration costs are not included in NREL levelized cost of energy estimates so a fuller consideration of costs much include them, (2) summarize the discussion of the topic in the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab’s 2012 Wind Technologies Market Report [WTMR], and (3) highlight factors that tend to increase or decrease those costs.

Here is the core of my wind integration cost claim: “The [WTMR] reported a range of cost estimates from wind power integration studies, with all studies but one falling below $12 per MWh and some studies below $5 per MWh.” From this remark somehow Goggin claims I allege the costs are large.

Goggin then cherry-picks a few examples of low wind integration cost estimates. But each of these examples is included in the far more comprehensive WTMR study produced by the Berkeley Lab. You can find his 3 examples, and 22 others, in figure 37 of the 2012 WTMR, p. 63. The American Wind Energy Association may not like the answers, but again it seems that Goggin’s complaint is with the Berkeley Lab research and not my report.

Goggin again:

IER’s report falsely alleges that wind energy’s pollution reductions are significantly reduced because of this incremental need to operate other power plants more flexibly. IER picked a bad time to once again try to push that myth, as last month a comprehensive report used real-world emissions data from every power plant in the Western U.S. to confirm that wind energy produces the expected pollution reductions. … IER’s claim to the contrary is based on a single report that has been thoroughly debunked for getting the wrong answer because its authors failed to understand how the power system works. [Link in source.]

Goggin discusses issues raised in section 3.3 of my report on additional cycling of baseload units and section 3.4 of my report on environmental costs. I cite a handful of references in these two sections and Goggin doesn’t include links. As best as I can tell by “single report” Goggin is referencing the Katzenstein and Apt article published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, “Air Emissions Due to Wind and Solar Power,” and the “thorough[] debunking” is the comment on that piece by Mills, Wiser, Milligan and O’Malley.

On this point, while Goggin exaggerates his point in cartoonish fashion, he raises a good point. The nub of the issue is that the Katzenstein and Apt article use a very simplified case to examine the relationship between renewable power intermittency and emissions from dispatchable generators, and the simplified case yields a much higher reduction in emission benefits than renewable power intermittency actually yields when connected to large scale power grids. That is to say, as Katzenstein and Apt acknowledge and Mills et al. emphasize in their comment, the Katzenstein and Apt result is essentially an estimate of the possible upper bound of the effect. Mills et al. make clear that in actual power grids the reduction in emission benefits, while still present, is likely much smaller in practice. In short, the study I emphasize was not the best choice to show the indirect emission effects of renewable energy intermittency in large scale power grids. (Having met Jay Apt once or twice, I’d be very reluctant to accuse him, as Goggin does, of failing to understand how the power grid works.)

Goggin objects to my referencing transmission costs as another factor to be considered as associated with wind power, since “upgrades to the nation’s obsolete and congested electric grid are needed anyway regardless of the addition of wind energy” and transmission upgrades will more than pay for themselves by broadening access to low cost generation. I’m sure Goggin understands enough about how the power grid works to understand that “upgrades to the … grid … needed anyway regardless of the addition of wind energy” will be somewhat different from “upgrades to the … grid … needed” because of the addition of wind energy. Perhaps amusingly, the Western Wind and Solar Integration Study Goggin cites against me on the emissions point tends to support my point on transmission costs: in Phase 1 of the study they assume significant enhancement of the grid in the Western U.S. to accommodate assumed addition of large amounts of wind and solar power.

If modelling assumptions don’t convince Goggin, then surely he has heard of the $6.8 billion CREZ grid upgrades in Texas that were designed accommodate existing and projected wind power production. Most of the CREZ upgrades would not have been useful in the absence of wind power and certainly the ERCOT grid would not have been expanded to overlap the Southwest Power Pool grid footprint in the Texas Panhandle and South Plains area in the absence of a high-quality wind power resources in the region. Transmission upgrades can enhance competition, like Goggin points out, but had ERCOT wanted transmission upgrades primarily to enhance competition then the money would have been spent much differently. The grid upgrade plans and the associated expenses were largely driven by the fact that high-quality wind power resources are location dependent, and those locations are distant from the primary areas of power demand in the state.

Obviously the selection of power plant location is important for any kind of generator, and good locations will always be constrained (usual main factors: access to fuel, access to water for cooling, access to consumers, and cost of land). But for coal, nuclear, and natural gas it is possible to deliver the energy resource to locations nearer ultimate consumers. In the cases of wind, hydropower, and geothermal energy the resource locations are determined primarily by nature (and not with net-system-cost minimization in mind).

Next: Two issues remain, both concerning the effects of wind power on regional power market prices. I’ll look at the price suppression effects of adding wind to the grid in my next post in this series and then I’ll take another look at negative power market prices.