John Locke Update / Research Brief

Gov. Cooper’s “Clean Energy Plan,” Part 3: Raising Prices and Polluting More?

posted on in Energy & Environment
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Governor Cooper’s “Clean Energy Plan” seeks to install more renewable energy including solar power in North Carolina. NC already has more installed solar energy than any other state except California. NC has more than double the solar power of 45 other states. NC’s solar plants operate at only 21% of their stated capacity, however, which is below the nation’s average. Are other states crazy, or are we? It turns out we are.

Solar plants generate power only when the sun is shining, and only when the sun is shining directly overhead do they generate a significant amount of electricity. Here are some actual electricity generating curves for a solar facility:

Source: Dan Way, “Solar energy output ratings misleading if not deceptive, critics say,” Carolina Journal article, May 20, 2019

When not generating electricity, some other electricity generator must step in to fill the gap. Due to an unusual interpretation of federal law in NC, almost all of the power solar plants generate must be purchased by the utility company for delivery to the customers. This means that the dispatchable plants that step in to fill the gaps must idle when solar plants are generating electricity. This causes those plants to operate inefficiently, and means that customers are actually paying for twice the generating capacity during those periods.

The grid must also accommodate large fluctuations in electricity generation. When the sun shines, solar plants throughout the area send electricity across the grid for distribution to our homes. When clouds pass over, or at about 3:00 when that power evaporates, a number of large gas combustion turbines and coal plants must quickly ramp up to fill the gap. These large fluctuations strain the grid. As more and more solar plants are being installed, NC electricity customers will be made to pay billions of dollars to upgrade our grid to maintain its reliability.

Nuclear plants could fit into our current grid seamlessly. But even without including grid modifications, solar power is more expensive than even new nuclear power.

Solar power requires the use of fossil fuels. Solar requires fossil fuel–fired combustion turbines and coal plants to provide 79% of the load. It turns out that when fossil fuel backup generators operate in this fluctuating mode, their efficiencies drop, necessitating more fuel. So in terms of reducing greenhouse gases (GHG), the overall benefit of solar and wind is diminished. It also increases non-GHG pollution. To the extent manmade GHGs are impacting global warming, then, solar power cannot compete with nuclear power.

Enter the Battery Unicorn

While the Cooper plan does not compare intermittent sources plus their backup generators with nuclear plants, the plan discusses using battery storage as a way that could potentially extend solar power’s capacity and reduce the need to provide backup. The idea would be to store excess solar or wind energy when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing for release to the grid when sun and wind are absent. For this scheme to work, of course, a very large amount of batteries would need to be installed.

How large? The plan does not consider this obvious question, for obvious reasons. Other researchers have. It turns out that such a deployment of batteries would be absurd for the following reasons:

  • Monetary cost. Sufficient batteries would be extremely expensive, costing over $2.5 trillion to cover just the storage of 80% of the country’s needs,. That same $2.5 trillion could buy over 350 nuclear plants delivering 83% of the country’s electricity needs.
  • Environmental costs. Mining the raw materials needed would devastate the earth’s ecosystem and natural habitat. Producing wind and solar power requires 10 times the raw material in tons needed per megawatt for nuclear power and 100 times that required for natural gas generation. Both of the latter, of course, are dispatchable power sources. It also requires destroying natural habitat as well. Solar requires 75 times more land than nuclear to produce the same amount of power, while wind requires 360 times more land.
  • Explosive and corrosive. Battery safety is a work in progress. Lithium ion batteries can explode under various conditions. When they do burn, they emit significant quantities of hydrofluoric acid. George Crabtree, director of Argonne National Laboratory’s Joint Center for Energy Storage Research working on Lithium batteries, has stated that “no one’s been able to figure [the fire hazard] out.”
  • Abysmal working conditions and child labor. The mining for the exotic materials is notorious for abysmal working conditions in developing countries. Amnesty International has lamented that the need for cobalt for battery manufacturing is resulting in children being forced to spend long hours underground every day without basic protective equipment, carrying heavy loads for one or two dollars a day.

Neither solar nor wind energy will ever deliver the needed energy for our country without the significant use of fossil fuel as backup. Battery storage is not the answer for extended storage of large amounts of electricity. If Gov. Cooper is serious about cleaning up our energy sector, he needs to push for more nuclear plants and stop wasting billions of dollars on expensive, dirty, and ecologically harmful alternatives.

Other posts in this series:

Dr. Donald van der Vaart is a Senior Fellow for the John Locke Foundation. Dr. van der Vaart earned a B.S. in Chemistry from UNC Chapel Hill, an M.S. in Chemical Engineering from N. C. State University, a Ph.D. in Chemical… ...

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