Renewable energy methods overpriced

by Rolf Westgard, University guest faculty

If wishes were horses, legislators could pass renewable energy standards that have the ability to ride rough shod over the laws of nature and physics, but they can’t. Wind and solar would have replaced at least one fossil fuel power plant somewhere on earth, but they haven’t.

Solar energy would be more than a fraction of 1 percent of our electric energy, and wind and solar combined would be more than one quad of the 100 quads of annual U.S. energy consumption, but they aren’t. And there would be batteries with the storage capacity to take over when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind blows too little or too much, but there aren’t. We use natural gas for that.

Xcel Energy has a program called Windsource where you pay more, not less, to use wind power. The Energy Information Administration reports that on a per unit of energy basis, subsidies for oil and gas are $0.28; for coal are $0.39; for nuclear are $1.79; for corn ethanol are $20.37; for wind are $32.39; and for solar are $63.

We need more public transport, more efficient cars and light bulbs and to continue support for renewable energy research.

But in my opinion, we don’t need premature projects like the $2 billion Ivanpah solar project in Nevada, the $2 billion Cape Wind farm off Cape Cod or the proposed bird killing wind farm in Goodhue County. None of these will produce one tenth the effective output of the Prairie Island nuclear plant, Xcel Energy’s reliable low-cost power source.

So when political candidates talk about the environment this year, think also about the economy where the rest of us cough up $7,500 for each wealthy buyer of an electric car. Or think about Germany, where low- and middle-income power users pay to subsidize wealthy home owners who can then decorate their roofs with solar panels. Think about wind energy’s poster country, Denmark, with the highest electric rates in Europe.

If wishes were horses, it would be easy and cheap to ride from a world run by fossil fuels to one powered by renewable energy, but that won’t be easy or cheap.