The Renewable Energy Boondoggle

The truth about wind and solar power


Last month Glen Besa, the director of the Sierra Club's Virginia chapter, rebuked Dominion Virginia Power for failing to "jump-start the clean, renewable energy industry in Virginia. … Offshore wind, which is plentiful off Virginia's coast, could create 10,000 jobs in the commonwealth. It is time for Dominion to make major investments in wind and solar in Virginia and bring these jobs to Virginia."

Others concur. Beth Kemler, state director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, notes that Dominion has proposed two new 1,300-megawatt gas-fired power stations. Bad idea, she says: "While natural gas may be cheap now, its price has fluctuated greatly in the past and is expected to rise in the future. Wind, on the other hand, is a free natural resource. So building a wind farm includes no fuel price risk."

Say what you will about the evil fiends who run power companies, they are not stupid people. So it boggles the mind that a corporation as ostensibly rapacious as Dominion would pass up the opportunity to reap the obvious riches from doing as environmentalists wish. Could there be more to the issue than they are letting on?

There could. Let's start with some basic facts.

Dominion's entire generation portfolio produces about 28,000 megawatts of electricity. Its two reactors at the North Anna nuclear power station produce a combined 1,960 megawatts, or 7 percent of the total. The new hybrid-energy center in Wise, which will get up to 20 percent of its juice from burning biomass, will crank out 585 megawatts. Dominion also is working on a solar-energy unit in Halifax. Generation capacity? Four megawatts.

Not 400. Four. (Dominion is pursuing a distributed-generation solar project that might generate more—a grand total of perhaps 30 megawatts.)

Could Dominion produce more power from renewable sources? Sure it could—if you don't mind paying out the wazoo.

Energy from coal costs around $100 per megawatt-hour to produce. The price for solar power and offshore wind generation starts at twice that much and climbs fast. Some committed environmentalists might not mind seeing their electric bills nearly double. Most other folks would—even if they say otherwise.

Ditto for conservation: Everyone is for it—in the abstract. In practice, not so much. The most efficient way to conserve energy is not to use an electronic device at all. Yet Americans are using more and more.

The typical U.S. household had one TV set in 1978. Today it has 2.5. Further, says the Energy Information Administration, "in 1978, personal computers were … not typically used by U.S. households. In 2009, 76 percent of U.S. homes had at least one computer … 79 percent of homes had a DVD player, and 43 percent had a DVR. Nearly a third of all households also had at least four electronic devices, such as cellphones, plugged in and charging at home." Eighty-seven percent of homes now have central AC. Anyone want to give up theirs?

Combine such trends with population growth, and Dominion expects demand to soar 30 percent in the next decade and a half. Where will the juice come from?

Using the best of today's technology, offshore wind could provide Virginia somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 megawatts. But: Offshore wind requires 60 acres of sea area per megawatt, compared with a quarter-acre of land per megawatt for coal and one-tenth of an acre per megawatt for nuclear generation. (Wind turbines need to be set well apart to minimize wake loss.) Sixty acres times 2,000 MW equals a turbine field covering more than 187 square miles off the state's coast. Odds are good the Navy would have something to say about that.

Onshore wind generation is cheaper and requires a slightly more compact 40 acres per megawatt, but it brings problems of its own, such as NIMBYism: Tazewell County supervisors blocked construction of turbines there, and a 38-megawatt wind farm in Highland County was held up by regulatory and legal challenges for a decade. No one wants wind farms in national parks, either.

Then there is the Cuisinart conundrum: Wind farms already kill half a million birds a year while generating just 2 percent of U.S. electricity. How many birds would they kill generating the 20 percent that renewable advocates want to shoot for?

Wind's biggest problem, however, is that it is intermittent. Since utility-scale electricity can't be efficiently and effectively stored, utilities must back up wind farms with other generation. And while utilities can fire up another gas turbine or two when demand is high, they cannot make the wind blow. Ironically, demand often peaks during hot summer days when the winds flatline.

None of this is meant to suggest traditional power sources such as coal and nuclear sources are problem-free—clearly they aren't—or that Virginia should never give wind a second thought. Clearly it should. The point is simply this: Environmentalists touting renewable energy sometimes sound like Lewis Strauss predicting in 1954 that atomic power would make electricity "too cheap to meter." His lofty prediction was too good to be true—and so is theirs.

A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. This article originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.