Getting Real on Wind and Solar

Getting Real on Wind and SolarPerhaps no recent article irritated me more and made me feel more vulnerable as a solar professional than James Schlesinger and Robert Hirsch’s Washington Post op-ed, “Getting Real on Wind and Solar” (April 24, 2009). The op-ed said we shouldn’t take solar and wind seriously, because they are unpredictable and cannot be turned on at will. There is a grain of truth to their statement. It is a serious criticism of wind and solar, and probably the most telling after the worst one – high cost. But I think it is because high cost is being overcome, especially in wind, that this next level of criticism is being raised. That’s progress.

I authored a response with Bundestag member Hans-Josef Fell, the co-author of the German feed-in tariff legislation (see Fell’s presentation at our kick-off symposium here). The Washington Post didn’t see fit to print it. Maybe they had not heard of the German feed-in tariff or its transformational importance to the global PV market.

I used to think James Schlesinger, the first Secretary of Energy, was an ally of solar since he was involved with the founding of SERI (now NREL), the place I worked for 26 years. Maybe I missed something in his biography. He is on the board of a coal company, now, so perhaps he’s changed his mind. I prefer to think he just hasn’t thought enough about it.

The main thing Schlesinger and Hirsch seem to overlook is that we can do a lot with intermittent electricity. Electricity is already intermittent, for example, since demand fluctuates as we individually turn things on and off. So dealing with fluctuations is not so off the wall as they might have you think. The question is: how big can the fluctuations be before they cause problems?CO2 emissions

We don’t yet know the answer to that question. If anyone does, please post a comment. But wind, for example, is reaching penetration levels that are quite substantial in some places in Europe and
even the US. We should be able to learn from that. Based on an initial reading, it seems that 20%-wind (wind kWh/total regional kWh) is acceptable. By that, I mean at an added cost in cents per kWh and extra carbon dioxide 20% wind is acceptable. So perhaps that much intermittency would cost an extra 10% in money and CO2 emissions, though that is a rough estimate. The recent report “20% Wind in 2030” by the DOE is a good source for those curious about the details. More on this subject can be found on the Solar Institute’s Resources page – especially a NERC report on grid reliability. Essentially, we can back up intermittent sources with fast ramping natural gas, some smart grid demand-side management, and more effective use of solar and wind forecasting. These are not expensive.

Now to my ears, 20% doesn’t sound like a whole lot, but that might not be right. For example, 20% of our current electricity use would be about equal to all the energy we need to move all our light-duty vehicles in the US, if they were powered with electricity instead of oil. So if we pushed down on the accelerator and deployed solar and wind to the point of 20% of electricity, we could possibly eliminate all the oil we use for our cars and light trucks at the same time. By doing that, we would also be eliminating the CO2 from all that oil and replacing it with CO2-free electricity, with say a 2% penalty (10% of the 20% overall offset). This would be nice for our energy self-sufficiency, to put it mildly.

So it seems that dismissing wind and solar as unworthy of being “real” as Schlesinger and Hirsch would have you believe, is, itself, rather unreal, or at least a bit alarmist.
While we are doing this, and converting our vehicles to electricity, we can also look into improved electric storage, so we can get further “real” with the rest of our electricity and energy needs after that. That would be about 2030.

Ken Zweibel

2 Comments

u35
wind energy
OCTOBER 13, 2009

I can not say that I disagreee with you, totally.

u36
home wind turbine
OCTOBER 13, 2009

Can’t say that I can disagree with this post at all.