A few weeks ago, an article about the California Legislature caught my attention. They have passed a bill establishing a requirement that 60% of the state’s electricity be renewable by 2025 and 100% to be renewable by 2045. I know California has a lot of renewable energy, but I was interested in how such aggressive goals could be achieved.
I looked further and found that Hawaii has made a similar commitment to be 100% renewable by 2045. Also, San Francisco; San Jose; San Diego; Rochester, Minnesota; Grand Rapids, Michigan; and East Hampton, New York, have made commitments to be 100% renewable between 2020 and 2035. More interestingly, three cities – Aspen, Colorado; Burlington, Vermont; and Greensburg, Kansas – claim to already be 100% renewable.
These accomplishments and goals are interesting considering that electricity generation in the U.S. in 2016 was comprised 30% from coal, 34% from natural gas, 20% from nuclear, 1% from oil, and 15% from renewables. The renewable distribution was 6.5% from hydro, 5.6% from wind, 1.5% from biomass, 0.9% from solar, and 0.4% from geothermal.
How do three cities get 100% of their electricity from renewables if only 15% of the country’s electricity is renewable?
Solar has natural obstacles like night and clouds. The wind doesn’t always blow, especially in Vermont. Biomass burns up an awful lot of trees. Geothermal works pretty well if you have a volcano. Hydro works well when rivers run, but it has just about been thrown out of the renewable club because of alleged damage to fish and mussels.
The trick is – and it is a trick – the cities claiming and states desiring to be 100% renewable use the electric grid to supply their electricity with non-renewable electricity when renewable electricity is not available and use renewable credits to cover the difference.
The purchase of renewable credits to cover the shortfall of renewable electricity doesn’t mean the states or cities are being served by renewable power 100% of the time. If the sun is not shining, the wind is not blowing, or the rivers are not running, then there is not enough renewable power to serve all those that claim to be 100% renewable. Those states and cities are instead being served by coal and natural gas generated electricity from the electric grid, yet claim to be 100% renewable. It is just labeled “renewable.”
Simply, this is how it works. Electricity supply is real-time, at the speed of light. If you have a light on in your house, an electric generator is producing electricity right now to keep that light shining.
Electricity cannot be stored in volumes approaching utility scale. PowerSouth’s Compressed Air Energy Storage Unit converts electricity to compressed air during off-peak periods and uses the compressed air to generate electricity on peak. A few other utilities have pumped-storage hydro generators that use off-peak electricity to pump water back over dams so it can be used on peak to generate more electricity. However, those projects are insignificant compared to the volume of electricity on the grid at any moment. Batteries are not effective at utility scale and provide no significant electric storage application. Practically, all electricity is generated at the time it is needed.
Renewable power suppliers generate electricity when the renewable resources are available – the wind is blowing, the sun is shining, the rivers are running. They sell their electricity onto the grid for the market price but retain the renewable credits and sell them to the renewable cities and states. The cities and states purchase some electricity directly associated with the renewable credits but also purchase additional energy credits that are paired with non-renewable electricity from the grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow to create the illusion that all their electricity is renewable through the credit purchase.
The irony is that the renewable labeling process would not be possible and would not work without the presence of reliable fossil-fuel generated electricity that is always available from the grid. Fossil-fueled generation is the foundation of reliable electric service, and it will remain regardless of the desires or claims of politicians and environmental activists. The process also has a price. The renewable cities and states pay the normal price for electricity off the grid plus a premium for the renewable credits to create the renewable illusion. And it is an illusion. Renewable cities and states will have more renewable electricity than average, but at no time will 100% of the electricity its citizens consume be renewable.
Using the electric grid to create this illusion is a treat for the renewable cities and states. Cities that won’t let you park your car in a downtown parking spot without paying a fee uses the grid to displace renewable power with non-renewable power but doesn’t pay a fee to the grid for the right to call on reliable power when its renewable electricity is not available.
Renewables have an important role in the country’s power supply mix. However, an approach without the political posturing and false, misleading claims would be much more productive. We need more transparency and less renewable lies.
I hope you have a good month.