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Renewable energy sources are not economically viable without subsidies, and they can impose some ugly external costs. Taxpayer subsidies for renewables like solar and wind projects are rationalized on the grounds that adoption will reduce carbon emissions and bring declining costs, ultimately saving resources by virtue of “free inputs”: the sun and the wind. But the cost of carbon emissions is highly uncertain, even speculative, and subsidies usually manage to get wasteful projects off the ground that are all too often run by political cronies. Despite the free variable inputs, these projects entail substantial resource costs that are conveniently overlooked by supporters. No wonder so many renewable outputs cannot be sustained without a continuing flow of aid.

What happens when the subsidies reach their sunset? There are thousands of abandoned wind turbines littering the U.S. (and a number of abandoned solar farms, too). There are several thousand turbines at one abandoned wind farm north of Los Angeles and another east of the Bay Area. There are many more in Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Texas and other states. Attorneys often warn landowners that lease agreements with wind developers are risky. There are a number of ways that crony wind developers impose “external costs” on landowners. Eventual disposal is a risk, as the developers might just be inclined to take the subsidies and run.

Again, wind’s big advantages, aside from the subsidies, are that wind itself is free and produces no carbon, but other resources needed to make use of wind energy are not renewable, and producing those inputs produces CO2. To build and install the windmills requires materials (including steel and scarce rare-earth materials used in the electronic components), machinery, and of course labor and land costs. There is also a substantial investment in connecting windmills to the power grid. Ultimate disposal is a certainty, and it is not cheap. Then there is a controversial cost in terms of slaughtered avian life. Increasingly, wind turbines are thought to create health issues for people living nearby.

Solar power has the same advantages as wind in terms of a free input and no direct carbon output. In addition, the cost of solar panels has declined precipitously. Rooftop solar installations have allowed consumers to sell power back to electric utilities at certain times. In fact, without those “reimbursements” on top of the subsidies, installed on-site solar power would not be economically viable for many households and businesses. Reimbursement rates are therefore a huge controversy. Solar advocates have insisted that consumers should be reimbursed at the retail price of electricity. That is difficult to square with the fact that utilities could produce that power themselves for much less. It is especially difficult to square with the fact that the excess solar generation is often mismatched with the timing of power demand.

This brings us to the achilles heel of wind and solar power: wind and sunshine are intermittent, and not just on a daily basis, but over weeks, whole seasons and even years. This risk can be diversified geographically, but only to an extent, and effective power storage options do not presently exist and will not exist for some time, even with massive subsidies. Intermittent energy production requires the availability of other reliable power sources that are costly to turn on and off as needs dictate. It requires other “peaking” capacity to fill the “valleys” in wind and solar output, and baseline capacity is needed to provide for the less variable components of demand. Baseline capacity relies on nuclear power (which many solar advocates abhor) and carbon-emitting fossil fuels. Peaking capacity is typically provided by oil and natural gas generators. Hydro-electric power can be used as baseline or dialed back as needed, but hydro capacity is generally limited.

Renewable energy activists speak of replacing traditional power sources with wind and solar power. It is difficult enough, however, for wind and solar to replace peaking capacity, let alone baseline capacity. Peak wind and solar power production is not well-aligned with peak power demand in many areas (see the second chart at this link). The extra resources required to provide redundant facilities are significant, with ratepayers picking up the tab.

Given the current state of technology, pushing renewable energy goals even further, to the replacement of baseline capacity, is misguided at best. Yet it has been tried, with unintended but easily foreseeable consequences. Germany’s Energiewende program seeks to “decarbonize” power production without nuclear power. The costs have been very high:

The report gives enough detail that you can see why Germany’s nuclear ban leads to a shocking cost of avoidance of $300 [/mt CO2]. … J.P. Morgan modeled a balanced deep decarbonization strategy, which using 35% nuclear, costs only $84/mt CO2. Note that the $300 is a bare-bones estimate – none of the cost of the additional transmission infrastructure required by high-renewables is included in the analysis. Even so the baseline Energiewende plan will double already second-highest in Europe current costs from $108 to $203/MWhr.

California officials apparently want to go in the same direction. John Peterson reinforces the difficulties of integrating renewable energy capacity into the power grid in a recent post at InvestorIntel:

The disadvantages [of intermittent power sources] include:

  • Intermittent power sources must have conventional backup for frequent periods when the wind and sun aren’t feeling particularly cooperative;
  • Cannibalization of peaking plant revenue streams results in higher electric costs for all because interest, depreciation, overhead and other fixed operating expenses must be recovered from fewer units of production;
  • When utilities pay premium prices for renewables, that indirectly increases electricity prices for all; and
  • When Federal, State and local treasuries subsidize the construction and operation of intermittent power sources, they indirectly increase everyone’s tax burden.

The U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is currently investigating the risk of intermittent energy sources to the reliability of the power grid.

Power demand is relatively predictable and conventional power plants, like nuclear plants and natural gas, can adjust output accordingly. Solar and wind power, however, cannot easily adjust output. Peak power demand also occurs in the evenings, when solar power is going offline. Adding green power which only provide power at intermittent and unpredictable times [and stopping or even retiring other capacity], makes the power grid more fragile.

Given decreasing costs, solar energy is likely to play an increasing role in power production in the future; wind production to a lesser extent. Both will depend on advances in the technology of power storage. However, there are still tremendous diseconomies that make current, widespread adoption of both wind and solar power a “Renewable Irony“. Like other attempts to centrally plan economic activity, the intentions are well and good, but execution requires mandated behavior and artificial inducements that impose heavy costs on society. Renewables should not be forced on us prematurely. They will happen voluntarily and naturally if we let them, guided by market signals as technology matures and resource scarcities evolve.