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Are Renewable Energy Mandates Feasible in Large-Scale Implementation?

Are Renewable Energy Mandates Feasible in Large-Scale Implementation?, Matt Brinkman

The Hawaiian state legislature wants to reach 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. California recently announced its plan to have 100 percent reliance on zero-emission energy sources for its electricity by that same year.

Are these lofty goals feasible? Are these aggressive mandates the best way to move toward a renewable future?

I know solar. I am “the solar guy” for Burns & McDonnell, which engineers and constructs large solar farms for utilities. I have worked on the largest solar projects in North America.

I believe in renewable energy and sustainability. I have two young daughters, and I believe we have an obligation to them, their generation and future generations to minimize our impact on our planet. It seems like it should be a no-brainer for me to support state initiatives mandating the use of renewable energy.

But it is not that simple. I understand how utilities operate.

Solar is currently cost-competitive with traditional fossil fuels. The problem is that the solar capacity is only about 25 percent. That means of the 8,760 hours in each year, a solar plant would operate only about a quarter of those, whereas a traditional coal plant would operate about 95 percent of the time. So an investment in solar nets about a quarter of the energy output of a traditional fossil plant. Thus we would need to build about four times the solar capacity (in megawatts) to generate the same energy (in megawatt-hours).

Solar energy is only produced during daylight hours. If we want to keep the lights on at night, the addition of this amount of renewable capacity would require new storage projects to allow a time shift between when the energy is produced (during the day) and when it is needed (at peak hours and at night); or the construction of more fossil-fired peaking generation. We would need to construct energy storage projects to store about 50 percent of the total energy load to provide 100 percent of a market’s energy from renewable sources.

This does not even address the cost of existing power plants currently in operation, which are still in the utilities’ rate base.

Who pays for these new solar, storage and peaking projects? The consumers.

Utilities are allowed to obtain rate recovery on capital projects, which means they are allowed to increase the rates you pay to cover the cost of new generation projects.

As a dad, I am extremely interested in seeing states take action to protect the future my daughters will live in. If we don’t take action, the ensuing environmental catastrophe will have untold costs and burdens on their generation.

That said, I also want to protect my girls from unnecessary financial burden. Environmental protection is a global issue, and a more gradual transition to renewable energy — allowing technology to catch up — might be a better answer.

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Matt Brinkman
Written by Matt Brinkman
Matt Brinkman is solar business unit manager and regional energy practice manager in Phoenix for Burns & McDonnell. He leads a multidisciplinary team of engineers and designers specializing in capital and O&M projects at existing power plants and utility-scale solar plants.

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