Brownback's Mountains

Brownback's Mountains

July 30, 2010
Originally published in The National Review Online

It looked like we had dodged a bullet. With an election looming, Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) decided that a provision requiring a minimum of 15 percent renewable-energy generation nationwide by 2020 was too controversial to include in the so-called energy bill he introduced this week. Sen. Sam Brownback (R., Kans.), in an effort to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, announced that he would introduce such a measure, known as a renewable-electricity standard (RES), as an amendment to Reid’s bill. A top-down renewable-energy mandate might aid Kansas’s wind industry, but it’s definitely bad for America. There are many reasons to oppose this measure. Here are five of them:

It’s a budget-buster. A renewable-electricity standard would guarantee tremendous demand for renewable energy on top of very generous taxpayer subsidies. According to our back-of-the-envelope calculation, a 15 percent RES would cost taxpayers almost $13 billion a year. That’s a lot of money to pay for the privilege of being forced to use energy from expensive and unreliable sources.

It compromises the grid. From an engineer’s perspective, renewable energy is a nightmare that threatens the integrity of the electric grid. At any given moment, the total power going into the system must equal the power leaving it. If this balance were to be upset, the consequences for the grid would be catastrophic. This delicate balance would be difficult, if not impossible, to maintain with the introduction of large amounts of intermittent renewable energy — after all, the wind doesn’t always blow, and the sun doesn’t always shine. According to a new report from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation on the challenge presented by adding green energy to the grid, “not all the potential effects on the reliability of the bulk power system are known.” Therefore, an RES would increase the risks of brownouts and power outages.

It’s unfair. Twenty-four states have already passed an RES, but that is not an argument in favor of a federal RES. The RES states tend to have a much higher potential for renewable energy, less-energy-intensive manufacturing, or both. In those that do have considerable manufacturing, the effect of adopting an RES has been to raise electricity prices and push manufacturing into states or countries with lower electricity prices. A federal RES would cripple states with low electricity prices and proportionately lower renewable-energy potential, such as those in the industrial heartland. It would force them to raise electricity prices to a level that would pressure their industries to move overseas to countries with cheaper energy rates and no renewable portfolio standards.

It results in more pollution. The point of an RES is to increase green-energy production; yet ironically, such a mandate would also increase pollution. In order to accommodate intermittent renewable energy and still keep the lights on, it is necessary to have ever-ready backup power that can quickly ramp either up or down to ensure that the total power going into the grid matches the power that is leaving it. This technique is known as “cycling.” In practice, this backup power is provided by natural gas and coal. Unfortunately, such conventional generating technologies are at their least efficient — and therefore at their most polluting — during those periods when power is ramped up and down. In a recent study of RES effects in Texas and Colorado, Bentek Energy LLC found that this dynamic led to an increase in sulfur-dioxide, nitrous-oxide, and carbon-dioxide emissions.

It’s bad economics. There’s a reason the federal government has to force utilities to use more green energy: In most places, the use of such energy just doesn’t make sense, even when it is subsidized by generous taxpayer handouts. To date, utilities have relied almost exclusively on wind power to meet RES requirements. According to the Energy Information Administration’s projection of electricity costs, in 2016 wind will be nearly 50 percent more expensive than coal and nearly 80 percent more expensive than natural gas. Thermal solar is projected to be 150 percent more expensive than coal, and 200 percent more expensive than gas. Expensive energy is the last thing our sputtering economy needs.

Even the Senate leadership realizes that Americans are averse to anything that raises energy prices, especially in the current economic environment. For Senator Brownback to propose this awful idea now shows a woeful lack of judgment. His colleagues should help him climb down from this mountain. It’s much harder to dodge a bullet when you’ve put the gun to your own head.