With New Energy Reality, the game has changed. Solar and wind alone cannot meet the growing demand for electricity.
The demand for electricity in the US has not changed significantly in the past two decades. One reason is the increased energy efficiency. The number of electronic devices has increased; However, each device uses less power. The demand for electricity from industrial customers is also slowly falling. However, if current climate policy proposals – electric vehicles and 100 percent electric households – are adopted, electricity demand has the potential to increase sharply.
Various organizations predict a significant increase in electricity demand by 2050 when US consumers switch from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles. Additionally, some analysts predict that if most homeowners switch from natural gas to electric heating, electricity production will have to increase from 50 percent to 100 percent. In this case, the network that transports the electricity needs to be expanded considerably. A 50 percent increase in electricity generation from wind and solar energy is almost impossible.
If the demand for electricity increases by 50 to 100 percent, then we have to think about a reliable supply. This does not include wind or sun. Our base load power generation must be reliable and affordable. Natural gas was the most recent choice and is responsible for the decrease in carbon dioxide emissions in the US. In my opinion, switching to small modular reactors is the optimal choice.
Europe is currently providing an important case study on why the expansion of renewable energies can fail energy security and energy consumers. Renewable energies are boom and bust sources of energy. In some moments they can deliver far more power than you need and then disappear for hours, days or even weeks if the weather doesn’t cooperate. In the UK, where tens of billions of dollars have been spent building offshore wind turbines, there is often little wind in the North Sea. Despite huge investments in renewable energy, the UK is relying almost entirely on fossil fuels and nuclear power to keep the lights on. With much of the generating fleet unavailable, UK electricity prices are skyrocketing.
Sky-high natural gas prices aren’t helping either, but with the British shutting down almost all of the country’s coal capacity – which a decade ago still met 40 percent of its electricity needs – there’s no cheaper source of fuel to absorb the shock. Consumers are slamming and there is real concern that the grid will run out this winter. The story is similar in continental Europe. We don’t want similar results in the US
The U.S. has a diverse mix of reliable power generation – natural gas, coal, and nuclear – along with conventional hydropower, which provides about 86 percent of U.S. electricity generation.These generation technologies are the core strengths of the U.S. electricity industry that make our economics and living standards, that we expect. Any suggestion to switch to a wind and sun dominated system is irresponsible.
Together with their unreliability, wind and solar energy remain marginal players in the country’s electricity mix, producing only 8 and 4 percent of the country’s electricity, respectively. Attempting to ramp up these power sources at the speed and magnitude suggested by some not only poses technical challenges to the grid, but also comes up against practical challenges.
Solar and wind projects, as well as transmission lines needed to connect them to population centers, have even met resistance from environmental groups, the groups who claim that reducing carbon emissions should be the country’s top priority. It is time to rethink nuclear power, especially the small modular reactors (SMR). The liquid fuel designs, particularly the liquid fluoride thorium design of the reactor, have the potential to meet a significant portion of our energy needs in the future and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, SMRs can be placed at decommissioned coal-fired power plant sites, minimizing the need for additional transmission lines.
Today, NIMBYism is widespread, particularly in New England, where attempts to build new wind turbines and solar parks are met with fierce opposition from people who consider them unsightly and a threat to property value. The industrialization of once untouched areas is a political hurdle that cannot be overlooked.
These realities – technical, political and practical – underscore that we need practical approaches to meet energy needs while reducing CO2 emissions. We must be aggressive to reduce emissions, but we cannot enforce arbitrary targets that threaten affordability, weaken our energy security and undermine grid reliability. Given the potential increase in electricity demand from the electric vehicle revolution, now is the time to start thinking about how we can strengthen, not weaken, the grid. When it comes to the power system, there is nothing more important than energy reliability.
Dan Ervin, PhD, is Professor of Finance in the Perdue School of Business at Salisbury University.