PV vs. T-Rex

The exponential expansion of renewable energy already is having an impact on the fossil fuels industry, which is reconsidering some mega-projects now on the drawing boards. Although wind and solar power still account for a relatively small percentage of electricity generation worldwide, the rapid growth of renewables also is causing some unexpected disruptions for utilities due to fluctuations in the availability of these alternative energy sources, which depend on natural conditions and create electricity that in most places can’t be stored for use on windless days or for peak demand at night.

renewable energyLater this year, one of the largest natural gas pipeline projects ever built finally will be completed. The 1,698-mile Rockies Express Pipeline spans eight states, from northwestern Colorado and Wyoming to eastern Ohio. The 42-inch-diameter pipe has the capacity to carry 37 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year, gas that is moved across the country under a maximum allowable operating pressure of 1,480 pounds per square inch.

Construction on the $6-billion Rockies Express (known as REX) began in 2009; this fall, the final phase of the mammoth pipeline system will be brought on line—an 8.3-billion-cubic-meters capacity expansion of REX’s eastern segment, known as Zone 3. Zone 3 is a 638-mile leg of the system that connects Audrain County, MO to Clarington in Monroe County, OH. The expansion will permit bi-directional gas flow in Midwest markets, giving local distribution companies, industrial customers, power plants and third-party pipelines in the region access to natural gas sources in the Rockies and Appalachian basins.

This week, Houston-based pipeline giant Kinder Morgan Inc., once a part-owner and operator of REX [KM divested REX in 2012; REX is now owned by Tallgrass Energy Partners], indicated that the days of mega-pipeline projects may be coming to an end. Allen Fore, vice president of public affairs for Kinder Morgan, told an energy forum at the Columbus Metropolitan Club that large projects like REX are no longer the focus of major energy titans like KM.

“I think in the industry we’re realizing the changing energy landscape and are developing projects to be more specific to needs of customers,” Fore said, as reported by Columbus Business First. “You’re probably not going to see the mega-projects from a natural-gas perspective that you may have seen 10 years ago.”

Energy generation is more fluid and fragmented, he said, so the focus is turning to incremental projects that serve a specific purpose or customer like a utility. Fore was responding to a question about whether it’s viable for renewable energy to make up 100 percent of a power user’s portfolio.

Wind and solar currently make up a combined 5.3 percent of power generation nationwide, a share that’s expected to rapidly grow as renewables continue to become a cost-effective alternative to fossil fuels. However, Fore noted that natural gas and coal each provide a third of the power generated in the U.S. According to the Columbus Business First report, he maintained that natural gas will “play a very important and necessary role both in the short and long term,” adding that even when storage methods for renewable energy are developed, natural gas will act as the backup.

Countries and utilities around the world that are in the process of planning their future energy mix are beginning to reach the same conclusion that Fore expressed in his talk in Columbus: anyone who thinks the power-generating system built around fossil fuels can be completely dismantled in the transition to a green energy future is ignoring the weaknesses of a system that relies completely on renewables. To put it another way, the Holy Grail of environmentalists—conversion to 100-percent renewable energy—is a bit of a pipe dream.

The rapid growth of renewable energy worldwide already is having unexpected consequences. As this is being written, the on-again, off-again nature of solar and wind power is forcing countries and their utilities to adjust plans to phase out fossil-fuel energy capacity.

According to a report in The New York Times, Germany—Europe’s leader in the push to convert to renewables—is having second thoughts about the speed of the transition. Germany recently eliminated an open-ended subsidy for solar and wind power and put a ceiling on additional renewable capacity; both policies reportedly were enacted to slow the burst of renewable energy onto Germany’s power grid. Germany also has quietly dropped its timetable to end coal-fired power generation (coal currently accounts for 40 percent of Germany’s electricity) and now intends to provide billions in subsidies to keep coal generators in reserve to provide emergency power at times when the wind doesn’t gust or the sun isn’t shining.

The Times reports that renewables are producing temporary power gluts in California and Australia, crippling traditional energy sources that are still needed to maintain a stable power supply. Wind power now supplies more than a quarter of the electricity in Southern Australia, but spikes in the price of electricity when the wind occasionally dies down has induced the state government to ask a local power company to switch back on a gas-fired plant that had been shut down.

Energy industry experts say that even when storage of electricity generated from renewable energy becomes feasible, renewable power capacity will need to be overbuilt to account for power needs after the sun goes down.

The growth of renewables also is threatening the energy mix some countries are counting on to meet their commitments to reduce carbon emissions under the Paris Climate Change agreement. The rise of renewables is a factor pushing nuclear power—the primary source of zero-carbon electricity in the U.S.—into bankruptcy. An analysis by Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimated that nuclear reactors that produce 56 percent of the country’s nuclear power would be unprofitable over the next three years. If those were to shut down and be replaced with gas-fired generators, an additional 200 million tons of carbon dioxide would be spewed into the atmosphere every year.

In New York, concern that the impending shutdown of three upstate reactors would imperil climate change mitigation reportedly persuaded Gov. Andrew Cuomo to extend subsidies to the nuke plants comparable to those given to renewables.

We’ll take a moment here to note that the concerns expressed above are being amplified by the industries that are being squeezed out by the growth of renewables: the fossil fuel energy producers and the nuclear power industry. But that doesn’t mean these concerns can be ignored in the rush to expand the percentage of electricity generated by renewables.

Let’s hope the new smart grids are being built by people smart enough to anticipate all of the complexities that must be addressed as we transition from a carbon-based system to something much cleaner. One thing is certain: we’re all running out of time to figure this out. Conversion to an efficient green power system may take decades, but climate change already has arrived.