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Large-Scale Green Power: An Impossible Dream?

Chasing after windmills and photovoltaics could well be the stuff of fiction.
Fortnightly Magazine - January 1 2003

far from the major contribution that many proponents hope for.

How does all of this add up? If the United States were decide to use wind and/or photovoltaics for a major fraction of U.S. electric power, the storage approach would be required. The resulting cost for electric power would then be five to 10 times or more expensive than quoted. If we were to use fossil-fueled power plants as the backbone of a "solar supplement" power-on-demand system, the contributions from wind or photovoltaics would be maybe 20-30 percent, which is far from the 100 percent sustainable renewables future that many were hoping for. Furthermore, the solar supplement approach will happen only with major cost reductions in photovoltaic and wind systems, along with investments in conventional power plants and controls that would allow hybrids to operate compatibly, considering the intermittent nature of wind and PV generation.

Returning to the issue of the low levels of wind-generated electricity being absorbed on today's power grid, this analysis demonstrates that the current situation is really one in which power plants on the grid are being throttled back to "make room" for the trickle of wind energy. Those throttle-backs cost us all and must be included in calculating the current cost of wind energy. If the calculations were done properly, the costs of current wind energy would be different than most people currently believe.

This whole matter is an important national issue, because a number of policy-makers are setting policy based on the expectation that wind and photovoltaics will provide a major portion of future U.S. energy supply because they are clean and will be inexpensive. What's needed is an unbiased, expert evaluation of the situation. In the view of this observer, the most believable evaluation would come from an independent committee of commercially experienced engineers empanelled by the National Research Council of the National Academies.

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  2. DOE. Wind Energy Information Guide. DOE/NREL. April 1996.
  3. EIA. Renewable Energy Issues & Trends 2000. DOE/EIA-0628(2000). February 2001.
  4. National Research Council. Renewable Pathways. National Academy Press. 2000.
  5. Johansson, T.B. et al. Renewable Energy - Sources for Fuels and Electricity. Island Press. 1993.
  6. Hirsch, R. Renewable Energy in Perspective. The Energy Daily. December 19, 1995.
  7. EPRI/DOE. Renewable Energy Technology Characterizations. EPRI TR-109496. December 1997.
  8. Zweibel, K. Harnessing Solar Power-The Photovoltaics Challenge. Plenum Press. 1990.
  9. Holtberg, P. D. et al. GRI Baseline Projection Data Book. Gas Research Institute. GRI-01/002.1. March 2001.
  10. Holtberg, P.D. Private Communication. June 2002.

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