Michael Sadler: The continued importance of green energy

November 4, 2012 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

Michael Sadler.

Michael Sadler.

Green energy has become a political hot topic in this presidential election year. As I have stated before, energy is something we don’t think about until we don’t have it (e.g., an electrical power outage) or becomes expensive (present gasoline prices, particularly in California).

I am a proponent of green energy, but let me first acknowledge the validity of many of the objections. Wind and solar power are intermittent and cannot satisfy the bulk of our needs at present. They require large land areas and improved transmission capacity from remote areas to the population centers. With current prices for natural gas and coal, it would be cheaper, more reliable, and simpler to stamp out a dozen or so conventional power plants in Texas than to deal with the headaches incurred by increasing the mix of green power into our energy diet. The big objection that’s getting a lot of political attention is the federal money that goes to loan guarantees, tax credits, or subsidies.

So, why bother? The price of natural gas is low at present (around $3 per thousand cubic feet), but there are no guarantees for the future. The average price from 2000 to 2010 was around $6, with spikes over $10. New power plants are predominantly gas burners and trucks, buses and even automobiles are starting to use it. It’s not renewable. I am skeptical of estimates that new extraction techniques (hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling) will supply our needs for 100 years, particularly as our utilization of it increases.

Wind energy has become a significant player in the Texas energy mix. I was surprised to read in the Reporter-News last month that we are up to 8.5 percent of the electricity in Texas being generated by wind. That’s an 8.5 percent reduction in pollution (particularly from coal burners) and extends our fossil fuel reserves. Some object to the 2.2 cents/kWh production tax credit that has been provided to producers of wind energy. Renewal of the tax credit for turbines built after the end of this year is in jeopardy.

In my opinion, 2.2 cents is a small price to pay for something that is already producing benefits, looks to the future, has great potential, and has contributed so much to a depressed economy. It should be noted that this benefit is not a government payment or a loan guarantee. The credit is for electrical energy that is actually produced for 10 years after a turbine is built. It is an attempt to help wind energy become competitive and to diversify our energy infrastructure. T. Boone Pickens has stated that electricity produced from wind is competitive with natural gas at $6. I would bet on the future cost of wind energy to come down and the price of natural gas to go up. It’s just a matter of time until we again have supply shortages of natural gas.

We need a similar program for electricity from photovoltaic solar cells. I am considering installing solar panels to my south-sloping roof. It’s expensive ($5-$6 per watt) but I calculate a payback time of about 15 years. At least one new company in the Abilene area offers photovoltaic solar panels that integrate into the grid and an established air conditioning company provides a solar option for new units. In the event that the panels produce more power than is being consumed the excess is actually returned to the grid (the meter runs backward), so the user pays only for the net energy used. There is a high correlation between demand and supply since the energy grid is usually at its limit on hot, sunny summer afternoons when solar energy is most available.

Development of wind and solar energy is an investment in the future. We have a way to go before we reach the 20 percent level that is sometimes quoted as the maximum that the grid can rely on intermittent sources.

This fraction may increase as weather and the demand become more predictable. We wouldn’t be where we are without the tax credit. I don’t buy into the current bashing of green energy.

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