Carbon-free energy and reliable electric service are like cookies and ice cream; while they’re good on their own, they’re better together. Those who say otherwise about reliability – mainly opponents of the Clean Power Plan to cut power plant pollution – ignore some simple facts.
More than half of U.S. states have a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) to require utilities over time to provide increasing levels of power supplied from renewable energy, like wind and solar, to their customers.
If voluntary energy standards are included, the count is three-quarters of the states. This means that only 12 states lack any sort of a policy to encourage the use of renewable energy in providing electricity services.
However, the important point, at least in terms of electric service reliability, is not how many states do or do not have renewable energy policies, but how those states are doing when it comes to utility customers getting dependable electric service.
Clean power is reliable power
Here’s what you need to know: None of these states have had a reliability problem as a result of a higher use of renewable, carbon-free power rather than conventional pollution resources like coal and natural gas. Opponents of the Clean Power Plan tend to ignore this simple fact. In other words, increasing renewable energy to the relatively modest levels contemplated in the Clean Power Plan is completely consistent with reliable service.
Facts on the ground prove it
California has one of the strongest RPS targets. It calls for the state to derive 33 percent of the energy it consumes from renewable resources by 2020. The state’s three biggest utilities, which serve 75 percent of the state, report they are already close to meeting the state’s goal. In fact, they say they are ahead of schedule and have reached renewable energy levels ranging from 24 percent to 32 percent, and the lights are still on.
“We have not experienced any significant reliability challenges, or market disruptions, associated with our carbon programs and pricing efforts,” says Michael Gibbs, assistant executive officer of California’s Air Resources Board (which oversees implementation of the state’s clean energy programs).
Colorado takes a slightly different approach, holding investor-owned utilities to the state’s highest standard – 30 percent renewable energy by 2020 – with lower targets for cooperative and municipal utilities, ranging from 10 to 20 percent by 2020.
As in California, Colorado’s main investor-owned utilities are also well on their way to meeting the state’s targets. For example, Xcel Energy operates one of the two investor-owned utilities that serve Colorado, and it is a large purchaser of wind power.
Frank P. Prager, the company’s vice president of policy strategy, says Xcel has reduced carbon emissions by 20 percent since 2005 and is on track to reach 31 percent by 2020 “while ensuring a safe and reliable electric system and maintaining electricity rates in all our operating regions below the national average.”
In fact, Xcel set a record for peak wind power production by supplying 61 percent of its Colorado energy demand from wind in late 2014. High levels of instantaneous wind power output have been reached in Texas (40 percent), the Great Plains-centered Southwest Power Pool (37 percent), and the Upper Midwest (25 percent), and they all occurred without any reliability problems.
Those records illustrate an important point, which is that the grid can handle much higher levels of zero-carbon wind and solar power than are necessary to achieve the carbon emission reductions in the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan to limit pollution from power plants.
That same conclusion was reiterated in a report by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, which found that there are already higher levels of renewable power than the proposed Clean Power Plan anticipates “with no negative impacts on reliability.”
A more reliable future
Opponents of the Clean Power Plan, in fact, miss the wider point that renewables and efficiency have the potential to increase grid reliability—making sure electricity reaches our homes and businesses—through:
- Proven wind energy technology that can now provide grid reliability services.
- Reduced fuel supply risks – such as lack of rail cars to transport coal and high-cost or simply unavailable natural gas to power plants.
- Dispersed power– like rooftop solar and clusters of wind turbines spread across large areas, reduces the potential for reliability issues in the event of severe weather.
- More dispersed power also reduces the need for expensive backup power that must remain ready in case large power plants fail.
- Energy efficiency, also known as smarter energy use, reduces the need for any new power and is extremely reliable.
Bottom line is, as a recent study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found, clean and more efficient power would make the grid more resilient and reliable. At this point we can’t afford not to make these investments in our energy future. After all, who doesn’t like cookies and ice cream?