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Opinion: Reliable electric supply must come from multiple sources including natural gas, nuclear

By: Don Benjamin |

Many arguments for replacing our carbon-based fuels with wind and solar energy conveniently ignore the realities of energy storage technology, money, the weather and — most important — the need for a reliable electricity supply.

A case in point is the article by guest columnist Ellie Whitney, “The sooner we kick the dirty energy habit, the better” (March 12), which suggests we add four million wind turbines to our country’s to-do list. Expecting the whims of Mother Nature to completely meet our demand for a reliable electricity supply is to court a dangerous notion.

Do we need to move away from carbon-based fuels? Absolutely. The evidence that the Earth’s climate is changing is incontrovertible: Glaciers are receding, as is the Arctic Ocean’s ice cap, and average global temperatures are rising. Levels of carbon dioxide, which traps heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, have increased from 280 parts per million in pre-industrial times to 390 ppm today, and the increase is accelerating, so it’s likely that human activities are at least partially responsible.

Unless you’ve visited a large power plant (which I’ve done many times during my career) and watched the endless stream of coal feeding the furnace and the resulting fireball that turns water into steam for weeks on end, you have no appreciation for the amount of “stuff” we’re burning that creates tons of carbon dioxide. There are better ways to boil water.

That said, what’s too often missing from the green-energy debate is our expectation of a reliable source of electric energy. Theoretically, there’s plenty of sunshine and wind to provide all our energy needs, but they are not always available where and when we need them. The sun doesn’t shine at night, and the wind doesn’t always blow, and electricity storage isn’t even remotely available on the scale needed for grid reliability.

Yet our homes, businesses and factories demand electricity — lots of it — every second, and as an engineer by education and a power system professional for almost 40 years, I would never suggest we count on Mother Nature’s intermittent wind and sunshine alone to provide a reliable source of electricity. In fact, when electric utilities plan which generators to run the next day, they are careful to not overly rely on wind or solar generation in case Mother Nature suddenly changes her plans — as if she has any.

Ms. Whitney invites us to read the October 2009 article in Scientific American, “A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables,” by Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi, professors at Stanford University and the University of California. So I did. The article posits that “wind, water, and solar technologies can provide 100 percent of the world’s energy, eliminating all fossil fuels” by 2030, a claim I’d expect from two very smart professors who have nifty ideas but neither the experience nor the responsibility for keeping the nation’s lights on.

Unless we bring our electric utility engineers to the table, debates about moving to a carbon-free (or at least a “carbon-lite”) energy diet will continue to be conjecture without substance and wishful thinking devoid of reasonable expectations.

So, what do I suggest that will greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and be effective, reliable and affordable (yes, we do have to worry about money)?

First: Build solar and wind generation where it makes sense. New Jersey ranks second in solar energy generation. But homes covered with solar panels remain connected to the grid for electricity at night, during cloudy days and to fill the gaps between the home’s “real-time” electricity demand and the energy produced by the sun.

Wind turbines may be acceptable in rural areas and coastlines and, technically, they’re pretty neat (I’ve been inside one). But their 100-foot blades atop 300-foot towers are not silent and project long, moving shadows when the sun is low on the horizon.

Second: Continue to build natural gas-fired combined-cycle generators. These generators are up to 65 percent efficient, produce much less carbon dioxide than coal and provide the regulating capabilities we need to adjust our electricity supply minute by minute to meet the actual demand on the grid. We will always need this kind of control capability, and natural gas will most likely fill that niche for decades to come.

Third: Ramp up our nuclear generation capability. Nuclear generation emits no greenhouse gases and, for all intents and purposes, it is a renewable source. After incorporating the lessons from the 1979 Three Mile Island wake-up call, nuclear power plants in the United States are highly reliable. Newly designed, simpler, passively safe (do not rely on mechanical controls for shut-down) nuclear reactors are within sight.

Reducing significantly our carbon footprint over the next two decades is very do-able, but we have to manage our expectations. Mother Nature visited her power on New Jersey when Hurricane Sandy brought down our electric lines. But that inconvenience will pale in comparison to the long-term, widespread effects of an unreliable electricity generation supply that depends too heavily on Mother Nature’s unpredictable antics. Just because we can build lots of wind turbines and solar panels doesn’t mean we should.

Now retired, Don Benjamin was executive director of the nonprofit North American Transmission Forum.