Renewable energy is so cheap they must force you to buy it (but won't buy it themselves)

Apr 10, 2019

The head of the Environmental Studies department at Gonzaga, professor Brian Henning, believes the state legislature should force Washington residents to buy 100% renewable energy by 2045. The arguments he made in the Spokane Spokesman-Review to support this position include claims that are inaccurate and some wishful thinking.

Here are four (among many) claims worth correcting.

Talk is cheaper than renewable energy

Henning claims, “Already, 114 cities, including Spokane, have pledged to pursue 100 percent clean, renewable energy.” These cities, however, don’t have to pledge. They can do it now. Every city, business, and person can buy renewable energy credits (RECs) – like I do – and be 100% renewable today.

If Spokane, Gonzaga University, or Professor Henning believes in renewable energy, why promise to do it someday in the future when they can do it now? Currently Gonzaga buys RECs to cover 44 percent of its electricity use. Many who support renewable energy don’t spend their own money to buy it.

Can we go 100% renewable today?

Henning also claims that, “modern grid management, energy efficiency and energy storage technologies are already adequate to complement renewable resources.” Is going 100% renewable “already” possible thanks to batteries and grid management?

To answer this question, we can look at the leader in renewables: California. On the day Professor Henning’s editorial was published, March 29, California reached its peak electricity demand at 8 pm. Wind accounted for only 12.7 percent of the energy. Solar power for 0.02 percent of total energy. Batteries weren’t being used at all. The most battery power was used an hour later, when it supplied 0.4 percent of the state’s electricity.

What made up the rest? Natural gas and hydro provided about 18 percent each. Imports – energy from other states with less restrictive rules – accounted for 36 percent of energy. When California needs energy, it doesn’t turn to renewables. It turns to imports from other states, hydro, and natural gas. “Grid management” means buying electricity from places that don’t have California’s rules.

Claiming that storage and grid management are “already adequate” to complement intermittent renewables is simply nonsense, even in the state that has been most aggressive about installing (and paying for) renewables.

It is also worth noting that to reach that amount of renewable energy, California pays an average of 16.06 cents per kilowatt hour – more than twice what we pay in Washington state.

It won’t cost us that much, right?

Henning promises, however, that going to 100% renewable won’t cost us much at all. He says the legislation has a “carefully crafted cost cap which guarantees that transition costs can’t exceed 2 percent annually.”  He goes on to claim, “the cost of solar and wind energy is already less than that of the fossil fuels they would replace.”

It is obvious there is something wrong with this argument because it amounts to, “renewables are the cheapest energy available, which is why we must force you to buy them.” If renewables were cheap, there would be no need for the law.

The problem is that renewables are, and will continue to be, more expensive than natural gas or coal. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that for new energy production entering service in 2023, natural gas energy would cost about $46 per megawatt hour (MWh). By way of comparison, wind would cost 22 percent more, at $56/MWh and solar 30 percent more at 60/MWh. That’s in 2023 with another four years of technology improvement. Far from being cost competitive today, renewables still won’t be cost competitive in 2023.

The promise of a cost cap is also dubious. The previous renewable requirement, Initiative 937, had a cost cap. That, however, did not prevent Seattle City Light’s residential rates from doubling in the last eight years.

Second, even if the cost cap was strictly enforced, a two percent per year limit still increases costs more than 50 percent on top of other cost drivers. This isn’t a two-percent cap for total cost. It is a two-percent cap for just one cost driver.

Are we, in fact, all going to die?

Henning justifies all this by telling us we are living on the brink of catastrophe. “Scientists’ best estimate,” he claims, “is that we could possibly withstand up to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius). Beyond that, the consequences would be catastrophic…”

Catastrophic? What would 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels look like in Spokane? Well, it looks like 2016. Average high temperatures were about 2 degrees C more than temperatures in the early 1900s. This is just three years ago, and yet it isn’t even memorable as a hot year, let alone catastrophic.

He’s also wrong about what “scientists” say. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who created the report the professor obliquely references, is uncertain about total costs of going beyond 2 degrees C and says nothing at all about the cost to keep temperature increases below 2 degrees C. The IPCC admits, “literature on total mitigation costs of 1.5°C mitigation pathways is limited and was not assessed in this Report.”

Someone who has looked at the cost to achieve that 2 degree C target, and won a Nobel Prize in economics for it, is William Nordhaus. In his Nobel lecture, Nordhaus analyzes the costs and benefits of meeting various temperature targets. He finds that keeping temperatures under 2 degrees C by 2100 would cost about three times as much as the benefits. Keeping temperatures under 1.5 degrees C would cost about ten times as much as the benefits. In other words, policies designed to limit climate change to 2 degrees C would do significantly more harm than good.

Finally, a 100% renewable mandate is a poor way to reduce CO2 emissions and wastes money that could be used more effectively. The Low Carbon Prosperity Institute estimated the costs of the 100% renewable requirement just through 2030, and found it would cost 12 to 18 times as much to reduce CO2 that way compared to other methods available on the carbon market. The second phase, from 2030 to 2045, would be even less effective. Put another way, for every $10 ratepayers spend getting to mostly renewable energy in 2030, we get about 55 cents worth of CO2 reduction.

Is climate change serious or not?

There is too often a dichotomy between people who say climate change is potentially “catastrophic” and the policies they advocate. Those who believe climate change is a crisis should demand the maximum environmental benefit for every dollar spent. Instead, some colleges and universities are teaching students to choose symbolic efforts that cost a lot but do little.