NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 28, 2009

Solar cells and wind turbines are appealing because they are "renewables" without promising implications and because they emit no carbon dioxide.  But both are intermittent electric power generators; they cannot produce electricity "on demand."  Nevertheless, solar and wind energy seem to have captured the public's support as potentially being the primary or total answer to our electric power needs, say James Schlesinger, the first secretary of energy, and Robert Hirsch, senior energy adviser at Management Information Services Inc.

If large-scale electric energy storage were viable, intermittency would be less of a problem.  However, large-scale electric energy storage is possible only in the few locations where there are hydroelectric dams, say Schlesinger and Hirsch:

  • But when we use hydroelectric dams for electric energy storage, we reduce their electric power output, which would otherwise have been used by consumers.
  • At locations without such dams, solar and wind electricity systems must be backed up 100 percent by other forms of generation to ensure against blackouts; that power comes only from fossil fuels.
  • Because of this need for full fossil fuel backup, the public will pay a large premium for solar and wind and again for fossil fuel; thus, the total cost of such a system includes the cost of the solar and wind machines, their subsidies, and the cost of the full backup power system running in "spinning reserve."

Moreover, since solar and wind conditions are most favorable in the Southwest and the center of the country, costly transmission lines will be needed to move that lower-cost solar and wind energy to population centers on the coasts.

Furthermore, solar and wind will probably only provide a modest percentage of future U.S. power.  Some serious realism in energy planning is needed, preferably from analysts who are not backing one horse or another, say Schlesinger and Hirsch.

Source: James Schlesinger and Robert L. Hirsch, "Getting Real on Wind and Solar," Washington Post, April 24, 2009.

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