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Commentary Energy & Environment

Opinion: If the Goal Is Zero, a Renewable Portfolio Standard Is Naive

Energy technologies need to fit together to configure systems that deliver reliable affordable electric power when and where it is needed. In choosing a system design, stakeholders must evaluate whole system configurations to decide which technologies are useful, which are not.

Jesse D. Jenkins reviewed 40 system studies published since 2014 and found “… strong agreement in the literature that reaching near-zero emissions is much more challenging – and requires a different set of resources – than comparatively modest emission reductions (e.g. CO2 reductions of 50 to 70 percent).” What this means is that if zero greenhouse gas emission is important, the lowest cost solution may be to discard the technologies that were chosen to get the first 50 percent.

Society knows how to design systems. Engineers routinely build skyscrapers, bridges, massive military systems and marvelous Mars rovers. The same rational development approach is the quickest way to transition to reliable, affordable electric power with zero greenhouse gas emissions.

The replacement of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge is a good example of a three-step process.

State executives decided it was time to replace the bridge and set an immutable performance goal: the new bridge will handle so much traffic of different types. The executives then hired engineers to quantify the choices: high bridge, low bridge, drawbridge and tunnel. The engineers assessed the cost and risk of various options and recommended a tunnel. Stakeholders, through a multiyear political process, choose a drawbridge. $2.5 billion then produced a drawbridge, and everyone is content.

The rational three-step process is: set the goal; quantify the system options; choose one.

We stipulate that the electric power goal should be zero greenhouse gas emissions. A clean grid enables an electrification strategy (electric vehicles) to work. Zero greenhouse gas is a performance goal; it says what to do, not how to do it. It is also immutable. Fossil fuel is a finite resource, so sooner or later civilization will need reliable affordable electric power without fossil fuel. One value of an immutable performance goal is that it clarifies what to avoid: do not deploy technology that interferes with zero greenhouse gas emissions.

Given a zero greenhouse gas goal, the next step is to quantify the system options. In the engineering world this is a technology agnostic task called a concept definition study. We know the technologies (nuclear, hydro, solar, wind, storage, sequestration). The question is what are the different ways that these technologies can fit together to form reliable systems?

A concept model starts with a blank sheet of paper, ignores existing infrastructure and configures different whole system configurations. Then the cost/performance/risk of each system is compared. What do the numbers say? Based on these fact-based options, stakeholders can make the political choices, a technology preference and an affordable pace. Pace is a stakeholder choice, a balance between cost and risk, both climate risk and development risk.

Stakeholders can rationally choose whatever whole system configuration they want, after they see the numbers. Since the states are committing the resources for new generation, the states are responsible for clarifying the system choices.

Without the discipline to first quantify the choices, serious mistakes are inevitable.

While activists want action now, they have no experience upon which to base judgments of danger and risk. High electricity prices can cause the public to balk, to refuse additional investment and the clean energy transition stalls. This is happening around the world today. Germany seems to have become a long-term polluter. While Ontario, Canada, succeeded in cleaning up its power grid, the province now consumes only one-third of their wind-generated electricity.

The quickest path to zero greenhouse gas is to engineer the system: set the goal; define the options; then make the political choices. A renewable portfolio standard bypasses the first two steps and makes an uninformed bet on the solution.

This is not how mature societies build infrastructure.


The writer is a professional engineer who has led the successful development of major new military systems. He is a former president of a solar collector development company. He is now the chairman of the Future of Energy Initiative.


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