On renewable energy, Muth misses mark
April 17, 2013
Chuck Muth's column about NV Energy's proposal to shutter its coal-burning power plants was a predictable mixture of spin and insult. I'll let the insult go by, but I can correct the false impressions he gave about renewable energy.
Muth attacks renewable energy on two grounds: cost and reliability.
I'm going to start out by agreeing with him — sort of. When the sun doesn't shine and the wind doesn't blow, we're not generating electricity from the sun and the wind. But Muth forgets two things.
"First, geothermal energy. To talk about renewable energy in Nevada without mentioning geothermal energy is like talking about Saudi Arabia without mentioning oil. Geothermal energy provides over 60 percent of renewable power generation in Nevada. NV Energy buys electricity from 21 geothermal power plants throughout northern Nevada — including seven in the Steamboat area of south Reno that together produce enough electricity to power all the homes in Reno."
The really important point about geothermal power that Muth misses is that it is baseload power. Geothermal power plants function 24/7. In fact, they're better than oil or gas because you don't have to buy fuel for them. Geothermal is reliable, homegrown Nevada power.
In a lecture at the State Museum a couple of weeks ago, Nevada's state geologist, Dr. James Faulds, said he thinks we have enough geothermal resources in Nevada to power the whole state and export electricity to neighboring states.
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Second, Muth forgets that the electrical grid can be managed to compensate for fluctuating power from sun and wind.
Other countries have higher percentages of electricity from renewables than Nevada does — Iceland (85.3 percent), New Zealand (38.6 percent) and Norway (37.3 percent) among them. Electrical grid operators in these countries know how to integrate these levels of renewable energy into a mix of resources so the grid operates smoothly and effectively; we can do the same.
Muth says ratepayers are likely to see "electric rates jump at 3.84 percent a year." NV Energy estimates the additional cost to the ratepayer would be 0.15 percent each year above what the rates would be if the company kept the coal plants going. This means that after 20 years, on a $100 electricity bill a ratepayer will see an additional $4 cost if this proposal is put into effect.
And I think NV Energy is overestimating the future cost of renewables and underestimating the cost of coal. In the past five years the cost of solar panels has dropped 80 percent, and it's still dropping. With geothermal energy, one of the biggest costs is exploration — efficiently finding reliable sources of hot water — and Nevada geologists are working on ways to pinpoint resources that should result in decreased exploration costs.
Muth says coal is cheap. Maybe it is now, but here's what NV Energy lobbyist Pete Ernaut said in a Senate hearing last week: "We assume the price of coal will increase with all the legislative and regulatory pressures it's under. This is a lower cost alternative to hanging in with coal."
So the company is doing this because it believes the cost of coal will go up.
Muth forgets the costs that aren't passed on to ratepayers — the environmental costs of mining, transporting and burning coal, and treating the toxic waste that remains. In Nevada, we have only to look at the Moapa Paiute Reservation next to NV Energy's Reid Gardner coal plant to find a population that has disproportionately paid the price for coal in the pollution of their land and in the illnesses of tribal members.
Then there is the cost of greenhouse-gas emissions from coal — the cost to the planet, to all of us — from uncontrolled greenhouse-gas emissions. Closing the Reid Gardner plant would mean 2.5 million metric tons fewer CO2 emissions annually. It's a good start.
Anne Macquarie blogs about clean energy in Nevada at nevadanscleanenergy.org.