Cost of green energy: More pollution producing plants

For every green energy source, a natural gas equivalent has to balance it out

Solar panels on a roof (Elliott Brown, May 2012, MGN Online)
Solar panels on a roof (Elliott Brown, May 2012, MGN Online)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — From wind to solar power, there is a huge push for green energy — but it turns out the more we have, the more pollution-causing natural gas power plants we need.

That’s the “dirty little secret” in the clean energy game, according to Tom Eckman, senior adviser for the power division at NW Power and Conservation Council.

The catch: For every half-billion dollar wind farm built, a half-billion dollar gas plant also has to be built

The old saying “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” applies to Oregon’s new green energy law. There are many benefits to green energy, but it also comes with extra costs.

In early March, Governor Kate Brown signed a bill that means Oregon will stop paying for electricity that comes from coal plants by 2030.

The Boardman Coal Plant (Portland Tribune file photo)
The Boardman Coal Plant (Portland Tribune file photo)

“Now Oregon will be less reliant on fossil fuels and shift our focus to clean energy,” Brown said.

The law also requires the state’s largest utilities to double green energy to 50% by 2040.

California also bumped its green energy requirement to 50% by 2030, while Washington is still at 15% (by 2020).  Analysts say the requirements are like taking 6.4 million cars off the road.

The NW Power and Conservation Council was established by Congress to study future electricity demand and how to balance it with the environment. Every 5 years they produce the NW Conservation and Electric Power Plan. The most recent plan says if we keep building wind and solar farms, we also need to build more natural gas electricity plants and use what we already have.

Analysts: Requirements like taking 6.4 million cars off the road


“To get rid of coal plants, the cheapest way to do that is to substitute natural gas, rather than to build brand new renewables,” Eckman said. “Because we already own a lot of natural gas that doesn’t run very much.”

The problem with green energy is that it’s not reliable when we need it the most. In summer and winter months, the wind doesn’t blow as much — so we have to be able to flip a switch to another source that we know is going to be there.

The Bonneville Dam is a major driver of the Northwest economy and a huge obstacle for endangered fish. Dams on the Columbia could be asked to play different roles as the U.S. and Canada reconsider the treaty that regulates the river system. Undated photo. (Portland Tribune)
The Bonneville Dam. (Portland Tribune)

That switch has been to hydroelectric dams. Power from the dams fills the gaps when green energy production is down, but we’ve recently reached a point where dams are becoming tapped out.

Dams can’t hold back more water.

There’s no other practical way to store extra green energy. Those who manage the electrical grid, like the Bonneville Power Administration, have to balance competing sources.

A bank of solar panels (KOIN, file)
A bank of solar panels (KOIN, file)

“I think there may be some folks who think you can do it all with wind or solar. I think when you really look at systems operations and you look at this from an intellectually honest perspective, we need a portfolio,” said Elliott Manzier with BPA. “We want our hydro, we want our renewables. And there’s going to be a role for the foreseeable future for the gas turbines to be part of the flexibility equation. I think we can keep pushing the envelope, but at the end of the day our fundamental job is to keep the lights on.”

“If the ultimate goal is to reduce carbon at the least cost, then the order of march is build gas first, then renewables,” Eckman said. “If the goal is simply to build renewables than that’s a different goal than to reduce carbon at the cheapest way possible.”

The new green energy law caps increases to bills at 4%. If it goes up 4% each year for the next 30 years, it adds up.

The catch basically means for every half-billion dollar wind farm built, a half-billion dollar gas plant also has to be built.

“We have to build not only the wind generation, but also to invest in the backup to go along with it. So it basically increases its cost 2 to 1, because you got to build 2 systems,” said Eckman.

Windmills in Oregon (KOIN, file)
Windmills in Oregon (KOIN, file)

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