How Renewable Energy Subsidy Backfires

In the New York Times, Eduardo Porter writes:

Renewable sources are producing temporary power gluts from Australia to California, driving out other energy sources that are still necessary to maintain a stable supply of power.

But in what may be the most worrisome development in the combat against climate change, renewables are helping to push nuclear power, the main source of zero-carbon electricity in the United States, into bankruptcy.

The United States, and indeed the world, would do well to reconsider the promise and the limitations of its infatuation with renewable energy.

“The issue is, how do we decarbonize the electricity sector, while keeping the lights on, keeping costs low and avoiding unintended consequences that could make emissions increase?” said Jan Mazurek, who runs the clean power campaign at the environmental advocacy group ClimateWorks.

Addressing those challenges will require a more subtle approach than just attaching more renewables to the grid.

Porter also links Renewables Subsidies Are Killing Nuclear and Threatening Climate Progress, Bloomberg New Energy Finance Study Shows by Will Boisvert.


  1. "Addressing those challenges will require a more subtle approach than just attaching more renewables to the grid." -

    Yes, well, it would be encouraging to have actual foresight and planning that has the transition to low emissions as it's priority. Whilst the rapid growth of wind and solar may have exceeded most foresight, them crossing the price barrier could be expected to lead to their rapid growth. When the problems of greater penetration are used as reason to put impediments in the way of that low emissions transition rather than as the spur to better investment in solutions it's a deep concern - and demanding perfection can be a version of perfect as the enemy of good enough, or of barely adequate or even of slowing the descent into worse. And it can unite enough who insist on better with enough who don't want the transition at all to stall it.

    In the presence of strong division on the fundamental goal the policy and planning will be skewed as well as compromised into inadequacy. We will be left with more unplanned elements and impacts, and that includes rapid growth in intermittent renewables in response to their decreasing market price without the groundwork to integrate it. I think crossing the cost barrier and growing enough to strain the existing electricity systems simply was not in the network operator's plans - business as usual was expected to continue with only minimal change.

    I think greater renewable penetration forcing fossil fuel plant into greater intermittency is exactly the direction we should be heading, preferably with them moving into the backup role in a planned way. That being forced into intermittency becomes a market emergent de-facto carbon price should be something that is used in an intelligent way to kick start the necessary investments and changes to integrate it - storage, load shifting and efficiency come to mind. It may not seem fair that existing fossil fuel plant bears the greatest burden of the costs of more time offline but, then, it's not fair we all collectively bear the burden of the full and true costs of that "low cost" forever into the future. Not fair on gas, which is better suited to an interim backup role but may be more immediately impacted than coal. More not fair on nuclear I suppose, which will get caught up with the implications of low cost intermittent energy in an open electricity market. But will it's operators team up with fossil fuel operators and work together to limit and prevent renewables forcing them into intermittency, with the burden of costs that brings? ie will they work against the transition to low emissions? Nuclear's advocacy is already deeply intertwined with anti-environmentalist sentiment that includes climate science denial - but what is best for the nuclear industry or the greater transition to low emissions is not necessarily well reflected in it's advocacy.

    Use this market emergent carbon price to encourage a planned shift of existing plant to the role of intermittent backup. Use the costs of doing that to kickstart storage and encourage load shifting. Don't use the unexpected success of wind and solar as the excuse to slow or stall the transition.

  2. I made a previous comment but it must have been caught in moderation. I'll try again -

    I think the "problem" of renewables being subsidised and introduced past the point where it's intermittency becomes an issue misrepresents the complex political problems nuclear has and with RE passing below crucial cost thresholds I expect specific support mechanisms to be scaled back - and yet expect RE will still continue to grow on it's own market competitive merits. As long as it produces energy, even intermittently, at lower cost than other supply it will continue to be used to the extent that it can be.

    I think the intermittency will tend to force other more expensive supply into increasing intermittency in response but rather than being something unacceptable I think it is exactly the direction we need to be going. It would be better it proceed that way in an orderly manner, with foresight and planning. The success of RE should not be used as the excuse to prevent or limit it's continuing growth - our need is for much more of it, not less. The problems arising are not unforeseen but until they have to do so the major players in this industry will continue to avoid doing so. Forced to do so by the emergent market forces that low cost intermittentent penetration brings may be the only compelling reason, in the absence of clear and determined policy.

    Fossil fuel plant needs to transition into the role of backup to low emissions generation and the market emergent de-facto carbon price increasing intermittency brings to a fossil fuel dominated grid needs to be used intelligently as the incentive it is to drive time shifting of demand, efficiency and investment in emerging storage technologies. Without the foresight and planning it will indeed be disruptive to existing plant operators. It will tend to hit the more expensive and often already intermittent gas plants, which are best suited to shifting to role of backup to intermittent RE ahead of coal. And it will hit nuclear as well, regardless of it's low emissions credentials. That hit to nuclear is as much a consequence of the lack of clear policy with a priority of transition to low emissions; blaming support for renewables in a world where subsidy of fossil fuels far exceeds it is narrow and shortsighted.

    I see nuclear's advocacy, which is deeply intertwined with anti-environmentalism and climate science denial - Conservative politics being the natural home of most nuclear support - as more likely to join forces with the fossil fuel interests to prevent this emergent market mechanism gaining traction than allowing it to incentivise further transition to low emissions. Intelligent policy designed to enable the transition would, on merits of low emissions, develop ways to insulate nuclear from this market mechanism without limiting the needed acceleration of growth of Renewable Energy.

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