Panel looks at the role of renewable energy 40 years after the Arab oil embargo

Renewable energy advocates used the 40th anniversary of the onset of the 1973 Arab oil embargo, which began on Oct. 17, 1973, as a springboard to a discussion of renewable energy, including its current role and the role it will play over the next 40 years.

While a significant portion of an Oct. 16 webinar arranged and facilitated by the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE) focused on renewable-based fuels for motor vehicles, participating experts also addressed the roles of petroleum-based fuels as well as various types of renewable energy in the generation of electricity.

“In 1973, we used a lot more fossil fuel and a lot less renewable energy,” Scott Sklar, an adjunct professor at George Washington University and member of the Department of Commerce Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Advisory Committee, said. “The amount of petroleum used in electric generation was 17% in 1973, and is now 1%.”

During the same time period, the amount of private investment in renewable forms of energy, including hydropower, has increased significantly.

“In 1973, we had about $3.8bn worth of investment in renewable energy, and it was virtually all hydropower,” Sklar said. “Now, depending on whose figures, we have $220bn to $275bn in private-sector investment. It’s almost inconceivable; it’s mind-boggling.”

In addition to helping replace fossil fuels in the generation of electricity, the incorporation of those larger amounts of renewable generation has helped drive infrastructure improvements.

“Transmission and distribution improvements are on the table today to modernize our grid for the future,” enabling the incorporation of additional generating resources that utilize renewable energy, industry attorney Michael Zimmer of the law firm Thompson Hine said.

Two panelists, including Sklar, addressed concerns about the intermittent nature of renewables, suggesting that the concerns are overstated and have become passé.

“Five of the renewable [energy sources] are baseload power,” Sklar said, noting that geothermal, biomass, marine energy, hydro technologies and some concentrating solar thermal power technologies provide 24-hour power.

Another panelist, Michael Ware, speaking on behalf of ACORE, acknowledged concerns about the intermittent nature of many forms of renewable generation and the associated challenges of incorporating those forms of generation into utility generation stacks, but declared that the issue of intermittency is not a problem anymore.

“Wind technology and the intermittency issue was put to rest in Texas,” Ware said. “The grid [operator] knows when the wind is going to blow and when they can bring the combined-cycle gas-fired plants on to be available when the wind is not blowing.”

He cited improvements in forecasting and recent advances in technology as some of the factors responsible for reducing the impact of variability.

“In addition to that, the growth in on-line storage is another factor that is entering into the play that people haven’t even thought about,” Ware said.

However, Ware did not address events in Texas as recently as February 2011, when more than 50 power generating units that grid operator ERCOT had expected to be available failed to come online or stay online, and others were unable to produce at full capacity because of complications from the weather.

Ware also pointed to solar concentrating arrays that have a built-in ability to store heat in sodium-filled containers, allowing them to continue generating electricity by using that stored heat to generate steam to power turbines after sunset. Projects being built by SolarReserve near Tonopah, Nev., and Blythe, Calif., will be able to generate electricity for up to 22 hours each day, he said.

A solution for the future

Panelists were bullish about the role renewable generation sources will play in the coming years as the industry transitions from older generation technologies, but acknowledged challenges, including regulatory and permitting processes that can be quite lengthy.

Ware said the speed with which developers are able to interconnect renewable generation resources to the grid plays a part in projects’ economic viability, because delays add cost to renewable generating plants. He cited California, New York and Nevada as examples of states that are “leaders in fast interconnection” to their respective grids. Some other states, he said, are “shockingly slow, and it just adds cost to these plants.”

Sklar echoed that point, citing what he called “immense permitting problems for both large-scale and small scale projects that are beyond ridiculous.”

Regulatory and permitting challenges aside, panelists said renewable generation will become more competitive as the penetration of such energy resources increases and more devices are built.

“Most [renewable generating technologies] are fundamentally fuel-free, so the cost is in the manufacturing,” Sklar said. “Manufacturing scale and deployment scale of wind turbines and solar panels [as well as] distribution costs for liquid fuels – biofuels – [and] electric vehicle charging stations; all those things, once they scale, the cost drops precipitously, and then it becomes more affordable for everybody in the country.”

Neither Sklar nor the other panelists acknowledged the effects of energy markets or power purchase agreements in the setting of prices for renewable energy, though several panelists said that incentives for renewable generating facilities need to be continued.

Finally, panelists said the electric power sector needs to become more aggressive and accelerate its incorporation of renewable sources of generation.

“If the expansion rate for renewables merely matches growth in electricity demand, the result is a continuation of the status quo,” Zimmer said. “It codifies the status quo for power generation for the next 40 years, where the bulk of generation will be from expensive, volatile fuel sources that have pollution and environmental issues and risk-management challenges. We can do better and smarter looking ahead.”