Cheap Seats 2017
Epilogue - 06/21
By Rich Trzupek
You’ll find this hard to believe dear readers, but the Trzupek clan is a quarrelsome bunch. Not in a bad way though. We enjoy a good inter-family fracas and, for the most part, nobody takes anything personally.
Indeed, some of my best memories of childhood involve me and my five sibs sitting around the dinner table arguing with each other and our parents about the issues of the day, each of us trying to out smart-ass the other.
The last two weeks-worth of columns sparked an especially glorious inter-family squabble. Gene, the oldest of our clan, sent me a story about the city of Georgetown, Texas which makes two rather amazing claims: 1) that it is powered by 100 percent “green” renewable energy, and 2) that the green renewable energy it uses is cheaper than energy derived from fossil fuels.
Having spent more than thirty years of my so-called career dealing with energy and environmental issues, I found those claims dubious, to say the least. Brother Gene was not doubting my take on renewables mind you, he was wondering if there was any sliver of truth to this story, or if it was an outright deception.
Digging down into the matter, utilizing publicly-available data maintained by the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration, it quickly became clear that Georgetown, Texas is not actually, directly powered by renewable energy, it rather chooses to pay for the percentage of renewable capacity delivered to its portion of the grid.
The distinction is important when we have the renewable energy discussion. It is a scientific fact that electricity on the grid flows from the point of generation to the nearest point of demand. There is a coal-fired base-load power plant located about 30 miles east of Georgetown, capable of generating about 600 MW of electricity.
Peak demand in Georgetown is a bit over 150 MW. The city purchases its power from a wind farm located over 400 miles away and (a yet to be operational) solar plant over 300 miles away. So, even when those assets are providing power to the grid, they are not directly powering Georgetown. They are simply adding power to the pool and Georgetown is willing to pay for a disproportionate percentage of renewable power available in the pool.
Good on them. Federal and state incentive programs, tax-payer funded of course, can reduce the cost of renewable power below the actual cost of renewable power, making it cheaper than fossil fuel generated power in some places. Georgetown was clever and quick enough to take advantage of just that situation.
But, the Georgetown model is not proof that the state of Texas, much less the United States of America, can “go green” and generate all of its electricity from renewable sources. About 10 percent of electricity in Texas originates from renewables. That’s it. Georgetown choose to pay for a larger percentage of that generation capacity than it would on a per capita basis, but it is not in any real sense a magical city powered by renewable energy.
As a rule of thumb, about the max capacity that is scientifically possible is around 20 percent renewable. Renewables are simply too unreliable an energy source – the grid could not maintain stability if we counted on renewables for more.
Fair-minded experts can and should disagree about the viable percentage of power that can be practically generated by renewable sources without causing severe economic impacts. My experience and expertise convinces me that 20 – 25 percent is about the limit, but I’m willing to be proven wrong. That is, I’m willing to be proven wrong by anyone who actually understands how electric generation and transmission works in real life, as opposed to goof-balls who don’t have any personal understanding of those issues, but rather quote supposed internet “experts” who parrot their preferred talking points.
This all leads to the classic Trzupek family argument. One of my nephews disagreed with the above assessment and did so rather passionately. I will note that this particular nephew is a wonderful guy – a loving father, husband and son whom I admire. I don’t think he has a vindictive bone in his body. But – holy crap – he could not have been more offended by my explanation of how Georgetown and the MSM reporting on Georgetown were so clearly being deceptive.
This particular nephew is a teacher, and knowing his character, I have no doubt he is a good one. I also have reason to believe that he does not believe that I am, at my core, an entirely despicable character. All that said, in his attempts to “prove” that I was entirely wrong about Georgetown, he pulled out all the leftist canards when confronted with inconvenient opposing messages: I was making up my own “non-peer reviewed” science; I was parroting right-wing whackos; I was a tool of evil energy interests, etc.
What troubles me here is that there is a case to be made that the amount of renewable power that you can pack on the grid may exceed the limit I have proposed. I’d love to hear cogent, scientifically-based arguments that there is a mechanism to increase that percentage that is both reliable and economical.
But, that’s not a discussion my fine fellow a nephew was even willing to approach having. Georgetown, Texas claims to be 100 percent powered by renewable energy ergo every city can and should do so and anyone who disagrees with that position is apparently a right-wing nut job whose in bed with the world’s energy magnates.
Yikes! If that’s where this particular discussion goes when an educator I believe to be fairly reasonable and open-minded is involved, I cannot begin to image where it goes when it involves the rest of his peers.