The necessity of reducing smog, an overwhelming global demand for power, and electrical grids stretched to the breaking point are the factors pushing utilities to make the switch to renewable energy sources.
The energy sector is evolving faster than at any other time in history as fossil fuels like coal – one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gases (GHG) – are being phased out and replaced with solar, wind and other renewables.
Having been a simple source of warmth for thousands of years, the use of coal increased radically with the evolution of the steam engine and coal’s new use as a generator of power, largely thanks to Scottish-born James Watt.
Although he didn’t invent the steam engine, in 1769 Watt came up with significant improvements over previous designs by inventors such as Thomas Savery and Thomas Newcomen, making the engines more efficient and helping to usher in the Industrial Revolution. Burning coal to heat water and produce steam power led to applications not only in factories, but also the development of locomotives and steamboats for transportation.
For decades, coal was a logical choice as an energy source. As a fuel, coal maintained the output of heat for much longer than wood, and coal was plentiful and cheap. A fossil fuel formed over millions of years, it is unfortunately also non-renewable, and controversial for its impact on the environment and health.
A foggy week in London Town
Both surface and underground coal mining damages landscapes and erodes soil. Sulphur, waste rock and coal produce acid drainage which combines with oxygen in water vapour, resulting in sulphuric acid, while heavy metals leach into groundwater. When burned, coal releases harmful impurities including sulphur and nitrogen, with one of the worst examples of this being the “London Fog” of 1952, also known as the “Great Smog of London”.
On the occasion, a lack of wind and bitterly cold weather over London caused coal-smoke pollution to blanket the city. Lasting from December 5 to 9, the sulphurous smog killed at least 4,000 people, sending another 150,000 to hospital. A national disaster, the deadly fog led to the introduction of the Clean Air Act of 1956 to reduce smokeless fuels in the United Kingdom.
The sun rises on cleaner energy
Smog remains a serious health issue, especially in densely packed urban areas. Cities like Los Angeles have become infamous for their murky, lung-burning haze, caused primarily by the exhaust from millions of cars and nearby industrial manufacturing.
Although a combination of local and federal air-quality initiatives and improved automotive technology has resulted in tremendous improvements, the push for clean hybrid and electric vehicles is stronger than ever, with investments in environmentally friendly power sources at an all-time high.
Along with environmental and health considerations, another factor in the transition from fossil fuels to renewables is power dependability. In North America, we have an expectation of reliable flows of electricity to our homes and businesses; however, recent experiences have demonstrated the opposite. While power interruptions and rolling blackouts – where electrical delivery is deliberately halted by utilities to present a total blackout – are an inconvenience, entire electrical grids going down for days or weeks is disastrous, and one of the major culprits is our ever-changing weather.
In less than five years, the world’s power systems have experienced many setbacks, from Category 5 Hurricane Maria pummelling Puerto Rico and the northeastern Caribbean in the fall of 2017 to Hurricane Michael impacting the Gulf Coat of the United States in October 2018; mysterious blackouts in all of Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay in 2019; and power outages caused by Hurricane Isaias in the U.S. and parts of Canada in 2020.
The records nobody wanted
As recent power outages in Texas have shown, you don’t need heat and hurricanes to cripple electrical systems when unexpected cold snaps are just as destructive. Ravaging the Lone Star State in mid-February, a trio of winter storms created record-breaking low temperatures of -20 degrees F (-28 C) in the Texas Panhandle.
Some, including media outlets and Republican governor Greg Abbott, initially (and incorrectly) faulted frozen wind turbines and solar panels. In fact, poorly winterized natural gas equipment was the main reason for the catastrophe, which resulted in over 150 deaths, and more than four-and-a-half million homes being left in frigid darkness for days.
The Editorial Board of the Houston Chronicle called out the governor and his fellow politicians in their statement, “Gov. Abbott’s ‘wind turbine’ excuse is full of hot air, while Texans are dying”. The Board wrote “Wind makes up a tiny fraction of the state’s energy grid this time of year. The vast majority of power sources knocked off line were natural gas and coal, largely because those facilities weren’t properly weatherized.
“The real problem, as Abbott knows, has to do with Texas’ loosely regulated grid and a system of energy delivery that tries to maximize profits and keep consumer prices cheap by failing to insure against a crisis like this one.” It was failing to heed earlier warnings about the state’s lack of emergency preparedness that was a factor in the electrical catastrophe, which the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) said was “seconds or minutes away” from complete failure at the point of partial grid shutdowns.
Leader in renewables
Texas is renowned for its many energy-resource assets, from coal and crude oil and natural gas to nuclear and hydro-electric. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) recently defined Texas as “a large state with a wealth of energy resources. It leads the nation in energy production, providing more than one-fifth of the country’s domestically produced energy.”
Due to its massive land area (second only to Alaska) and extravagant levels of sunshine and wind, Texas is also a leader in renewable energy – number one in the U.S. for wind-generated electricity, which is responsible for over one-fifth of the state’s 2020 utility-scale net generation.
Despite the rapid growth of renewables – Texas being second only to California for solar photovoltaic (PV) sourced power, and achieving over 30,000 megawatts of wind generated capacity last year – some continue to deride the sector.
All power sources were affected this past February, including coal, natural gas, and oil and nuclear, yet some state lawmakers want to shift the financial burden of ancillary services guaranteeing power to the grid to the renewable energy sector. In 2020, the cost of these ancillary services, such as keeping voltage consistent, was $275 million; with the February energy crisis, the price tag jumped to $7 billion.
Unfortunately, targeting wind and solar energy is not new. In May, the Texas Tribune reported that a conservative think tank, the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), was lobbying “to make wind and solar projects ineligible for a popular local property tax-abatement program.”
The singling-out of renewables has led some, including the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE), to go on record stating that renewables were not to blame for recent power outages in Texas and California. Yet in mid-June, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board published “The California and Texas Greenouts: Renewables show again that they aren’t reliable to power the grid.” This prompted ACORE to accuse the paper of spreading “blatant misinformation” and promoting a false narrative against renewables.
“The WSJ Editorial Board did not need to look any further than their own newsroom to know that natural gas shortages led to the disastrous power outages that impacted millions of Texans earlier this year,” said ACORE on its website.
“Taking political shots at renewable generation is of little help when it is widely apparent that to ensure a more reliable power supply during these increasingly common extreme weather events, we need to modernize and upgrade our outdated and balkanized electrical grid. What editorial pages should be urging is construction of a nationally integrated Macro Grid to send available power to where it’s needed, which would enhance grid reliability, save consumers billions of dollars, deliver significant job creation and dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
Attempting to clarify the actual reasons for the issues with the electrical grid, ACORE included facts surrounding the power outages of this year, including that 80 percent of forced outages in ERCOT territory in June “were coal, nuclear or gas plants,” not renewables. ACORE said that renewables not only provide affordable energy, but “have proven less susceptible to the impacts of climate-induced weather extremes than fossil-fired or nuclear power plants.”
Despite these clashes around renewables, the market for this kind of energy may well be unstoppable. Less than a year ago, the EIA reported that renewable energy consumption surpassed coal in the United States – the first time in over 130 years – with coal consumption diminishing to its lowest level in 42 years.
No matter how heated the debate, it appears that renewable energy is here to stay, for reasons varying from state policies and lower costs, to demand from the public and businesses for cleaner power. For that matter, in the United States, under Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS), a certain percentage of power sold by utilities has to come from renewable energy sources.
These factors, along with Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) and the setting by Canada of a new 2030 carbon reduction target, will ensure a cleaner, greener future for all.