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As Journalists Cover Record Spikes in Electricity Demand, Why Are They Ignoring Solar PV?

By Stephen Lacey  

"As Journalists Cover Record Spikes in Electricity Demand, Why Are They Ignoring Solar PV?"

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From a New York Times piece on the closure of coal-fired power plants:

No one is sure yet how many or which ones will be shuttered or what the total lost output would be. And there is little agreement over how peak demand will be met in future summers.

Here’s a bright idea:


As heat waves get more intense and cause immense spikes in electricity demand around the country, it doesn’t take a genius to ask if the problem — the sun — might actually be the solution.

But yet again, two major publications – the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal – have written big stories on peak electricity demand with no mention of solar photovoltaics (PV).

Why, despite the proven, cost-competitive benefits of using solar PV to match spiking electricity use, is hardly anyone in the press bothering to talk about the technology?

Yesterday’s NYT piece was particularly egregious. In writing about how utilities are going to make up for lost generation due to EPA air-quality regulations, the reporter seems to deliberately ignore the technology, and instead use the opportunity to rail on wind:

No one is sure yet how many or which ones will be shuttered or what the total lost output would be. And there is little agreement over how peak demand will be met in future summers.

Peak supply is also becoming a vexing problem because so much of the generating capacity added around the country lately is wind power, which is almost useless on the hot, still days when air-conditioning drives up demand.

PJM, which once stood for Pennsylvania, Jersey and Maryland, factors in such variability, counting a 100-megawatt wind farm as being worth only 13 megawatts on a peak summer day, for example. While over the course of a year the wind machines can contribute mightily to kilowatt hours produced, they do much of their production on windy winter nights, according to experts at PJM and other grid organizations.

“This heat wave shows that you can’t rely on a massive amount of wind generation to fill the void,” Pat Hemlepp, a spokesman for American Electric Power, wrote in an e-mail. “That’s why we are extremely concerned about reliability.”

Why the focus on wind, and nothing about solar PV? (More about the wind comments below). Rather than make the obvious point that the wind blows less during heat waves, it doesn’t take much to ask if all that sunshine could be put to good use.

It’s mind-blowing that solar PV didn’t even get mentioned in the possible list of alternatives. As we’ve covered numerous times on Climate Progress (See the response to another NYT article: “As Cuomo Plans Shut Down of Indian Point Nuclear Plant, Experts Fail to Value of Solar and Efficiency for NY City,” and “This Looks Like a Job for Solar PV: Heat Wave Causes Record Breaking Electricity Demand“) Solar PV can be deployed locally in a matter of months, generate electricity at prices far below the cost of natural gas peaking plants, and save utilities money on building new transmission infrastructure.

We’re not talking about advocating for solar PV as some feel-good solution; rather, recognizing it as a competitive player for meeting peak electricity needs and stabilizing the grid. It doesn’t make any sense that a reporter writing on the business of energy would fail to mention one of the best methods for addressing the challenges outlined in the article.

And as an aside, wind isn’t exactly what American Electric Power makes it out to be in the NYT piece either. In fact, coastal wind farms were responsible for keeping the lights on in Texas last week during record demand. Trip Doggett, the CEO of Texas’ grid operator, explained that coastal wind farms provided electricity exactly when needed for the state:

Coastal wind accounts for about 13 percent of ERCOT’s wind generation, but it was providing as much as 70 percent of wind generation last week, Doggett said.

“We’d love to have more development of coastal wind,” Doggett said. “And we’re hoping their ability to generate during the peak hours may encourage more development in that area.”

Clearly, the further inland wind farms are, the less electricity they’ll generate during the hottest days – and that is an issue that grid operators need to deal with. But for AEP to categorically claim that you can’t rely on wind farms isn’t right. It all depends on where they’re sited.

The second article from the WSJ focused on the dire situation in Texas, where the grid operator is seeing highs in demand that weren’t expected until 2014:

For the second year in a row, the organization responsible for the stability of Texas’ electrical grid, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, has grossly underestimated summer demand in its forecasts. Last week, demand was so high across Texas that some large energy users had power disruptions, and Ercot narrowly avoided instituting rolling blackouts.

Ercot’s struggles to meet demand carry a cost. Wholesale power prices during the emergency last week rose to 60 times normal summer prices, racking up millions of dollars of added costs for consumers and power retailers. By Thursday, prices had dropped back down to a normal range of $20 to $50 a megawatt hour.

The record demand due to the heat wave brought wholesale electricity prices up to $3,000 a megawatt-hour – or $3 a kilowatt-hour – numerous times in the past week. The average retail price for electricity in the U.S. is 9.6 cents per kilowatt-hour. By comparison, large-scale solar PV projects in Texas are able to generate energy for less than 15 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Texas simply doesn’t have enough generation capacity in place in the coming years to meet projected spikes in peak electricity demand. That could drive prices up further and compromise the reliability of the grid.

But again, solar, a technology that can meet those demands and help stabilize the grid, is conspicuously absent from the coverage.

In all fairness to the reporter, the story was not really about generation sources – it was mostly about Ercot’s handling of the immediate problem. However, coverage of the issue opens up a lot of relevant questions about how to cost-competitively meet rising demand given the prospects for longer, more intense heat waves.

This summer’s electricity demand records offer the perfect opportunity to explore the value of solar PV. It’s a shame that the mainstream press isn’t recognizing that.

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