North Carolina would make a huge mistake, if it focuses on wind and solar power to meet state government’s clean-energy goals. That’s the warning from an expert who crunched the numbers for the John Locke Foundation.
“We’re heading toward a potential energy crisis if we follow this plan,” said Jordan McGillis during a July 26 online presentation. McGillis is deputy director of policy at the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Energy Research. “You hear a lot about climate crisis. But, politically, we are inducing a crisis if we pursue the wind and solar plan that has been put forward by Duke Energy in accordance with the Clean Energy Plan.”
More on the Clean Energy Plan and Duke’s response to it in a moment.
First, let’s look at the current state of energy use in North Carolina. “Frankly, it’s a pretty good picture,” McGillis said. “If you are concerned about greenhouse gas emissions, North Carolina is one of the best states in the country at delivering both economic growth and reduction in emissions. It’s been getting better year over year.”
Credit goes largely to a shift away from energy produced by coal-fired power plants toward energy from natural gas. “North Carolina is on a great footing there,” McGillis said. “You can’t come away from digging into it as I did without feeling optimistic at the trajectory the state’s on.”
This state also has “rather positive” electricity rates, in McGillis’ estimation. “It’s low-cost, and it’s reliable.”
Regardless of current conditions, Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration is pursuing a Clean Energy Plan. It calls for a 70% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the state by 2030 and so-called “carbon neutrality” by 2050.
“Greenhouse gas emissions in North Carolina have been on the decline, and that’s something that the advocates for the Clean Energy Plan don’t seem to really respect,” McGillis said. “They want radical change.”
While McGillis questions the need for such drastic change, that’s not the point of his recent Locke report, titled “Energy Crossroads.” Instead of attacking Cooper’s plan, McGillis accepts its goals. Then he looks for the best way to meet those goals.
His findings paint a bad picture for boosters of wind and solar power.
Duke Energy has produced a series of alternative ways of meeting Cooper’s Clean Energy Plan goals. One option in particular emphasizes the wind and solar that clean-energy advocates prefer. McGillis compared that option to three others that would rely more heavily on either natural gas or nuclear power.
All three alternatives would be less expensive. “The wind and solar plan would cost over $100 per metric ton of reduced carbon dioxide,” McGillis said. That’s more than twice as high as one nuclear alternative and 33% more than a second nuclear option to hit the same emissions target.
Meanwhile, the natural gas option would generate a 50% reduction in emissions without any additional expense.
Beyond bottom-line cost concerns, McGillis highlights the problem of wind and solar energy’s “intermittency.” Nuclear and natural gas options are dispatchable, meaning they can be turned on and off as needed. That’s not true of power sources depending on the sun shining and the wind blowing.
“Wind and solar do not have that capability,” he said. “As a result, you need to have massive duplication of infrastructure if you’re going to rely on those sources.”
A related issue called “capacity factor” focuses on the amount of energy a plant actually produces, compared to the maximum amount advertised. “The strongest performer, by far, is nuclear, which has a capacity factor in North Carolina of 94%.”
Wind and solar “are on the complete other end of the spectrum,” McGillis said. Across the country, wind power’s capacity factor stands at less than 35%. Solar’s number is worse — “abysmal,” in McGillis’ assessment — at less than 25%.
“If you want to get a stable electricity supply, wind and solar simply aren’t going to do it,” he said. “For them to do it, we would need to have massive investment into storage — into batteries. That’s where a lot of the cost from this plan arises.”
The other “huge issue” tied to wind and solar power is the impact on land use. McGillis’ report shows that using natural gas to address Clean Energy Plan goals would require about 13 square miles for electricity generation. The nuclear options would require no more than 5.5 square miles.
“You might be thinking, ‘OK, wind and solar — maybe it’s five times as much, maybe it’s 10 times as much,” McGillis said. “No, we’re on a different order of magnitude. It would require 3,375 square miles to pursue this wind and solar plan to power North Carolina.”
The cost would extend beyond money. “We’re talking about degrading our natural environment, degrading the beautiful mountain landscapes we have in the western part of your state and the ocean views we have in the eastern part of your state.”
For McGillis, the conclusion is clear. If North Carolina wants to pursue the emissions targets in Cooper’s Clean Energy Plan, there is a better option than relying heavily on wind and solar.
“There’s an opportunity for North Carolina to expand on its strengths,” he said. That includes “robust” nuclear energy generation and additional natural gas.
“That is clearly the cost-effective way if we’re going to pursue this political goal.”
It’s also the best way to avoid manufacturing an avoidable energy crisis.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.