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COUNTERPOINT: Is the Clean Energy Jobs Act right for Illinois?

No. It is a ‘blackout plan’ that would starve the state of reliable energy resources

p07 GonetBy PHIL GONET
    The recent nationwide blackout in Venezuela left at least 43 dead and millions more without communications, medical care, food and water.  It was a sobering reminder of the life-and-death importance of energy and how bad policies can make an energy-rich country energy poor.
    If we want to make Illinois the best possible place to live, we have a responsibility to learn from disasters like this and adopt policies that ensure we have stable, reliable, affordable energy. Unfortunately, supporters of the proposed Clean Energy Jobs Act are shirking that responsibility and promoting a policy that would starve Illinois of energy.
    Today, Illinois enjoys a reliable grid and electricity prices slightly below the U.S. average, thanks mainly to coal, nuclear, and natural gas, which supply 92 percent of our electricity.  But the Clean Energy Jobs Act would threaten that, eliminating fossil fuels by 2030 and outlawing nuclear and most hydro by 2050, leaving us dependent on expensive and unreliable wind and solar power.
    Wind and solar are erratic fuel sources that cannot supply us the amount of power we need when we need it. They require continuous life support from reliable fuel sources like coal, nuclear, and natural gas.
    What will keep our lights on and homes heated after the Clean Energy Jobs Act pulls the plug on reliable life support? If we outlaw fossil fuels and nuclear our only option is to store energy from the wind and the sun when they’re plentiful so that we can cope with the times when they aren’t. The problem is that there is no affordable way to store enough energy to back up the Illinois grid for a day — let alone for the days and even weeks when solar and wind flag.
    Under the most optimistic assumptions about battery prices, it will cost about $200 per kWh of installed battery capacity in the coming years. In 2017, Illinois net electricity generation was 183.6 million MWh.  If we wanted to backup all of our electricity use just for a single day that works out to over $100 billion worth of batteries.  Even if we spread out that cost over a decade (roughly the typical lifespan of a lithium-ion battery), taxpayers would still be on the hook for $10 billion a year — nearly what Illinois spends on K-12 education and Medicaid combined.
    It’s no accident that no large grid on earth runs on solar, wind, and batteries: trying to rely on unreliables would impoverish any community irresponsible enough to try it. And even going halfway down that path would be a nightmare for Illinois.
    Just look at the world leaders in wind and solar: Germany and Denmark. Both countries have seen their energy prices skyrocket as they’ve made themselves more dependent on unreliables. Germany, for instance, has seen its residential electricity prices double since 2000, and households in both countries now shoulder electric bills 3-4 times what Illinois ratepayers enjoy.  
    Why do wind and solar consistently make energy more expensive? Since they cannot actually replace reliable fuel sources, the only cost savings they generate is the savings on fuel whenever the wind happens to be blowing or the sun happens to be shining. But that fuel savings is wiped out once you take into account the extra costs unreliables impose.
    For one there’s the enormous tracts of land and transmissions infrastructure wind and solar require. Far more important, however, is the fact that wind and solar force us to use reliable fuels in a wildly inefficient manner.
    To accommodate erratic power from solar and wind, reliable fuel sources have to be ramped up and down quickly. But that wastes an enormous amount of energy, the same way that you waste fuel driving in stop and go traffic. To the extent we can cope with stop and go power at all it’s because we can take advantage of natural gas, which is able to adjust quickly to changing power needs. But once we’re left with only nuclear to provide baseload electricity, this will become untenable: nuclear reactors are best at providing constant, efficient base load power, but have a hard time reacting to volatile changes in the grid from solar and wind.
    What Clean Energy Jobs Act offers is not an energy plan but a blackout plan. By wrecking our ability to match power supply to power demand, it will make us far more vulnerable to power outages. And we don’t need to look to Venezuela to understand how devastating that can be. During the recent Polar Vortex, for example, wind power operated at only a fraction of its capacity. Were it not for reliable energy sources like coal, the fact is that millions could have died.
    To make Illinois the best place to live, we need an all of the above energy policy that allows every fuel source to compete. If solar and wind are one day able to provide affordable, reliable energy then there will be no need to mandate them. But if they can’t, outlawing our best sources of energy and mandating the worst would be a reckless and cruel policy to inflict on the people of Illinois.
    Phil Gonet is president of the Illinois Coal Association. He wrote this column at the request of the Illinois Business Journal.

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