The Pope Is an Energy Wonk. Engineers Agree with His Assessment.

June 19, 2015
Mike Jacobs
Senior Energy Analyst

From the Papal encyclical: “In some places, cooperatives are being developed to exploit renewable sources of energy which ensure local self-sufficiency and even the sale of surplus energy. This simple example shows that, while the existing world order proves powerless to assume its responsibilities, local individuals and groups can make a real difference.”

Solar panels on First Parish in Concord, MA. Credit: Laura Bremner

Solar panels on First Parish in Concord, MA. Credit: Laura Bremner

I am a volunteer on the board of Vineyard Power Co-operative that has installed close to a thousand solar panels on an island. I also arranged for 70 solar panels added to the roof of a church in my town, supported by church members’ donations.

Beyond the churches, the Pope’s teachings are supported by the most comprehensive engineering analyses of the U.S. power grid.  Let’s take a look.

The Pope’s guidance on renewable energy is straightforward

Again, from the encyclical:

“We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas — needs to be progressively replaced without delay.”

 “There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy. There is still a need to develop adequate storage technologies.”

And the engineers?

Also this week, with less fanfare, the National Renewable Energy Lab issued a report summarizing nine prior in-depth engineering analyses of replacing coal and gas electricity generation with wind and solar. These prior studies all found answers for all engineering questions for rapid CO2 reductions through replacement of coal and gas with renewable energy. The utility industry organizations that created these studies have operational and reliability responsibility for the power grid in 31 states.

These studies explore, in the greatest detail known in the U.S., the impact of running the grid with high levels of wind and solar to provide carbon savings of approximately 30% from power plants, just as proposed in the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. The reports from grid operators PJM, Mid-Continent ISO, and ISO-New England say things like:

The study concluded that as long as sound engineering practices and judgment were applied to system design/implementation, the PJM system would be as robust with 20% to 30% renewable energy penetration as it would be with the existing generation fleet.”

The fact that this week’s NREL study supports the Pope was not planned, but it is also not a coincidence. The engineering studies describe what can be accomplished with a good attitude. And the Pope provides moral authority to do what is within our power.

NREL’s team presented these studies to address the doom-and-gloom reaction of the North American Electricity Corporation (NERC) to the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. Because NERC defines its purpose to identify the reliability problems that could arise from trends, NERC does not describe sound practices or the solutions that our market, engineering, and political systems contribute to building a modern electric power system that can absorb a change to renewable energy. Thus, something of an attitude or cultural difference creates the debate between the grid operators writing these studies that NREL has summarized, and the NERC assessments.

In contrast, NREL reviews the past studies to directly answer the questions that properly arise from operators and planners. Keep in mind how these studies are conducted, reviewed, and released by the power grid operators that are authorized by NERC to maintain the reliability of regional grids.

The studies summarized by NREL make two key assumptions about how people would act: 1) Utility industry professionals would adhere to sound engineering practices, and 2) the public and their representatives in relevant public offices would make the decisions to build additional transmission as needed.

The teachings of the Pope can only reinforce our expectations that these assumptions are reasonable and achievable.

What is the relevance of these studies of wind and solar generation supplying 20% to 40% of annual electricity?

These close examinations reveal the discretion provided to incumbent fossil-fueled generation can interfere with the goals of reducing CO2 emissions. For example, improved practices can make more New England power plants respond to ISO-New England dispatch and make the system more flexible for high levels of renewable generation.

The Western Wind and Solar Integration Study and the PJM report found economic changes available with high levels of renewables, such as operating peaking turbines for a few hours prior to sunrise and after sunset rather than committing larger intermediate and baseload generation to run throughout the day. Accounting for increased starts and stops of the existing generators did not increase total costs and emissions, because these costs are small relative to the savings in fuel.

For example, wind and solar totaling 33% of generation in the western United States would increase annual wear-and-tear costs from cycling from $35 million to $157 million, which are minor compared to the costs of annual fuel displaced across the Western Interconnection (approximately $7 billion).

This week’s NREL report reminds us that the Minnesota Renewable Energy Integration and Transmission Study and the third of the Western Wind and Solar Integration Studies answer debates over the technical questions of system reliability, addressing NERC worries about “essential services.”

Are good practices assumed here that NERC (or other naysayers) are omitting to raise alarms?

Sure, there are key technical assumptions about “essential services” that really help, though you won’t get me to define them here. These two studies assumed that new wind turbine generators use modern designs, and that new wind and utility-scale solar generation meets present minimum performance requirements.

Also, the Western study found some use of new controls on wind, solar photovoltaic, concentrating solar power plants, and energy storage are effective at improving frequency response. System-wide transient stability can be maintained with traditional transmission system reinforcements. With further reinforcements, including nonstandard items such as synchronous condenser conversions, coal plant use can be reduced 90%.

 And this is good?

Yes. Plus the Minnesota study showed that adding wind and solar to supply 40% of Minnesota’s annual electric retail sales can be reliably accommodated by the electric power system, with upgrades to existing transmission.

Starting with a good attitude, and sound engineering, the Pope’s teachings on renewable energy are ready for implementation in every town. Go ahead, we can do it.