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Documents > The backup problem > Reality catching up with Californians: More renewable energy means more fossil fuels

Reality catching up with Californians

More renewable energy means more fossil fuels

Excerpts from: Rise in renewable energy will require more use of fossil fuels
December 9, 2012 | By Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times

When the windmills stand still, a backup system of gas-fired generators is activated to keep enough energy flowing on the grid. Graphics: IERDC

« One of the hidden costs of solar and wind power — and a problem the state is not yet prepared to meet — is that wind and solar energy must be backed up by other sources, typically gas-fired generators. As more solar and wind energy generators come online, fulfilling a legal mandate to produce one-third of California's electricity by 2020, the demand will rise for more backup power from fossil fuel plants.

"The public hears solar is free, wind is free," said Mitchell Weinberg, director of strategic development for Calpine Corp., which owns Delta Energy Center. "But it is a lot more complicated than that."

Wind and solar energy are called intermittent sources, because the power they produce can suddenly disappear when a cloud bank moves across the Mojave Desert or wind stops blowing through the Tehachapi Mountains. In just half an hour, a thousand megawatts of electricity — the output of a nuclear reactor — can disappear and threaten stability of the grid.

To avoid that calamity, fossil fuel plants have to be ready to generate electricity in mere seconds. That requires turbines to be hot and spinning, but not producing much electricity until complex data networks detect a sudden drop in the output of renewables. Then, computerized switches are thrown and the turbines roar to life, delivering power just in time to avoid potential blackouts.


The cost to consumers in the years ahead could be in the billions of dollars, according to industry experts. California's electricity prices are already among the highest in the nation and are projected to rise sharply in coming years. At the moment, the need for reserve power isn't considered a cost of renewable power, though consumers have to bear its costs as well. »

Full article: Los Angeles Times | December 9, 2012


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