The Obama administration’s “Clean Power Plan,” the vast new scheme of regulations on power plants the EPA unveiled this Monday, is like every form of central planning that came before it. It is a monument to the faith that government edicts can overturn the laws of economics—and the laws of physics.
The plan is more than just a set of burdensome new regulations. It is a vision for a new national electrical power system heavily dependent on “renewable energy” sources that will supposedly prevent global warming. But this vision is deeply unscientific and physically impossible to achieve.
The plan relies on three big absurdities.
Wind and solar are not reliable power sources.
The Clean Power Plan is not just about reducing the amount of energy generated from coal in favor of, say, natural gas. (That’s something that has already been happening through a combination of new government regulations and market forces, especially the flood of cheap natural gas from fracking.) Nor is it about moving from fossil fuels to a proven alternative like nuclear power.
Instead, the big news about this plan is that it would impose a national-level mandate to generate 28% of our electrical power from solar panels and wind turbines, with about two-thirds of that coming from wind. The absurdity is that these don’t really count as reliable sources of power.
A conventional plant—natural gas, coal, or nuclear—basically works like the gas pedal on your car. It produces power on command, as and when you need it. Add more fuel, increase the speed of the motor, and you get more power. This allows utilities to reliably scale their output to follow demand, generating more power during peak times. Solar and wind, by contrast, produce power only when the sun shines or the wind blows, which doesn’t necessarily track with demand. Wind energy, for example, produces the most power during evenings in the Spring and Fall, which is when demand is at its lowest. And that certainly won’t do you any good on a sweltering August afternoon.
Being able to match supply with demand on the electrical grid is not optional. Bad things happen if that fails. To deal with this, utilities can adopt a regime of rolling blackouts during periods of peak demand—a common feature of Third World power systems, and a feature of the First World if environmentalists have their way. (As a demonstration project for this brave old world, British academics built a coffee maker that only works when the wind is blowing.) Or, since a developed economy cannot function on a capricious power supply, they have to match nearly every kilowatt of “renewable” power capacity with a conventional backup. For every wind farm, they have to have a conventional power plant on standby or running at the low end of its capacity, ready to make up the shortfall when the wind goes slack.
This runs smack into another one of the “building blocks” of the new EPA proposal, which is to require natural gas-fired power plants to increase their efficiency by running much closer to the peak of their capacity. So the EPA will demand that conventional plants run at 70% or more of their capacity—even as the switch to “renewable energy” requires that they run at 25% or 50% of capacity to provide backup for all the new windmills and solar panels.
This whole system is spectacularly inefficient. It means paying a lot of money for very expensive electrical generation capacity, and then being able to reliably use only a fraction of it—while you also pay to build and run a whole redundant conventional power system as a backup. It also means you don’t save that much in terms of carbon dioxide emissions, which is supposed to be the whole point, because you’ve got fossil fuel plants all fired up but only running at half-throttle or on “hot” standby.
That brings us to the other giant engineering failure of the EPA’s proposed power system.