Politics & Policy

Hillary Clinton’s Blackout America

(Dreamstime image: Liaokefeng)
The reality of heavy reliance on wind and solar is huge costs and frequent failures.

Three presidential debates in which there was only one question on the subject that, more than any other, would transform America under Hillary Clinton. “We can be the 21st-century clean-energy superpower and create millions of new jobs and businesses,” the Democratic nominee declared during the second debate. Does she really think that? Does she even know what she really thinks?

Privately, Mrs. Clinton is as close as you can get to an energy realist in a party completely in hock to the environmental movement. She wants to defend fracking and natural gas, but daren’t in public. As the WikiLeaks hack reveals, she tells a blue-collar audience that environmentalist activists should get a life, but doesn’t tell them that to their faces. “The honeymoon won’t last ten minutes,” green activist Bill McKibben warned earlier this week, threatening to redouble the green onslaught on her from November 9.

In truth, McKibben and his allies have already won. Whatever she thinks, Clinton is a prisoner of her public positions. She promises to install half a billion solar panels by 2020, a sevenfold increase from today, and has set a target to generate one-third of America’s electricity from renewable sources by 2027. It would mean that the U.S. would beat the EU’s 27 percent target by three years and six percentage points.

This is an absurdly vast challenge. Even the Europeans have soured on the costs and immense practical difficulties of integrating unreliable wind and solar into the grid. The benefits of Mrs. Clinton’s plan would flow mostly to China — eight of the top ten manufacturers of solar photovoltaic panels last year were Chinese. Its costs would fall on Americans in the form of spiraling electricity bills, a large part of which would go to pay for grid-management tools to reduce the risk of blackouts, and even these may not work very well.

A case in point: South Australia, where coal-fired power stations have been replaced with wind farms. Forty percent of its electricity comes from renewable energy — and the state has the most expensive electricity in Australia. When, earlier this year, the last coal-fired power station was taken off-line, South Australians were warned they were heading into uncharted waters. “There’s an increased level of risk that we haven’t seen anywhere in the world,” Matthew Warren, chief executive of the Australian Energy Council, said last May.

Four months later, South Australians learned what that meant. During a heavy storm on September 28, a cascade of events occurring within 12 seconds — faults on transmission towers, a consequent sudden reduction in output from six wind farms, which shut down to prevent damage, whereupon the interconnector from neighboring Victoria shut down as well — led to the collapse of the system, plunging the state into a blackout.

Wind and solar offer the grid no inertia, making a system that is dependent on them very fragile.

Renewables apologists said the weather and the transmission towers were the cause, with climate scientist Professor Will Steffen of the Australian National University blaming climate change for contributing to increased storm intensity. “This is a prelude to a disturbing future. And it’s only going to get worse if we don’t address climate change,” he said. As Australian blogger Joanne Nova explains, “A stable grid needs ‘synchronous inertia’ — big reliable turbines that drive at near constant speeds. Coal turbines are 600 tons and spin at 3,000 rpm. That’s inertia.”

Low inertia grids lack this gyroscopic stability and are inherently unstable. Wind and solar offer the grid no inertia, making a system that is dependent on them very fragile. If you actually believe that man-made climate change makes storms worse, it’s pretty dumb to make the grid more vulnerable to bad weather.

To mitigate the effects of variable weather and sunlight, renewables lobbyists argue that interconnectors between grids can create a pan-continental super-grid, something Mrs. Clinton alluded to in the third debate when she said she wanted an electric grid that crosses borders. The shutdown of the interconnector with Victoria confirms European experience and shows this argument for what it is. While interconnectors are useful for trading electricity, when they are most needed for balancing, they are likely to shut down to protect themselves from being overloaded.

We’re learning the hard way what we lose when we take big, heavy gas and coal-fired power stations off the grid. They don’t just supply electrical energy; they also supply stability, reliability, and resilience. And they get you up and running again after a system failure. As electrical engineers put it, you can’t “black start” a grid with wind and solar.

Should Mrs. Clinton want a preview of the effects of her wind and solar plans closer to home, she could look across the St. Lawrence River at what’s happening in the liberal utopia of Ontario. In the province’s 2003 election, Liberals promised to replace the 25 percent of electricity it was getting from coal with wind and solar. Ontario now boasts of being the first jurisdiction in North America with a significant reliance on coal to eliminate all coal-fired electricity.

What it doesn’t talk about is the effect on utility bills, for one very good reason: Electricity prices in Ontario have doubled since 2005. As documented by the Financial Post’s Terence Corcoran, the policy is a complete fiasco. Reductions in carbon dioxide emissions have been achieved at a cost of $187 per tonne, half as much again as the very top of the range of the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2015 Social Cost of Carbon of $13 to $122 per tonne. Such is the voter backlash that the province’s premier, Kathleen Wynne, can’t mention the name of Ontario’s electrical utility without being booed. “Ontarians have never been this angry,” a polling organization reported.

What of Mrs. Clinton’s promise to make America a clean-energy superpower? Keynesian economists such as Harvard’s Larry Summers are in a funk about secular stagnation. Productivity data from Britain show what happens when politicians and environmentalists take control of the electricity sector. In the ten years ending in 2004, output per hour more than doubled. In the ten years since 2004, output per hour fell by 40.2 percent. You don’t have to be a Harvard economics professor to see that if you increase the labor and capital needed to produce a kilowatt-hour of electricity, its cost goes up and the productivity of your economy goes down. Higher electricity bills for the privilege of a less reliable grid? Welcome to Hillary Clinton’s blackout America.

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