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Utilities Policy 17 (2009) 288–296

Contents lists available at ScienceDirect

Utilities Policy
journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/jup

The intermittency of wind, solar, and renewable electricity

generators: Technical barrier or rhetorical excuse?
Benjamin K. Sovacool*
Centre on Asia and Globalisation, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, 469C Bukit Timah Road, Singapore 259772, Singapore

a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t

Article history: A consensus has long existed within the electric utility sector of the United States that renewable
Received 2 March 2008 electricity generators such as wind and solar are unreliable and intermittent to a degree that they will
Received in revised form 9 May 2008 never be able to contribute significantly to electric utility supply or provide baseload power. This paper
Accepted 16 July 2008
asks three interconnected questions:

Energy policy 1. What do energy experts really think about renewables in the United States?
Renewable energy 2. To what degree are conventional baseload units reliable?
Electric utility industry 3. Is intermittency a justifiable reason to reject renewable electricity resources?
Wind turbines
Solar photovoltaics (PV)
To provide at least a few answers, the author conducted 62 formal, semi-structured interviews
at 45 different institutions including electric utilities, regulatory agencies, interest groups,
energy systems manufacturers, nonprofit organizations, energy consulting firms, universities,
national laboratories, and state institutions in the United States. In addition, an extensive
literature review of government reports, technical briefs, and journal articles was conducted to
understand how other countries have dealt with (or failed to deal with) the intermittent nature
of renewable resources around the world. It was concluded that the intermittency of renew-
ables can be predicted, managed, and mitigated, and that the current technical barriers are
mainly due to the social, political, and practical inertia of the traditional electricity generation
Ó 2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction rare, too diffuse, too distant, too uncertain, and too ill-timed to
provide significant supplies at the times and places of need’’
Baseload power is the power that is ‘‘always on’’ to meet the (quoted in Sovacool, 2006). On the other hand, grid operators in
minimal amount of electricity demand that continually created by Denmark and Spain consistently integrate large numbers of
customers. Baseload power plants generate electricity at nearly renewable generators into their power grid, with Denmark
constant power, demand a high capacity factor, need output receiving 40 percent of their supply from wind during some
stability, and must operate reliably. Because it must always be months and, if government targets are met, surpassing the 60
available, this power is typically provided by large coal, natural gas, percent mark in the not too distant future. Germany is seeking to
and nuclear plants and is often called the ‘‘backbone’’ of the electric generate 100 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2030
utility industry. (Connolly, 2008).
A consensus has long existed within the electric utility sector of What, exactly, is going on? Is the European experience with
the United States that renewable electricity generators such as renewables an anomaly, explained by comparatively smaller
wind and solar are unreliable and intermittent to a degree that they countries with tighter transmission and distribution grids and
will never be able to contribute significantly to electric utility extreme subsidization of wind and solar technologies? Or is it proof
supply or provide baseload power. Thomas Petersik, an analyst for that intermittency need not hobble the potential of renewables and
the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), put it succinctly confine them to niche applications? Can the challenge of inte-
by stating that ‘‘by and large, renewable energy resources are too grating intermittent renewables be easily overcome with the right
type of utility commitment and planning?
* Tel.: þ65 6516 7501; fax: þ65 6468 4186. One need only look at recent International Energy Agency (IEA)
E-mail address: bsovacool@nus.edu.sg projections to glimpse the importance of exploring such questions.

0957-1787/$ – see front matter Ó 2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
B.K. Sovacool / Utilities Policy 17 (2009) 288–296 289

According to IEA’s (2007) World Energy Outlook, fossil fuels are not typically coincide with the maximum energy demand and
destined to remain the dominant energy source. The IEA projects market clearing price in terms of their seasonality and daily vari-
strong demand in China and India to push coal use upward so far ations’’ (Makarov et al., 2005, p. 2). Ralph Loomis, Senior Vice
that it accounts for 73 percent of global electricity supply by 2030, President at Exelon, argues that ‘‘you cannot dispatch wind. You get
with energy-related CO2 emissions jumping 57 percent as a result. the energy when the wind blows, often in the cool of the night
The IEA calculates that total greenhouse gas emissions will increase rather than the heat of the day’’ (Sovacool, 2006). Utilities call such
137 percent from today’s level over the same period. intermittent generation resources ‘‘non-dispatchable,’’ since they
If policymakers and utility executives take the climate change cannot be reliably called upon to generate electricity on demand.
challenge seriously, renewables offer one of few virtually carbon- Some system operators state that the intermittence of some
neutral energy alternatives. Yet if intermittency is truly an insur- renewable technologies greatly complicates forecasting. David
mountable technical obstacle for renewables in most large and Hawkins of the California Independent Systems Operator (ISO)
industrialized nations, shifting to other more cost-effective notes that:
approaches is essential. Either way, engineers have yet to build
Wind, for instance, can be forecasted and has predictable
a majority of the world’s power plants. The capital stock of electric
patterns during some periods of the year. California uses wind as
utility infrastructure turns over two or three times during the
an energy resource but it has a low capacity factor for meeting
course of most peoples’ lifetimes. Looking critically at the inter-
summer peak-loads. The total summer peak-load is 45,000 MW
mittency issue offers hope at assessing what role, if any, renewables
of load, but in January daily peak-loads are 29,000 MW, meaning
have to play in the future at displacing large and centralized fossil
that 16,000 MW of our system load is weather sensitive. In the
fuel plants.
winter and spring months, big storms come into California
Taking the United States, the world’s single largest consumer of
which creates dramatic changes in wind. We have seen ramps as
electricity, as its focus, this paper asks three interconnected
large as 800 MW of wind energy increases in 30 min, which can
be quite challenging (Sovacool, 2006).
1. What do energy experts really think about renewables in the In other words, system operators claim that the intermittent nature
United States? of wind power threatens to create power surges and shortages
2. To what degree are conventional baseload units reliable? when used on a large scale or for a large portion of a system’s needs.
3. Is intermittency a justifiable reason to reject renewable elec- Such intermittency, system operators imply, is not well suited
tricity resources? for modern wholesale electricity markets. In the restructured
Californian electricity market, for instance, system operators typi-
To provide at least a few answers, the author conducted 62 cally use five types of forecasts to determine how best to produce,
formal, semi-structured interviews at 45 different institutions price, and bill electricity the following day. Operators use a ‘‘day-
including electric utilities, regulatory agencies, interest groups, ahead forecast’’ to estimate system load for each hour of the
energy systems manufacturers, nonprofit organizations, energy following day; a ‘‘day-ahead market forecast’’ in which generators
consulting firms, universities, national laboratories, and state and load-serving utilities bid for producing and purchasing energy
institutions in the United States. (Full transcripts of these inter- and operating reserves; a ‘‘unit commitment forecast’’ in which
views are presented in Sovacool (2006), and were part of the system operators schedule the appropriate generation mix to serve
author’s dissertation). In addition, an extensive literature review of the load factors (taking into account prices, start up time, and
government reports, technical briefs, and journal articles was transmission congestion); a ‘‘real-time operation forecast’’ in which
conducted to understand how other countries have dealt with (or system operators adjust generating resources to match actual
failed to deal with) the intermittent nature of renewable resources demand in real time during the day; and a ‘‘market settlement
around the world. It was concluded that the intermittency of forecast’’ in which power generation and consumption is logged,
renewables can be predicted, managed, and mitigated, and that the and imbalances from scheduled values are financially settled
current technical barriers are mainly due to the social, political, and according to market rules. A report from the California ISO found
practical inertia of the traditional electricity generation system. that relying on wind energy excessively complicated each of the
five types of forecasts. As the study concluded, ‘‘although wind
2. Utility and operator expectations of renewable electricity generator output can be forecast a day in advance, forecast errors of
in the United States 20–50% are not uncommon’’ (Piwko et al., 2005).
System operators also note that forecast errors can seriously add
Utility managers, system operators, energy consultants, and to the levelized costs of renewable energy systems. Even though
government experts generally believe that the intermittency of errors in load forecasting or generation from other sources are
renewable resources is a serious obstacle to their wider use in the often larger, the intermittent nature of wind may result in penalties
United States. Wind and solar generation and electricity demand paid by utilities when generation supplies do not meet demand
follow different cycles; load exhibits a distinct diurnal pattern (NRECA, 2004). To overcome some of the forecasting problems
through all seasons, while renewable generation is often affected associated with the intermittence of wind and solar energy, utilities
by large-scale weather events that can have cycles of days or weeks. and system operators say they have had to supplement renewable
The output of solar photovoltaic systems will vary with the season, generation with fossil-fueled generators or expensive storage
time of day, and presence of clouds and rainfall. Wind systems must techniques. The problem, noted by Tim Cross, an energy corre-
also deal with the constant vagaries of weather and climate. Many spondent for the Economist, is that lags in wind can affect a great
within the electricity industry therefore believe that these forms of number of generators at once. As he explains:
variability serve as a powerful impediment. The Sustainable Development Commission, who are quite big
fans of wind power, admit that the capacity value drops off
2.1. Wind sharply as wind’s share of generation increases. If a widget
breaks in a Combined Cycle Gas Turbine (CCGT) plant that has
Focusing on wind energy, one analyst explained that it ‘‘has no impact on the probability of other CCGT plants shutting
unfavorable generation patterns, as its maximum generation does down. But obviously a drop in wind speed affects big swathes of
290 B.K. Sovacool / Utilities Policy 17 (2009) 288–296

your wind capacity since it affects all the turbines in an area storing electricity generated from PV technology using batteries,
equally. Forecasting can help to deal with this but the fact pumped storage, and flywheels also remain expensive. In addition,
remains that a couple of calm days will mean that you need to large metropolitan areas such as New York City and Washington,
get your power from somewhere else. There must be sufficient D.C., do not have bright, year-round sunlight, and they suffer from
capacity on the system to cope with very low production from long fall and winter seasons that result in greatly fluctuating power
your wind turbines (Sovacool, 2006). supplies from PV. Again, as with wind turbines, utilities argue that
this intermittency makes PV systems a poor choice not only for
Thus, even though the fuel for renewable generators like wind and
wholesale electricity markets and the provision of baseload power
solar technologies are widely dispersed throughout the country,
but also for peak-load power.
system operators highlight that they are not always available.
Peak-load power equipment refers to those generators that
So, to smooth out fluctuations in generation capacity, utilities
are switched on during times of high demand to supplement
claim that they need to be integrated with backup or supplemental
baseload generators. Many peak-load facilities use natural gas
power plants that operate continuously (often in the form of coal-,
turbines because they can be started and turned off quickly,
gas-fired, and nuclear plants). The need for supplemental genera-
unlike coal- and nuclear-fueled baseload units, which require
tion, such thinking goes, means that wind turbines typically cannot
hours to start up. These peaking facilities have become more
send their supply of power through the grid if there is a problem
important as demand for electricity in the United States
such as a blackout, and they need expensive storage technology to
continues to grow. For example, 90 percent of new power plants
operate during times of inadequate flows of air (Dworzak, 2005).
on order were gas-fueled for 2003 and 2004, and between 80
For instance, California Energy Commissioner Arthur Rosenfeld
percent and 90 percent of new generation capacity between
comments that:
1999 and 2004 has been fueled by natural gas (Pirog, 2004).
Germany had to build a huge reserve margin (close to 50 Because solar PV technologies cannot be switched ‘‘on’’ or ‘‘off’’
percent) to back up its wind. People show lots of pictures of as quickly, system operators will likely continue to see natural
wind turbines in Germany, yet you never see the standby power gas peaking facilities as a better alternative for the provision of
plants in the picture. This is precisely why utilities fear wind: the peak-load power. Joe Loper, Vice President for Research and
cost per kWh of wind on the grid looks good only without the Analysis at the Alliance to Save Energy, explained that utilities
provision of large margins of standby power (Sovacool, 2006). often believe that if a solar plant is on during periods of low
demand, then it replaces coal plants, which could be good for
Thomas Grahame, a senior researcher at the U.S. Department of
emissions but may not help reduce cost. If the solar system is
Energy’s Office of Fossil Fuels, comments that ‘‘when intermittent
running during peak-loads, then it may help to reduce emissions
sources become a substantial part of the electricity generated in
and perhaps even high variable costs since peak power is often
a region, the ability to integrate the resource into the grid becomes
generated with expensive natural gas, but it does not displace
considerably more complex and expensive. It might require the use
the need to build the peak power plant in the first place
of electricity storage technologies, which will add to cost. Addi-
(Sovacool, 2006).
tionally, new transmission lines will also be needed to bring the
new power to market. Both of these add to the cost’’ (Sovacool,
2.3. Summary
2006). Brice Freemen from Electric Power Research Institute notes
that the renewables work best only when ‘‘large-scale energy
Taken together, the combination of these factorsdintermit-
storage devices’’ can ‘‘accept electricity when it is produced by
tency, forecasting complexity, need for supplemental generation,
renewable resources and inject it into the grid during periods of
and grid interactiondhas convinced many system operators and
peak demand’’ (Sovacool, 2006).
utilities that renewable energy resources are not adequate
Ralph Loomis from Exelon adds that, in fact, the economics are
providers of baseload and peaking power. Utilities choose to
even more unfavorable towards renewable energy systems when
perceive the market value of renewable energy for utilities as equal
such systems are compared with baseload fossil-fueled generators.
only to the avoided costs of generation of most fossil-fueled
According to Loomis:
generators (around 2–3 cents/kWh) rather than the actual market
You need to install 6 MW of wind to get something comparable prices of electricity (around 8–10 cents/kWh). Since many renew-
of 1 MW of a more traditional fossil-fueled generation source. So able technologies depend on weather-related phenomena, Paul
while the cost per MW of wind may be increasingly competitive, Gilman, the Director of the Oak Ridge Center for Advanced Studies,
you still have to buy six times as much if you want to deal with noted that:
the resource adequacy side of the equation (Sovacool, 2006).
Renewable energy sources are not well designed (or designed at
This statement, while factually incorrect (most wind turbines have all) to provide baseload power . To force renewables to provide
capacity factors in the 30 percent range, meaning the ratio of wind baseload power is like trying to make a pig fly: you won’t
to fossil fuel would be 3:1 rather than 6:1), does show that utility succeed and you only make the pig unhappier (Sovacool, 2006).
managers and operators believe that wind turbines should really be
As a result, wind and solar are viewed as inappropriate for baseload
viewed as ‘‘supplemental’’ generators, since the generation of
and peak-load applications.
electricity only occurs when the resource is available, rather than
In essence, there seems to be a widely held view among those
when the load is needed by utilities.
involved with the American electric utility sector that:

2.2. Solar PV  Centralized, conventional power plants are the most reliable;
 Wind and solar output can drop to zero in a few seconds;
Naturally, these types of difficulties do not exist just for wind  Renewable generators significantly increase the vulnerability
energy. System operators complain that, much like wind turbines, of a given power system;
large- and utility-scale PV systems can only produce electricity  Every MW of fossil fuel generation must be backed up with
intermittently. They cannot function during the night, and their 6 MW of renewable energy generation;
users must rely on additional generating units (or the grid) to  Renewables are completely unsuited for the provision of
supplement lags in their production of electricity. The costs of baseload or peaking power.
B.K. Sovacool / Utilities Policy 17 (2009) 288–296 291

3. Assessing the reliability of conventional power plants went unexpectedly down in 1998 as the result of scheduled outages
and water shortages, wholesale power prices jumped to $3500/
To penalize renewables for their variability, however, may MWh (Murkowski, 2001, p. 82). The August 2003 blackout also
obscure equal amounts of variability inherent in conventional stopped 20 Canadian and American reactors instantly and without
fossil-fueled and nuclear resources. All electricity systems must warning.
respond to the complex interplay of constantly changing supply
and demand. They are subject to unexpected failures and outages, 3.2. Construction cost variance
and influenced by a large number of planned and unplanned
events. While it is certainly true that the output from conventional Conventional baseload generators are ‘‘lumpy systems’’ in the
power plants can be measured quite accurately, researchers from sense that additions to capacity are made in primarily large lumps
the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the American (gargantuan power plants, new transmission lines that must
Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy noted that virtually ‘‘every connect to them). These plants, unlike smaller and more decen-
other aspect of planning for and implementing that resource is tralized generators, have long lead times and uncertainties, making
riddled with uncertainty’’ (Vine et al, 2007). Three types of uncer- planning and construction difficult, especially when the balance of
tainty are most common: unexpected outages, variance in supply and demand can change rapidly within a short period of
construction costs, and variance in demand forecasts. time. They can also be extremely capital-intensive: a typical
1100 MW light water reactor can cost as much as $3 billion when
3.1. Unplanned outages licensing and construction expenses are included (Fertel, 2004).
Large variance exists between the projected costs and actual
Conventional outage rates typically vary from 5 to 20 percent, costs of conventional power plant construction. Experience has
meaning that units are only available 80–95 percent of the time. shown that there can be project delays and other unforeseen
Looking at coal generation performance in the United States from problems that can lead to considerable cost over-runs and even
2000 to 2004, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation project cancellations. Generally, the larger the project (in terms of
found that coal plants shut-down for scheduled maintenance 6.5 installed capacity and thus cost), the longer it takes to complete and
percent of the year and require unscheduled maintenance or the more it is at risk to unforeseen changes (such as interest rates,
experience forced outages another 6 percent of the year. Their labor costs, environmental regulations, etc.). The very fact that large
study noted that coal-output is guaranteed on average only 87.5 power plants take many years to construct and complete dates are
percent of the time in the United States, with a range of 79–92 imprecise adds uncertainty to the electric system (Vine et al., 2007).
percent (NERC, 2005). Amory Lovins from the Rocky Mountain Nuclear plants provide an excellent illustration. While the
Institute adds that an ordinary nuclear plant, even if it runs industry reports average costs of around $2000 per installed kilo-
perfectly, still shuts down completely for refueling an average of 37 watt, construction costs have varied extensively from about $1000
days every 17 months (Lovins, 2007, p. 249). The reliability of per installed kilowatt to six times as much. In Argentina, the
nuclear power plants thus rarely exceeds 93 percent. Hydroelectric 698 MW Attucha II reactor cost $6017 per installed kilowatt, but in
facilities are prone to alterations in output based on changes in the Brazil the 626 MW Angra I reactor cost $2874. Reactors projects
water cycle such as seasonal rain and runoff from snowpack. started, but never finished, in Egypt and Iran have cost about $4000
Biomass is subject to the seasonal rotation and harvesting of plants per installed kilowatt, while at the other end of the spectrum in
and energy crops. Wave and ocean energy technologies, if they ever France and Sweden reactors cost about $1200 (Keepin and Kats,
become viable, will vary their output according to tidal movements 1988). Keeping in mind that the Nuclear Energy Agency reports that
(every 12 h and 15 min) and the changing gravitational fields of the close to 60 percent of the investment needed for a new nuclear
moon and sun. project goes towards initial construction (Echavarri, 2007), and
According to a study looking at the British electricity sector construction cost variance becomes a huge issue for investors,
conducted by the Imperial College of London, for traditional utilities, and ratepayers.
generators as a whole, ‘‘there is, approximately, a one-in-ten chance
that unexpected failures (or forced outages) in power plant or 3.3. Variance in demand forecasts
electricity transmission networks will cause any individual
conventional generating unit not to be available to generate power’’ Larger, conventional baseload generators, because they take
(Gross et al., 2006, p. iv). In other words, there is a 10 percent risk longer to build, are also at greater risk of unexpected changes in
that a given future hour of capacity from conventional units will be electricity demand over long periods of time. We have a hard
unavailable or limited in capability due to forced outages and enough time predicting the weather or the outcome of political
mechanical failures. elections; imagine the difficulty of projecting how an entire society
Electric generating plants are complex machines after all, and will demand electricity five, ten, or even twenty years from now.
accidents do happen. While some of these risks can be reduced in Consider the historical record.
a purchased power scenario through contractual provisions, those In the 1970s and 1980s, excessively high forecasts of growth in
extra provisions increase the cost of the resource and, in any case, demand for electricity led to overbuilding of generating plants and
cannot eliminate all risk. As Meridium (2007), a utility consulting massive electric system cost over-runs in many states. One infa-
company, put it: mous example was in Washington State, where the Washington
Public Power System (WPPS) began a construction program for as
In today’s competitive market, forced or unplanned outages can
many as seven new nuclear power plants in the early 1970s. WPPS
be devastating to power producers, who can be exposed to the
believed that regional electricity requirements would grow by 5.2
risk of losing a generating unit during peak demand time. Such
percent each year well into the 1990s and starting building to meet
a loss could necessitate the immediate purchase of backup
their projections.
power at a replacement cost that could be several hundred
At the same time, the massive flood of nuclear power plant
times the normal price of power.
orders flowing in after the 1973 oil crisis caused a massive shortage
For newer technologies such as clean coal systems, the study esti- of skilled nuclear engineers and architects (69 plants were ordered
mates that reliability problems can cost as much as an additional in 1973 and 1974). Problems of plant design, poor craftsmanship,
$13 million/year for each plant. When a few nuclear plants in Ohio and strikes caused even longer delays. Five-year construction
292 B.K. Sovacool / Utilities Policy 17 (2009) 288–296

estimates lengthened to ten- and twelve-year periods. One WPPS standard [a law mandating the use of renewable generators] would
project started in 1970 did not finish until 1984, and the WPPS lead to lower generation from natural gas and coal facilities.’’
annual report in 1981 projected that $23.7 billion was needed to Examinations of fuel generation in several states confirm this
complete one of its plants after $5 billion had already been finding. The New York State Energy and Research Development
expended, all the while electricity growth dropped 65.4 percent Authority (NYSERDA, 2005) looked at load profiles for 2001 and
below original projections (Salsbury, 1991). concluded that 65 percent of the energy displaced by wind turbines
WPPS faced financial disaster and all but one of the plants was in New York would have otherwise come from natural gas facilities,
cancelled, leading to the country’s largest municipal bond default at 15 percent from coal-fired plants, 10 percent from oil-based
the time. The entire experience came to be called the ‘‘WHOOPS’’ generation, and 10 percent from out of state imports of electricity.
fiasco (as a play on the WPPS acronym) and is an enduring lesson of Alden Hathaway, Director of Green Power Programs at the Envi-
the risk associated with investing in large power plants. Consumers ronmental Resources Trust, found that every new kWh of renew-
across the Northwest are still paying for WHOOPS in their monthly able generation in Virginia would displace a portfolio of coal,
electricity bills. natural gas, and oil facilities (Hathaway, 2006). In Texas, the Union
While WHOOPS is perhaps the most spectacular example, of Concerned Scientists noted that renewable energy technologies
similar ‘‘boom and bust’’ cycles in power plant construction and primarily displace natural gas and coal facilities (UCS, 2005).
cost-over-runs occurred in many states during the 1980s, and Equally important, but often overlooked, is how renewable
directly produced the high electricity rates that spurred the ‘‘elec- generation can offset nuclear power in several regions of the United
tric restructuring’’ movement of the mid-1990s. In 1983 Cincinnati States. A study sponsored by the North Carolina Utilities Commis-
Gas & Electric announced that it planned to convert the 97 percent sion determined that renewables would displace facilities relying
finished William H. Zimmer nuclear plant into a coal-burning on nuclear fuels and minimize the environmental impacts associ-
facility to cut down cost, and managers converted the nearly ated with the extraction of uranium used to fuel nuclear reactors
completed Midland nuclear plant in Michigan to fossil fuels at the (Winer et al., 2007). In Oregon, the Governor’s Renewable Energy
last minute. Between 1972 and 1984, more than $20 billion in Working Group (2006) projected that every 50 MW of renewable
construction payments flowed into 115 nuclear power plants that energy would displace approximately 20 MW of baseload
were subsequently abandoned by their sponsors (Cavanagh, 1986). resources, including nuclear power. Environment Michigan esti-
Nor are cost over-runs limited to nuclear reactors or the 1980s. mates that a 20 percent renewable generator penetration would
In November 2006, Duke Energy announced that the price tag for displace the need for more than 640 MW of power that would have
the company’s proposed coal-fired power plants near Charlotte, otherwise come from both nuclear and coal facilities (Shriberg,
North Carolina had soared to $3 billion. Just two months prior, the 2006). Utilities in Ontario, Canada, are deploying renewable energy
company had reported to state utility regulators that the two plants systems in an attempt to displace all coal electricity generation in
would cost only $2 billion. Charlotte’s daily newspaper speculated the region entirely. And in Europe, researchers estimate that
that such a substantial cost discrepancy raised the possibility that a network of wind farms over parts of Europe and Northern Africa
the total expense for the plants could continue ballooning during could displace about 70 percent of the entire generation portfolio
the five years that the utility estimated it would take to build the (Czisch and Ernst, 2001).
Once large projects get built, their output is often subject to 4.2. Construction lead times
rapidly changing patterns in consumer demand (and thus required
load). Weather events such as sudden thunderstorms can persuade The quicker lead times for solar and wind projects enable a more
customers to switch on lights, just as unexpected hours of sunshine accurate response to load growth, and minimize the financial risk
can convince them to turn them off. Millions of people are associated with borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars to
constantly switching on and off equipmentdtelevisions, lights, finance plants for 10 or more years before they start producing
computersdthat demand instant power (Murawski, 2006). Thus a single kW of electricity. Florida Power & Light says it can take as
the entire electric utility system is already built to address variability, little as 3–6 months from groundbreaking to commercial operation
just of a different type. for new wind farms (Flavin et al., 2006, p. 16). In 2005, Puget Sound
Energy proved that FPL’s boast was achievable in practice when it
4. Assessing the reliability of renewable power plants brought eighty-three 1.8 MW wind turbines to its Hopkins Ridge
Wind Project from groundbreaking to commercial operation in
The intermittency of renewable resources does have to be exactly 6 months and 9 days (Garratt, 2005).
managed, but there are many strong reasons why it is not a justi- Solar panels can be built in various sizes, placed in arrays
fication to exclude them from power portfolios. As this section ranging from watts to megawatts, and used in a wide variety of
notes, operating experience in the United States shows that solar applications, including centralized plants, distributed sub-station
panels displace peaking units and wind turbines displace baseload plants, grid connected systems for home and business use, and off-
units. Wind and solar often do so more quickly and with shorter grid systems for remote power use. PV systems have long been used
construction lead times that minimize the risks associated with to power remote data relaying stations critical to the operation of
unexpected changes in electricity demand. The rising capacity supervisory control and data acquisition systems used by electric
factors for wind and solar generators have drastically improved and gas utilities and government agencies. Solar installations may
their output in the past ten years, meaning that most renewable require even less construction time than wind or geothermal
generators have less unplanned outages compared to conventional facilities since the materials are pre-fabricated and modular. Ravis
units, often exceeding the 97 percent reliability mark. (2007), a project finance manager for TD BankNorth, recently told
industry analysts that utility-level PV systems can come online in as
4.1. Operating experience little as two months if the panels are available.
Utilities and investors can cancel wind and solar plants easier, so
Renewable power generators already displace a significant abandoning a project is not a complete loss (and recoverable value
share of baseload generation, contrary to the beliefs of many within exists should the technologies need to be resold as commodities in
the American electricity industry. The U.S. EIA (2002) has deter- a secondary market). Smaller units with shorter lead times reduce
mined that ‘‘the imposition of [a national] renewable portfolio the risk of purchasing a technology that becomes obsolete before it
B.K. Sovacool / Utilities Policy 17 (2009) 288–296 293

is installed, and quick installations can better exploit rapid learning, system stability. However, with practical experience gathering,
as many generations of product development can be compressed for example, in the Western Danish region where over 20
into the time it would take to build one giant power plant. In percent of the yearly electricity load is covered with wind energy,
addition, outage durations tend to be shorter than those from larger this view has been refuted . Bigger units of power plants bring
plants and repairs for reciprocating gas and diesel engines take less with them the need for both greater operational and capacity
money, time, and skill. As Lovins et al., (2002) concluded, ‘‘tech- reserve since outages cause greater disturbances to the system.
nologies that deploy like cell phones and personal computers are The higher the technical availability, the lower the probability of
faster than those that build like cathedrals. Options that can be unexpected outages and thus the lower the requirements of
mass produced and adopted by millions of customers will save short-term operational reserve. Wind power plants actually
more carbon and money sooner than those that need specialized score favorable against both criteria, since they normally employ
institutions, arcane skills, and suppression of dissent.’’ small individual units (currently up to 5 MW) and have a record
of high technical availability (43–44).
4.3. Improved capacity factors Renewable energy technologies also improve overall system reli-
ability because they tend to be dispersed and decentralized. It is
A capacity factor is the ratio of a generating facilities’ actual considered a general principle in electrical and power systems
output over time compared to its theoretical output if it were engineering that the larger a system becomes, the less reserve
operating at maximum efficiency. The U.S. EIA (2000) estimated capacity it needs. Demand variations between individual consumers
that the average capacity factor for all power plants in the United are mitigated by grid interconnection in exactly this manner.
States was approximately 55 percent. That is, over a long period of Just like consumers average out each other in electricity
time, an average power plant actually contributes to the electricity demand, individual wind farms average out each other in electricity
grid only 55 percent of its theoretical maximum output. Nuclear supply. As the European Wind Energy Association concluded:
and hydroelectric generators have boasted the highest capacity
factors, occasionally exceeding 90 percent. Coal ranks near the Wind power is variable in output but the variability can be
middle, with a capacity factor of about 60 percent. Less reliable predicted to a great extent . Variations in wind energy are
natural gas generators have much lower capacity factors of 29 smoother, because there are hundreds or thousands of units
percent, in part, because gas-fired plants are often ‘‘peaking’’ units rather than a few large power stations, making it easier for the
(i.e., they are designed to have a low capacity factor). system operator to predict and manage changes in supply as
Historically, all forms of electricity generation have followed the they appear within the overall system. The system will not notice
same general trend: the more the technologies get deployed, the the shut-down of a 2 MW wind turbine. It will have to respond
higher their capacity factor (and the lower their costs). The inter- to the shut-down of a 500 MW coal-fired plant or a 1000 MW
relationship between rising capacity factors and installed capacity nuclear plant instantly (EWEA, 2005, pp. 7–9).
suggests that deploying more clean energy technologies will In other words, the modular and dispersed nature of technologies
significantly improve their capacity factors, except with renew- such as wind and solar improves overall system reliability because
ables, the ‘‘fuel’’ is free for the taking. Recent experience with wind outages, when they rarely to occur, can be better managed.
energy seems to confirm this rule. In 2000, wind turbines reported One study, conducted by the nonpartisan Midwest ISO, pro-
capacity factors in the low teens. But by 2006, when installed wind jected the operation of 152 wind sites (nominally 40 MW each) in
energy had more than tripled in the United States, wind turbines the state of Minnesota, and calculated their operation every 5 min
registered capacity factors in the high 30 percent range and even as the simulation progressed through three years. The study found
the low 40 percent range. Newer wind projects in Oahu, Hawaii, that the additional cost of reserves required to manage the overall
and San Gorgonio, California, have even achieved capacity factors of system were about one tenth of a cent/kWh. As the study noted:
36 and 38 percent. In a 2006 analysis, the EIA observed that wind
turbine capacity factors appeared to be improving over time and Wind generation does make a calculable contribution to system
concluded that ‘‘capacity factor grows as a function of capacity reliability in spite of the fact that it cannot be dispatched like
growth’’ (Namovicz, 2006). most conventional resources . The addition of wind generation
Solar energy appears to follow this same pattern. In the early to supply 20 percent of Minnesota retail electric power can be
1980s, with 10 MW of solar panels installed globally, the average reliably accommodated by the electric power system (EnerNex
capacity factor was around 9 percent. By 1995, however, after more and MISO, 2006, p. xiii, xxi).
than 70 MW had been installed, the average efficiency of panels A similar assessment performed by General Electric for the New
jumped to almost 15 percent, and in the past five years has sur- York ISO investigated a 10 percent wind penetration scenario in
passed 21 percent (Kammen, 2004). The central lesson seems to be New York State, or the addition of about 3300 MW of nameplate
the more wind and solar technologies get physically deployed, the wind capacity on a 33,000 MW peak-load system. Researchers also
more efficient they become. assumed that wind capacity was located across 30 different sites.
The study found ‘‘no credible single contingency’’ that led to
4.4. Less unplanned outages a significant loss of generation, and that since the system was
already designed to handle a loss of 1200 MW due to the unreli-
Closely connected to the improving capacity factor of renew- bility of conventional generators, it had more than enough resil-
ables is their high technical reliability. Modern wind turbines and iency to enable the incorporation of wind (Piwko et al., 2005). This
solar panels have less unplanned outages, operating reliably more could be why even though the United States has more than
than 97.5 percent of the time (IEA, 2005). Moreover, such high 12,000 MW of installed wind capacity, not a single conventional
reliability is for one wind turbine, so any amount of significant wind unit has been installed as a backup generator (DeMeo et al., 2005).
power in an electricity system would never see all (hundreds of
thousands of turbines) down at the same time. In fact, the IEA
4.5. Effective load carrying capability
(2005) recently concluded that:
Initially, it was believed that only a small amount of intermittent Not all electricity is created equal. A better metric for deter-
capacity was permissible on the grid without compromising mining the availability of electricity resources in any given region is
294 B.K. Sovacool / Utilities Policy 17 (2009) 288–296

the ‘‘effective load carrying capability,’’ or ELCC. The ELCC refers to they generate power in smaller increments that are less damaging
the difference between the amount of energy a generating unit than unexpected outages from large plants.
produces and the amount of energy that can actually be used by A fourth study from the European Wind Energy Association
consumers at any given time (Perez, 1996). For example, nuclear assessed the wind portfolios of all major European power providers
and hydropower units have relatively low ELCCs because they are and concluded the same way, noting that:
producing about the same amount of electricity 24 h a day. In times
A large contribution from wind energy . is technically and
of low demand, these units are throttled back or shut-down.
economically feasible, in the same order of magnitude as the
Photovoltaics have great value as a reliable source of power
individual contributions from the conventional technologies
during extreme peak-loads. Substantial evidence from many peer-
developed over the past century. These large shares can be
reviewed studies demonstrates an excellent correlation between
realized while maintaining a high degree of system security
available solar resources and periods of peak demand. Because
(EWEA, 2005, p. 13).
solar generators tend to produce the greatest amount of energy
during the same times consumer demand is highest, solar has an In California, Kahn (1979) investigated the reliability and ELCC of
amazingly high ELCC relative to other technologies (Perez, 1996). In arrays of different generators in California, varying from 2 to 13
many parts of the country, solar PV has an ELCC above 70 percent. connected sites. He found that most parameters, such as the
In many parts of the Southeast, solar’s ELCC exceeds 60 percent availability of wind and capacity factor, improved as the size of the
(Silcker, 2004). Researchers in Sacramento, California, estimated array increased.
that the ELCC for solar PV within the city was so high that the actual Looking inversely at the risk of sudden reductions in wind
value of solar energy was more than $6000/kW (Robertson and availability, another study from Stanford University demonstrated
Cliburn, 2006). That is, because solar PV generated electricity at that the frequency of zero- and low-wind events over a network of
periods of high demand, its value was greater than electricity eight sites in the central US was less than 2 percent (Archer and
generated by other units throughout the day. Jacobson 2003). Seventh, the American Wind Energy Association
NREL researchers compared the recorded ELCC of solar PV compared wind power capacity factors from individual wind farms
deployed by utilities in nearly every region of the country to earlier with an array of 28 interconnected sites in the central United States
theoretical estimates of ELCC. Not only did NREL find that actual and concluded that interconnection reduced variability in energy
ELCC closely matched expectations, its analysis demonstrates that production by a factor of 1.75–3.4 (Simonsen and Stevens, 2004).
valuable amounts of solar PV are available in every region of the The authors also found that the combined energy output from
United States (Perez et al., 2006). In California, a PV array with interconnected sites had a smoother diurnal pattern and maximum
a capacity of 5000 MW reduces the peak-load for that day by about output in the afternoon, during the peak time of electrical demand.
3000 MW, cutting in half the number of natural gas ‘‘peakers’’ Eighth, Archer and Jacobson (again from Stanford University)
needed to ensure reserve capacity (Herig, 2002). looked at the benefits of interconnecting wind farms at 19 sites
located in the Midwestern United States and found that an average
4.6. Spatial diversification of 33 percent and a maximum of 47 percent of yearly averaged wind
power from interconnected farms can be used as reliable, baseload
Perhaps incongruously, no less than nine studies show that the electric power. They concluded that almost all parameters from
variability of renewables becomes easier to manage the more they wind power showed substantial improvements as the number of
are deployed (not the other way around, as some utilities suggest). interconnected sites increased, including standard deviations of
In one study conducted by the Imperial College of London, array-average wind speed and wind power, reliability, and the need
researchers assessed the impact that large penetration rates (i.e., for energy storage or reserve capacity. They also found no satura-
above 20 percent) of renewable energy would have on the power tion of benefits, meaning that positive marginal improvements
system in the United Kingdom. The study found that the benefits of always occurred as the number of interconnected farms increased
integrating renewables would far exceed their costs, and that (Archer and Jacobson, 2007).
‘‘intermittent generation need not compromise electricity system Ninth, when interconnecting wind and solar farms is not prac-
reliability at any level of penetration foreseeable in Britain over the ticable or possible, such systems can be integrated with energy
next 20 years.’’ Let me repeat this conclusion for emphasis: storage technologies to operate as baseload plants. Paul Denholm
renewable energy technologies can be integrated at any level of and his colleagues from NREL note that attaching wind turbines to
foreseeable penetration without compromising grid stability or compressed air energy storage technologies can improve their
system reliability. capacity factor above 70 percent, making them ‘‘functionally
A second study noted that when done on a regional scale, equivalent to a conventional baseload plant’’ (Denholm et al.,
renewables contribute to overall system reliability slightly more. 2005). Pumped hydro storage systems can also improve the
Engineers in Ontario, Canada, assessed the impact of 20 percent potential of renewables to offset baseload generation. Bonneville
wind penetration on its regional electricity grid (AWS, 2005). The Power Administration, a large federal utility in the Pacific North-
study accounted for seasonal wind and load patterns, daily wind west, uses its existing 7000 MW hydroelectric and pumped hydro
and load patterns, changing capacity value for delivering power storage network to do just that. Starting in 2005, Bonneville offered
during peak-load, and geographic diversity. It used wind and load a new business service to ‘‘soak up’’ any amount of intermittent
data for May 2003 to April 2004, and concluded that the more wind renewable output, and sell it as firm output from its hydropower
that existed on the system and the more geographically dispersed it network one week later. Such storage technologies can have greater
was, the more it reduced volatilitydin some cases by up to 70 than 1000 MW of capacity (depending on location), and operate
percent. according to fast response times and relatively low operating costs.
A third study conducted a meta-analysis of utility experience Pumped hydro and compressed air storage systems are already
with large wind farms in six locations: Xcel Energy North in Min- commercially available and offer a combined 22.1 GW of installed
nesota; the California ISO in Northern California; We Energies in capacity in the United States (University of Oregon, 2001).
Wisconsin; PacifiCorp in Oregon and Wyoming; NYISO in New Each of these studies suggest that significant benefits occur with
York; and Xcel Energy West in Colorado (DeMeo et al., 2005). The the geographic dispersion of renewable energy technologies, espe-
authors argue that modern wind plants help grid operators handle cially if winds, sunlight, and other renewable fuels vary considerably
major outages and contingencies elsewhere in the system, since over large regions. Claiming that the variability of renewable energy
B.K. Sovacool / Utilities Policy 17 (2009) 288–296 295

technologies means that the costs of managing them are too great Garratt, Roger. Comments on the Hopkins Ridge Wind Project (on file with author).
November 27, 2005.
has no factual basis in light of the operating experience of renew-
Governor’s Renewable Energy Working Group. Considerations regarding a Renew-
ables in Denmark, Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada, and a host able Portfolio Standard (RPS) Framework for the State of Oregon, July 11, 2006
of renewable energy sites in the United States. (on file with author).
Gross, R., et al., March, 2006. The Costs and Impacts of Intermittency: An Assess-
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Hikes in Virginia. Presentation to the Energy Virginia Conference, October 17,
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Conference and Exhibition in Denver, Colorado, May 15–18, 2005, p. 2.
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November 17.
‘‘business as usual’’ and tend to culminate in dedicated constitu-
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encies that may resist change. Managers of the system obviously Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, March 15, 2001.
prefer to maintain their domain and, while they may seek increased Namovicz, Chris. Issues in Wind Resource Supply Data and Modeling. In: Presen-
efficiencies and profits, they do not want to see the introduction of tation at the ASA Committee on Energy Statistics, Fall 2006 Meeting, October 5,
new and disruptive ‘‘radical’’ technologies that may reduce their NRECA (National Rural Electric Cooperative Association), 2004. NRECA White Paper
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U.S. EIA, February, 2002. Impacts of a 10-Percent Renewable Portfolio Standard. U.S. Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He is also an Adjunct Assistant
Department of Energy, Washington, DC. Available at: http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/ Professor at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University in Blacksburg, VA,
FTPROOT/service/sroiaf(2002)03.pdf. where he has taught for the Government and International Affairs Program and the
Vine, E.D., Kushler, M., York, D., 2007. Energy myth tendenergy efficiency Department of History. He has worked closely with the U.S. National Science Foun-
measures are unreliable, unpredictable, and unenforceable. In: Sovacool, B.K., dation’s Electric Power Networks Efficiency and Security Program, Virginia Tech
Brown, M.A. (Eds.), Energy and American SocietydThirteen Myths. Springer, Consortium on Energy Restructuring, Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research,
New York. New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, Oak Ridge National
Winer, J., Hong, M.-F., Spellman, D. Renewable Portfolio Standard: Analysis for the Laboratory, and U.S. Department of Energy’s Climate Change Technology Program. His
State of North Carolina. March 8, 2007 (on file with author). most recent book is an edited volume entitled Energy and American SocietydThir-
teen Myths (published by Springer in 2007), and he has a solely authored book
entitled The Dirty Energy DilemmadWhat’s Blocking Clean Power in the United
Dr. Benjamin K. Sovacool is currently a Research Fellow in the Energy Governance States forthcoming in late 2008 (to be published by Praeger). Email: bsovacool@nus.
Program at the Centre on Asia and Globalization, part of the Lee Kuan Yew School of edu.sg