News that came out Tuesday about electricity prices in miserably hot Texas and in delightfully temperate New Hampshire reflected the biggest advantage of renewable energy, one that’s often overlooked: The fuel is free.
Texas is sweltering under an unexpectedly early heat wave, although climate change means no weather extreme is unexpected any more. At the same time, the price of natural gas and oil burned by its power plants are soaring as a result of the war in Ukraine.
Yet Texas’s highly variable energy market, which isn’t regulated the way they are in New England, hardly blinked. Why? The answer is renewables.
Years of investment in Texas wind farms and a surge of interest in solar panels meant that these two renewable sources with their free fuel took up almost 38% of the state’s total power load Tuesday. That’s more power from wind and solar than is used by all of New England.
“Because the price of wind and sunlight hasn’t doubled in the past year like other resources, they are acting as a hedge against high fuel prices,” said Joshua Rhodes, an energy researcher at UT Austin, told CNN.
Now switch to New Hampshire. On Tuesday came news that Liberty Utilities wants permission to roughly double the price of electricity starting in July in order to cover the soaring cost of natural gas, New Hampshire Bulletin reported. Other utilities are likely to follow suit. Get ready to see your electric bill increase by 40% or so.
The reason: New England’s electricity is heavily dependent on natural gas, which is used to produce slightly more than half our power. When fuel costs soar, regulated utilities pass the expense to customers.
We have only ourselves to blame for being stuck like this. In the past decade, New Hampshire and the rest of New England has shut nuclear power plants, blocked hydropower from Quebec, squelched offshore wind farms, slow-walked onshore wind and large solar plants, and closed coal-fired and oil-fired power plants (an environmental necessity but with repercussions). Natural gas is about all that’s left.
And despite brave talk about America’s energy independence from the fracking boom, natural gas is starting to become a global commodity, thanks to shipping liquid natural gas in tankers, and its price is affected by actions all over the world. For us household consumers it hardly matters how much of it America produces or how many pipelines carry it here. A war 5,000 miles away can make our electric bills rise by one-third or more and there’s nothing we can do about it in the short term.
In the longer term we can do plenty: building free-fuel energy sources to buttress future shocks, doubling down on energy efficiency so we don’t need to buy so much power in the first place, building more transmission lines (even though they’re ugly and expensive and I hate them too) to allow movement of electricity to where it’s needed, and getting our elected officials to revamp our laws and regulations to create a 21st-century energy economy.
Incidentally, there is one bright spot in New England’s bleak power picture: Rooftop solar. ISO-New England, the folks who run the six-state power grid, estimate that some 4,000 MW of solar panels sit on the region’s rooftops and back yards providing “behind the meter” power. That’s more than three times the output of Seabrook Station nuclear plant.
On several sunny, cool afternoons this spring, in fact, rooftop solar was the biggest single power source in the region, out-producing all natural gas plants combined. That’s never happened before and with spiking electricity prices making local solar more attractive by shorting the return on investment, expect it to happen more often. It won’t solve the problem by itself but it’s a bright spot amid a lot of murkiness.