America's energy future: It's not just blowin' in the wind

Posted: Monday, May 24, 2010

Think Washington can't get any more out of touch? Well, Congress is considering measures that would raise our electric bills and kill more than one million jobs.

Sounds like hyperbole. But that's exactly what a renewable electricity standard (RES) would do. An RES (imbedded in legislation already approved by a Senate committee and part of the House global warming bill that passed last June) requires that a set amount of the nation's electricity be generated by wind or other approved alternatives.

It stands to reason that an RES would raise electricity costs. After all, if wind energy could compete with conventional sources like coal, natural gas or nuclear, there wouldn't be any need for a federal law forcing us to use it.

We don't have to guess, however. A study by The Heritage Foundation looked at a hypothetical RES starting at 3 percent in 2012 and rising by 1.5 percentage points each year after that - reaching 15 percent by 2020 and 22.5 percent by 2025. This roughly coincides with the pending proposals in Congress.

Heritage projects that such a provision would raise residential electric bills by 36 percent, or about $300 annually for an average household of four. Industrial electricity costs would be even harder hit, rising by 60 percent.

Wind turbines tend to be pricey relative to the amount of juice they generate, but that's only part of the cost of an RES. Since the best sites for wind are remote mountain ridges or plains far from the customer base, multi-billion-dollar transmission-line projects would be required - with customers (that's you and me) picking up the tab.

The biggest and costliest problems of all stem from wind's unreliability. The wind doesn't always blow, and it's least reliable during hot summer days when electricity demand peaks but the air is often still. In other words, unlike coal or natural gas or nuclear, wind power can't be relied upon, especially when it is needed most.

Since the wind can stop at any time, it must always be backed up by reliable non-wind sources, ready to step in and carry the load. Thus, utilities can't really cut back on conventional electricity sources when they add wind to the mix. For this reason, an electric system that's forced to include wind becomes a marvel of expensive redundancy. And make no mistake - every penny will show up in our monthly bills.

One big selling point of an RES is the "green" jobs created by it. President Obama has made numerous trips to wind turbine factories and boasted about the jobs at each. Granted, there will be employment among those who build, install and maintain wind turbines, but the expensive electricity that results will send many more to the unemployment line.

The Heritage Foundation projects net job losses reaching 330,000 in 2012 and exceeding 1 million in 2017 and thereafter. Overall, the hit to the American economy of an RES reaching 37.5 percent by 2035 would be $5.2 trillion by 2035. That's right, America would be more than $5 trillion poorer with a wind-power mandate.

That works out to $2,400 per year per family of four. Know anybody who's got an extra $2,400 just sitting around? At a time when Americans consider the economy to be Washington's top priority, Congress shouldn't be considering an RES. The last thing we need is a multi-trillion dollar anti-stimulus package that would harm struggling homeowners and businesses. Renewable energy may have a future, but Washington can't force it through costly mandates.

Ben Lieberman is a senior policy analyst in the Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.



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