Pricey power in the mix

CorrespondentMarch 9, 2011 

Some environmentalists' energy policies seem quite simple - increase the price of energy to the point where nobody will use it. That may be an oversimplification, but look at the growing number of illogical actions being taken to prop up the faltering green energy sector.

This week I learned that my electricity provider, Piedmont Electric, a not-for-profit cooperative, will buy energy from the Murfreesboro Solar Project. Solar-generated electricity is the costliest on the market. According to the U.S. Energy Department, solar power costs more to generate per kilowatt hour (20.8 cents) than the combined generation costs of natural gas (5.2 cents), coal (5.8) and nuclear (5.8) power - sources abundantly available to my electric co-op.

So why is Piedmont, along with 21 other electric cooperatives, buying solar even though cooperatives already have higher electricity rates than either Duke or Progress Energy?

Because the state of North Carolina is making them.

Buying solar power satisfies the state-mandated requirement that electric co-ops and municipal utilities get 10 percent of their generation from renewable resources by 2021. The requirement comes under the Renewable Energy and Efficiency Portfolio Standard found in the law known as SB 3, one of the most anti-consumer bills passed by the General Assembly in recent memory.

SB 3 gives utilities unprecedented access to customers' wallets. Even worse, the law shifts the financial risk of building new power plants from stockholders, who have a say in construction decisions, to ratepayers, who don't. Most environmental groups knew about these egregious inequities when SB3 was debated, but were willing to sell out ratepayers in exchange for their precious green energy mandates.

As I wrote in 2007, SB 3 invites game-playing by utilities, something environmentalists have had to learn the hard way.

In October, the state Uilities Commission ruled that Duke Energy could burn trees at two of its coal-fired units and the electricity generated would be regarded as renewable energy to satisfy SB 3 requirements.

I'm not making this up.

Wood chips and other wood waste are considered biomass energy. Burn it and you've got politically correct green power. But because it takes a lot of wood to generate electricity, Duke convinced the Utilities Commission that the most reliable and plentiful biomass source for its power plants involves grinding up perfectly good trees into burnable chips.

Duke isn't the only utility in the South taking this route. So many are planning to use wood as a renewable biomass energy source that there's thought of operating tree-growing plantations in order to satisfy government-mandated green energy generation portfolios.

Biomass, solar and wind don't come close to making sense when it comes to generating electricity on a reliable and useable scale. That fact is lost on promoters of the environmentally touted electric cars, which might as well have a coal-fired boiler under their hoods.

Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt drivers may enjoy sanctimonious satisfaction, but the energy burned to power their cars probably came from carbon-based coal and natural gas, or from nuclear power. In addition, lithium and other toxic elements and chemicals are needed to make electric car batteries, which don't last forever. Sooner or later, car batteries will surpass computers and televisions as the Earth's most pressing environmental disposal challenge.

Green energy is, at best, an environmental placebo. At least some advocacy groups are beginning to face that reality.

In January, the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League issued an aptly named report, "Smoke and Mirrors - A Report on Biomass, Bio-energy and Global Warming." It concludes that science not only proves the atmosphere is warming, but that biomass is a seriously flawed source of energy.

That's a start, because that same conclusion applies to wind and solar power as well.

Contributing columnist Rick Martinez ( is news director at WPTF, NC News Network and He previously worked for the N.C. Association of Electric Cooperatives.

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