In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Arnold Schwarzenegger stressed the economic benefits and environmental necessity of renewable energy expansion. Specifically (and unsurprisingly) the ex-Governator called for government to “level the playing field” of the energy sector through continued subsidization, then proceeded to cite and defend his record of “fostering” the expansion of renewable energies in California. At an American Enterprise Institute panel, visiting scholar Benjamin Zycher introduced decidedly more common-sense language to a public discourse dominated by appeals to fairness and equality. Though they are quite intuitive, these ideas receive remarkably limited press. For Mr. Zycher, renewable energy is unable to shed certain undesirable traits—traits that make the playing field inherently uneven in some respects:
- The most obvious: renewable energy is inherently inconsistent. To borrow Mr. Zycher’s line, “The wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine.” And because the electrical grid must maintain consistent levels of power when renewable sources are not, natural gas plants make up the difference by cycling up and down with demand. This is inefficient and costly.
- Location and grid infrastructure issues also put renewables at a competitive disadvantage. We construct wind and solar farms in the best locations first; as a result, the quality of sun and wind at forthcoming locations is likely to decrease. Alternatively, most new locations that do have valuable energy potential are located far from the population centers they source. As a result, capital costs must include the plant itself and substantial grid infrastructure expansion.