If Building New, Renewables Way to Go
No matter what energy resource you use, it costs money to expand our electricity generation capacity. Whether it’s constructing a coal or natural gas-fired power plant, nuclear reactor, wind farm, solar array, or modifying our transmission infrastructure, costs for electricity will increase to finance those projects.
So in the long run, renewable energy sources are a better choice for expanding our generation capacity. Wind and solar energy sources in particular allow us to scale up our generation capacity in flexible increments to effectively respond to demand increases, are not susceptible to fluctuating fuel costs down the road, and carry minimal long-term public health and environmental impacts.
Electricity generation units come in all sizes, ranging from 1 kW solar panels to the 900 MW coal-fired unit at Xcel Energy’s Sherburne County Generating Station in Becker, MN. But decreased electricity demand due to the recession, combined with energy efficiency and conservation efforts, have thrown off linear projections of future electricity demand needs.
The chart below shows the average size of electricity generation units that went into operation in the U.S. from 1989-2009 for major sources. Building a 1000+ MW nuclear unit or a 300 MW coal plant significantly expands our generation capacity all at once, then waits for electricity demand to catch up to fully utilize the extra capacity. But with wind, small-scale hydro, solar and even natural gas, building incrementally as demand increases allows us to more effectively match capacity with demand, avoiding unnecessary and wasteful over-expansion.
Wind and solar also bring greater economic certainty in the long term because they do not require external fuel supplies to generate electricity. Whereas coal and natural gas carry higher operation costs that are susceptible to fluctuating fuel prices, once you construct a wind turbine or assemble a solar array your only long-term, unit-related costs are maintenance activities.
Finally, although there are landscape alterations, effects on bird populations, and environmental impacts from obtaining the materials needed to build turbines and solar panels, these pale in comparison to the health, environmental and climate impacts of extracting, transporting and burning fossil and nuclear fuels for our electricity.
We have enough existing coal and nuclear capacity to provide baseload energy for years to come. So moving forward, renewable energy sources like wind and solar are smarter, healthier and more effective means of building new electricity generation infrastructure in Minnesota than fossil fuel or nuclear-fired expansion.