Putting renewable energy costs in perspective

Anti-renewable people consistently cite ‘increased’ rates due to renewable energy, without comparing what the rates would have been if there were no renewables


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Renewable portfolio standards requiring greater use of renewable energy sources do not “cost ratepayers billions of dollars throughout New England,” as Marc Brown wrote in “Cost to ratepayers pile up, but who’s listening?” in the Dec. 12-25 issue of New Hampshire Business Review. On behalf of clean energy companies, and businesses that can reduce operating costs by installing renewable technologies, I am compelled to set the record straight.

In 2012, Massachusetts’ RPS cost ratepayers $111 million, but provided $328 million in benefits, according to a report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Those benefits included “reduced emissions, water savings, fuel diversity, electricity price stability and economic development.”

No similar comparison is cited for New Hampshire, but the state Public Utilities Commission’s 2013 annual RPS Compliance Report put the program cost at $17 million. Using the Massachusetts cost/benefit ratio, New Hampshire may have received around $50 million in benefits from its RPS program. By my calculation, the $17 million price tag equates to 79 cents a month paid by the typical residential ratepayer to support clean energy.

A 12-year study released in 2014 showed that regardless of political party, Americans overwhelmingly support renewable energy. So why do some individuals continue to paint renewables black?

Anti-renewable people consistently cite “increased” rates due to renewable energy, without comparing what the rates would have been if there were no renewables. They speak as if oil, coal and natural gas prices never go up. The last time I checked, fossil fuels were not immune to inflation.

Some argue you can’t predict future price increases based on past performance. I contend that past performance is the only reliable indicator of future results.

Look at the trends in oil, gas and coal. Other than occasional dips like the one we’re enjoying now, prices consistently increase. Now, look at the cost of solar, which has gone down steadily – and remember that the cost of sunshine never changes. Suddenly, solar prices look a lot more reliable than fossil fuel prices.

What about recent electricity rate hikes? Brown claimed they were caused by expensive energy efficiency and demand response programs, yet utilities reported that constrained natural gas delivery infrastructure and rising power supply costs drove the increases.

Let’s not bad-mouth energy efficiency, which is the most important tool we have for controlling electricity prices. The cheapest kilowatt-hour is the one you don’t use.

And don’t forget the environment. Anti-renewable people don’t seem to value the planet in any way or see the hidden costs of our dependence on fossil fuel. What will it take? Will Hampton Beach need to be underwater before they admit to the environmental cost of fossil fuels? Will thousands more soldiers have to die in the Middle East to protect our energy interests? Will we have to commission a dozen more aircraft carriers and park them in the Persian Gulf so we can keep our houses warm and our cars running?

The potential of renewables to meet energy needs is significant, as Germany is showing the world. Renewable energy sources cover about 30 percent of that country’s electricity usage, more than is generated from “brown coal.” Last year, in a country with less sun than New England, solar met more than half the country’s electricity demand on a sunny June day.

I agree we need to find better ways to power our homes and businesses, and to “relieve New England ratepayers from needlessly sending billions of dollars out of our economy.” Renewable, distributed generation systems can help, by putting more money in peoples’ pockets and supporting local clean energy businesses.

While we should concern ourselves with rising electricity prices, we would do well to remember that renewable energy is not part of the problem. It’s part of the solution.

Mark Durrenberger is president of New England Clean Energy and a director of the Solar Energy Business Association of New England.

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