Ørsted North America's Block Island offshore wind farm. Eversource and Ørsted have a deal to transform New London into the green energy capital of the Northeast. Wikimedia

The recent doubling of the supply charge for electricity is focusing discussion of energy policy on how to provide reliable electricity at reasonable rates. For some, the answer is accelerating renewable capacity. It’s time to take a broader view before we go too far down that road.

Solar farms are problematic in New England. Cloudy days and long winter nights reduce their efficiency. To provide meaningful generation, they require large areas. This conflicts with preserving forest and farmland and the many ecosystem services they provide. Other activities are eroding Connecticut’s goals for forest and farmland preservation. Solar farms will exacerbate that. Rooftops, parking lots and brownfields are certainly better sites, but come with their own set of issues.

Off-shore wind (OSW) is better suited to New England, where winds are reasonably strong and steady. It takes pressure off development on land and most turbines will be out of sight. Nonetheless, OSW also requires a lot of area and infrastructure. With capacity factors around 50%, an OSW farm such as Revolution Wind with a name plate capacity of 704 MW can be expected to provide about 300 MW averaged over a year. Actual capacity is the critical number to keep track of.

Currently natural gas comprises half of ISO-NE’s capacity which generally needs to supply 15,000 – 20,000 MW at peak times. When the wind slows down, even 30,000 MW of installed OSW (42 Revolution Wind Farms) will be limited in the power they can provide the grid.

The requirement to meet demand when wind and solar output drops creates a major challenge. The challenge increases as the proportion of renewable capacity on the grid increases. Batteries are offered as the solution. This requires massive storage (see Donald Dubé’s Viewpoint “We need more than just renewables for a reliable grid.”) Technology will advance, but for the time being battery storage will be very costly and take time to build. Natural gas plants will be needed to provide power when sunshine and wind are limiting.

A host of other misrepresented, downplayed or conveniently ignored issues also interfere with a rational discussion regarding how best to provide electricity and respond to climate change.

One is the use of the term “zero carbon.” It feels good to say it, but it is very misleading. All current ways of generating electricity produce greenhouse gasses. Wind and solar certainly generate minimal amounts of carbon during operation, but they require materials and energy to be built, maintained, and finally dismantled or recycled.

The global rush to install solar and wind is also creating new problems. Photovoltaics, wind turbines, EV’s and batteries require lots of minerals. Obtaining minerals is very energy intensive and mining leaves a big mark on the environment. Obtaining the materials for renewables often involves human rights issues. Exploitation of Congolese miners and Uyghurs in China is well documented. It is remarkable that environmental and human rights issues are ignored by many who promote renewables.

Beware also of the overpromising for both availability and cost for renewables. We are beginning to see delays in installation and increases in projected costs. Companies are renegotiating offshore wind contracts because they will not be able to deliver electricity at agreed prices. In some cases, OSW projects are being cancelled. A big contributor to delays and cost will be the major investments in transmission needed to add renewables to the grid.

It’s misleading to quote the cost for solar on a sunny day, or wind on a windy day, and then leave out the costs for the backup systems needed when they are not powering the grid. Subsidies of various sorts contribute to low prices for renewables but just shift the cost elsewhere. Some is added to our electric bills, most is paid by taxpayers – or just added to our federal deficit.

All of the above would certainly benefit from a much deeper dive, and of course they apply to other methods of generating electricity to varying degrees. However, the halo over renewables seems to protect them from scrutiny.

Renewable energy needs to play a significant role in our energy future. The challenge is to understand the pros and cons of all options and come up with the right mix. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer and no perfect energy source. Technology advances will help address issues, but it takes time to commercialize and scale up. It seems a balanced approach is best. Expanding transmission capacity for Quebec hydro and laying the groundwork for the next generation of nuclear power should not be overlooked. These, along with using natural gas sensibly, can complement renewable energy, minimize the overall impact on our environment, and improve the likelihood of providing reliable electricity at a reasonable cost.

Fred Behringer lives in Old Lyme.