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How realistic is a 100% renewable energy portfolio?

Recently the New England states jointly agreed to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions by an additional 30% beyond current goals by the year 2030. New Massachusetts regulations will require utility companies to obtain 16% of their energy from renewable sources in 2018. In Rhode Island, utilities must increase their purchase of renewable energy by 2-3% per year. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has put out a request for bids for renewable energy projects, and received almost four dozen responses. All signs point to a future of growing renewable energy production, but how realistic is a 100% renewable energy portfolio?

To start, we are many years and many billions of dollars away from meeting all of New England’s energy needs with solely renewable power. It would take hundreds of wind turbines or more than 30 square miles of solar panels to fill New England’s energy gap in the coming years. If we also tried to replace all of our existing natural gas, coal, and oil with renewables, those numbers would be exponentially higher. In 2015, natural gas accounted for 49% of New England’s fuel mix, while renewables and hydro accounted for just 16%.

Massive investment in renewable energy infrastructure would be needed before renewables can grow to a substantial part of our energy portfolio, let alone the only source of energy for New England. Likely, these projects will be taxpayer subsidized and any costs incurred to build new renewable capacity will be passed along to ratepayers. While there are laws that prohibit ratepayer funding of natural gas infrastructure, renewable energy projects have been supported by billions of dollars in costs to ratepayers. For those already struggling to pay their utility bills, rising energy costs could be devastating. It’s unfair to dismiss this reality when we talk about what a renewables-only future would look like, at least in the near future.

Furthermore, renewables do not provide as flexible or reliable a stream of energy as fuels like natural gas. When it’s still, wind turbines do not turn. When it’s cloudy, solar panels don’t capture the sun’s energy. Renewables’ generating capacity can fall dramatically under less-than-ideal weather conditions, a challenge fuels like natural gas do not present. Renewables’ energy production also cannot be ramped up when needed, to meet peak demand on cold winter days or hot summer days; their generating capacity is fixed. In an all-renewables world, without improvements in battery technology to allow us to store large amounts of renewable energy to deploy on these peak demand days, we could have critical energy storages when demand spikes.

Natural gas is the natural choice to pair with renewable energy sources. It can solve both of these challenges – it is less expensive that renewable energy, is twice as clean as coal, already supports almost half of all of New England’s power needs, and is incredibly flexible and reliable. Without balancing natural gas with renewables, middle and working class residents and small business owners would face not only crippling shortages of power but also increased energy prices as we work to build out our renewable energy infrastructure. While there is a lot of conversation about a renewables-only energy system in New England, it’s important to keep these realities in mind – balancing cost, reliability, and carbon emissions will require capitalizing on the benefits of both renewables and natural gas.