Polar Vortex, California Drought

By SETH MASIA

Extreme weather over the winter — drought in California, polar- vortex blizzards in the Southeast and across the eastern third of the nation — obviously draws our attention to climate change. The weather had some dramatic short-term effects.

The severe heating season in the East created local shortages of natural gas, and pushed average prices to more than $6 per million BTU, the highest since the gas-fracking boom began. In New England, spot prices went as high as $100 per million BTU, and the Henry Hub spot price (the price at a key distribution point in Louisiana) reached $8.15 per million BTU. The gas industry blamed insufficient pipeline capacity and the danger of sending gas trucks out onto icy highways. Whatever the cause, the availability of new gas supply did not keep prices low.

Energy Systems Integration NREL

The March/April issue of SOLAR TODAY highlights three high-performance buildings, including the Energy Systems Integration Facility at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., shown here. Photo: Dennis Schroeder/NREL

As drought cut production by large hydro dams, spot prices for natural gas to run California’s electric utilities rose four-fold and the grid operator called for electricity consumers to cut back demand.

Coal provided a temporary substitute where natural gas was in short supply. But with coal plants across the country slated for shut-down, the only viable long-term competition for natural gas — the only electricity sources that can damp down spikes in gas pricing — are the renewable industries.

Utility-scale wind and solar production remained steady through the weather emergencies. In January, renewable sources accounted for 99 percent of all new utility-scale electric capacity. Wind production set a record in February. According to one study from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the combination of wind, solar, geothermal and biomass surpassed hydroelectric in 2012. At the close of 2013, the United States had 102 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear-generating capacity, while utility-scale wind, solar and geothermal combined for about 76 GW. At the current rate of growth, Big Renewables will surpass nukes within a couple of years.

Big utility companies have had a lousy track record recently in preventing and repairing weather-related grid outages. Despite this, they continue to lobby against the expansion of the distributed power sources that can make local grids more robust. Electricity generation should not depend on the ability of rails, roads and pipelines to transport fuel from sources thousands of miles away. Electricity should be made locally from freely available local resources: wind, solar, subterranean heat and falling water.

Case in point: New high-performance buildings, generating and recycling their own energy, did very well through weather extremes over the past year. Architects have proven that by using widely available technology they can keep buildings comfortable year-round without pulling power from a large grid. If most buildings were designed this way, the era of brownouts due to peak grid loads would end. If cities could generate their own power using free fuel near at hand, energy prices in general would stabilize, along with the grid.

The winter’s weather emergencies underscore the need for intelligent energy policy, and united action to achieve it. As always, the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) urges members to get active in support of state and local action through our state and regional chapters. We now offer a discount on joint ASES-and-chapter memberships.

And we urge you to attend SOLAR 2014, the ASES National Solar Conference, to learn what your colleagues are doing to advance the cause. This year we’re co-located with Intersolar North America, in San Francisco, July 6-10, and co-hosted by our NorCal Solar chapter. Registration opens March 14 at solar2014.org. See you there!

Seth Masia is the executive director of ASES and the editor of SOLAR TODAY. Contact him at smasia@ases.org.

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