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Why the Electric Grid Needs Diversity

Matt Wald
NEI's Matt Wald sat down for an enlightening Q&A with the EPRI Journal on how we ought to be managing the nation's electric grid. Here's an excerpt:
EJ: Wind and solar are growing by leaps and bounds because of tax subsidies, state mandates, and improving technology. Where is this leading the grid?

Wald: There is a limit to how much is desirable. Consider this analogy. In February in Washington, the National Symphony Orchestra performed the Eroica Symphony. Just as Beethoven specified, there were two oboes, two flutes, two bassoons, three horns, and timpani. If the price of oboes dropped, would the symphony use more of them? Of course not, because the conductor isn’t hiring on price. And as it turns out, the price of oboes is pretty stable, at least in relationship to flutes, bassoons, horns, and timpani.

Unlike the Eroica Symphony, the power grid has an oboe problem. Generation works largely on price in most of the country, and the grid is going through rapid price changes. Renewable energy sources are a bit like oboes; they are useful and distinctive. And they are getting cheaper. But how many can the system use? The grid is threatened by the “silver bullet syndrome.” In the popular mind, mandated solar and wind will solve our climate woes. But that idea could lead to more intermittent power than the system can assimilate, as has occurred in Hawaii, and soon in parts of California.

When solar is cheaper than coal, coal will disappear without a trace, like the Soviet Union or Pokemon or disco music or some similar bad idea, right?

Well, maybe.

When the electric system runs well, it is like a symphony. You might really like oboes, but making up a whole orchestra of them is going to cause problems.
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