Panel discusses the future of renewable energy

Renewable energy is a significant part of the United States’ electricity market and it is expected to grow in the coming years and decades.

That fact and the ramifications of increased construction of renewable energy sources was the topic of debate at a luncheon hosted Thursday by the Charleston Area Alliance.

The luncheon, which was part of the Alliance’s Professional Women’s Network, featured five experts on the renewable energy economics, policy, development and planning.

The choice to focus the panel discussion, titled “Women in Power,” on renewable energy comes at a time when the country continues to debate the future of the nation’s power industry, which has recently witnessed the rise of gas-fired power plants and cheaper sources of solar and wind energy.

“I think we all have been following the energy industry,” said Sharon Flanery, an energy attorney with Steptoe & Johnson that moderated the panel.

The panel also followed the publishing of the federal Clean Power Plan, which seeks to reduce carbon emissions from the electric utility industry.

Lucille Olszewski, a co-founder of Ensemble Wind, told attendees Thursday at the University of Charleston that wind farms are expected to expand in the future and that West Virginia could possibly play a role in that expansion.

Olszewski informed the crowd that there are already wind turbines in West Virginia, and that many areas of the state have been shown to be fertile areas for wind turbine development.

Currently, Olszewski said that wind energy supplies roughly 5 percent of the electricity nationally. She said that five percent includes enough energy to power 17.5 million homes.

Wind represents an $80 billion industry,” Olszewski said. “So if you think it’s a lot of hot air, you may want to reconsider.”

As renewables have continued to expand in the country’s energy industry, Olszewski said that the technology of wind energy has also evolved. She said taller wind turbines with larger blades have allowed more electricity to be produced with less infrastructure.

But Olszewski, and other panelists, also admitted that there were some limitations to wind energy and other renewable power sources.

Olszewski said that wind energy was an intermittent source of energy, meaning that at different times of the day or different times of the year less power would be produced at a single turbine.

Still, Olszewski emphasized that didn’t mean that renewable energy sources weren’t reliable, and she said new technology — batteries that can store large amounts of energy — could soon remove some of the shortcomings of renewable energy sources.

Christine Risch, a director at Marshall University’s Center for Business and Economic Research, expanded upon that point.

Risch, who works with energy economics, said better forecasts on how much electricity is used by customers at specific times could help electric companies plan for when renewable energy sources aren’t producing as much power.

At the same time, Risch said better load management that uses advanced technology that reduces customers’ electricity demands could help.

But many of those changes can be dependent upon federal and state policies.

Autumn Proudlove, a senior policy analyst with the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center, said that many of the policy decisions that will affect the energy future of the United States are being hashed out at the state level, in state legislatures and public service commissions.

While the federal government controls whether renewable energy tax credits continue to exist for wind and solar energy, Proudlove said other policy choices were strictly in the hands of state leaders.

Proudlove highlighted some of those state-managed policies during the lunch, including alternative energy portfolio standards and net metering policies that dictate the business relationship between rooftop solar users and electric utilities.

Proudlove pointed out that West Virginia has recently debated both of those policies in the Legislature and in front of the Public Service Commission.

Earlier this year, the Legislature ordered the Public Service Commission to review its net metering policy, which has resulted in a task force where the state’s electric utility companies has proposed increasing certain costs placed on solar customers.

And nearly every delegate and senator in the Legislature voted in January to abandon the state’s “Alternative and Renewable Energy Portfolio Act.”

Although that act really didn’t push companies to adopt renewable energy, Proudlove said the vote to remove the law was the first time a state actually revoked an energy portfolio standard.

Reach Andrew Brown at andrew.brown@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4814, or follow @Andy_Ed_Brown on Twitter.

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