If Only Renewable Energy Had a Smaller ‘But’

August, 2013
Pacific Standard

Wind and solar remain small components of the U.S. energy portfolio, but two new data points out this week suggest they’re starting to to hit their stride.

Renewable energy always seems to get a “but” whenever it comes up in discussion about American energy sources. As in, “It would be nice, but…” it’s impractical, unreliable, or just too small a piece of the puzzle to really matter. As nuclear safety engineer Homer Simpson prayed one Thanksgiving: “And Lord, we are especially thankful for nuclear power, the cleanest, safest energy source there is. Except for solar, which is just a pipe dream.”

It’s not just the two-dimensional who feel that way. Even doughty eco-warriors like Jim Hansen have made the case for nuclear, terming belief that renewables by themselves will supply all our needs as comparable to believing in the Tooth Fairy or Easter Bunny. “The hope that the wind and the sun and geothermal can provide all of our energy is a nice idea but I find it unlikely that that’s possible.”

Two data points out this week, though, suggest that in the future, renewables will have a, well, smaller but.

From the feds comes news that wind power had its best-ever year last year, while from The University of California-Berkeley, an analysis suggests solar energy could supply up to a third of the electrical energy used in the Western U.S. Neither comes close to meaning that fossil- or radioactive-powered sources are going away—the solar energy proposal puts the effective date at 2050—but then they aren’t pipe dreams, either. Plus, an increasing amount of the hardware used is being made in the U.S., regaining the lead in renewable technology the nation had squandered.

All told, nine states get at least 12 percent of their juice from wind, led by Iowa (25 percent), South Dakota (24 percent), and Kansas (20 percent).

According to the authors of the 2012 Wind Technologies Market Report (PDF), Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientists Ryan Wiser and Mark Bolinger, wind’s installed capacity in the U.S. grew by more than 13 gigawatts last year, double the amount from the year before and the largest new source of power that went up last year.

This tremendous growth helped America’s total wind power capacity surpass 60 GW at the end of 2012—representing enough capacity to power more than 15 million homes each year, or as many homes as are in California and Washington state combined. The country’s cumulative installed wind energy capacity has increased more than 22-fold since 2000.

Looking forward, this means the U.S. is on an “early trajectory” to meet a goal of producing 20 percent of the nation’s electrical needs by 2030.

Except that, well, 2012 was indeed an exceptional year for wind, and straight-line analysis that factors in that experience ignores some, um, headwinds. One is the continued cheapness of natural gas, the resul of federal tax incentives that will likely soon expire. In fact, the authors suggest that fear of those incentives going away helped make 2012 so stellar, and their 11th-hour extension for another year doesn’t providethe certainty that wind’s business case needs, even as wind-power technology improves and gets cheaper. Also hurting is a downturn in individual states increasing how much renewable power must be part of their energy portfolio.

And while renewable energy has joined just about everything else in America as a part of the red/blue political divide, with renewable energy seen as somehow uniquely Obama-esque, some of the reddest states are also some of the most plugged into wind. Like Texas, whose 12.2 gigawatts of installed capacity is twice as much as the bluer (and presumed greener) California with 5.5. Texas actually has more wind capacity that all but five nations. But as a portion of total energy use, big states have a ways to go to catch up with windy and less populated venues. All told, nine states get at least 12 percent of their juice from wind, led by Iowa (25 percent), South Dakota (24 percent), and Kansas (20 percent).

This is all from outfits that run wind turbines and then deliver electricity via the grid. But for the first time, DOE has put out a second report, on so-called “distributed wind” (PDF), in which your windmill produces power for you (or to a locals-only grid). While a much smaller market in the already smallish renewable sector, there’s been growth here, too, with 69,000 individual units approaching a full gigawatt of installed capacity across the nation. Ironically, solar power from photovoltaic cells has been one of the prime competitors in this space.

The falling price of the solar installations led Dan Kammen and his students at Berkeley’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory to suggest that solar—currently a two-gigawatt speck in the nation’s 1,152-gigawatt capacity—could finally reach that place in the sun that backers have so often rhapsodized.

Using a “high-resolution electricity system planning model” of the DOE’s two-year-oldSunShot Initiative (meant to knock down the cost of solar electricity to market prices by 2020) alongside likely carbon-limitation policies, Kammen and company found that it’s not unrealistic for solar to capture a third of the Western U.S. electricity market within 40 years, displacing currently more-attractive technologies like nuclear and natural gas.

Gigawatt-size electrical storage plays a role in their assumptions, so there is some technological prestidigitation necessary before this could come about, as would the inevitable need for some taxpayer assistance on the front-end. But the driver—especially since at some point we’re going to have to pay for reducing greenhouse gas emissions—would be lower consumer power bills.

As Kammen was quoted in a release from Berkeley: “Given strategic long-term planning and research and policy support, the increase in electricity costs can be contained as we reduce emissions. Saving the planet may be possible at only a modest cost.”

All Mother Earth needs is a smaller but.