Solar and Wind Could Usher in a 100% Renewable Society - Will We Switch Before It's Too Late?

The following is an excerpt from the new book All-Electric America: A Climate Solution and the Hopeful Future by S. David Freeman & Leah Parks (Solar Flare Press, 2016): 

Despite all of the public campaigning about the urgency of the global warming problem, the prospects of containing warming, and eventually stopping it, are dimmer every year that we fail to vigorously pursue an all-renewables strategy.

The best way to think about the climate challenge is to consider our emissions as another form of national debt. Because the carbon and methane that is causing climate change stays in the atmosphere for many years, all the greenhouses gases we emit each year add to that buildup. Just as with our staggering national financial debt, every year the buildup grows larger and the task of halting warming becomes more daunting. We must achieve near zero greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050—this gives us about thirty- five years. We should think of zero emissions as achieving a “greenhouse balanced budget.”

During the 2009 Copenhagen Conference, the United States and other participating nations agreed that we should not heat our earth more than two degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. They have chosen this temperature as a target because a wide range of high-quality scientific studies have indicated that if we are to contain warming, stopping it from escalating out of control and causing massive planet-wide destruction, we must keep the temperature rise within two degrees Celsius. In order to achieve this, the entire world must emit no more than 270 gigatons of carbon from greenhouse gasses into the air this century. Two hundred seventy gigatons is our remaining world budget and if we stay on our current path we will blow past our budget by 2033!

The only way to achieve a balanced budget is to reach zero greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050. This means that we have to keep our fossil fuels “in the ground.”

Mother Nature delivers a superabundance of energy to the earth, free of charge. Every day, the sun delivers five thousand times more energy to the planet’s surface than the whole world consumes. According to a report by the DOE “the amount of solar energy falling on the United States in one hour of noontime summer sun is about equal to the annual U.S. electricity demand.” Many people believe that solar power is only feasible in the warmer climates, but as the report highlights, “every region of the contiguous United States has a good solar resource.”

Each continent on the planet also receives enough energy directly from the sun that, were sufficient collectors installed, the solar energy captured would negate the need for any other source of fuel. We would no longer need to burn fossil fuels, mine coal, frack for gas, or construct dangerous nuclear power plants—ever again.

Yet in 2014, solar power accounted for only 0.4% of the total energy used in the U.S and only 0.5% of utility-scale electricity generation through March 2015.

The good news is that a true solar revolution is well under way that is reducing the cost of solar power below the cost of electricity from coal, natural gas, oil, and nuclear power, when calculated on the basis of the costs over the life of the plant. The installation of photovoltaic (PV) panels is likely to continue apace as their prices have plummeted in recent years. Heavyweight investment bank Goldman Sachs is expecting them to continue to decline by 3% per year and Deutsche Bank predicts prices will fall 40% by the end of 2017 with the greatest cost reductions in the residential sector.

The solar revolution is real. Companies like Solar City will install solar panels on your roof and sell your solar power at a price lower than current rates from your utility in California, Hawaii and several other states. PV solar panels in 2015 are selling in the market for as low as fifty cents a watt, representing a 60% fall in just three years. With that market price, large solar farms can offer power for under six cents a kilowatt hour, which is very competitive with new fossil fuel or nuclear plants.

In fact, surprisingly even lower utility scale PV prices are appearing on the market. Jim Hughes, CEO of First Solar, has said that, they are “. . . regularly bidding in at . . . five- and six-cent power” and “. . . beginning to see four- to five-cent power.” He expects fully installed solar to sell for one dollar a watt by 2017 in the western United States. Austin Energy in 2015 procured 1.2 gigawatts of solar for less than four cents and expects prices in the future to fall below twenty dollars a megawatt-hour (a price lower than coal), so Hughes’s projections may become reality even sooner.

Over a year’s time, consumers who install solar panels in an average home in many states can save two hundred to five hundred dollars. And those savings increase every time the utility raises its rates, which happens fairly often. As for the states that have poor sun, many have strong wind power, which has the same long-term cost advantage.

Solar and wind power, backed by energy storage, will stabilize the cost of electricity in the years ahead for existing uses. That will be a huge savings compared to the steady increase in price that is the current utility pattern. Yet the greatest cost saving to consumers will be in substituting electricity for oil in transportation and for natural gas, propane, and heating oil for heating homes, office buildings, and factories. Here we can substitute the equivalent of one-dollar-a-gallon electricity for two- or three-dollar-a-gallon gasoline. And a heat pump will undercut natural gas and oil heat today and be dramatically cheaper in the years to come.

In announcing a deal struck by Xcel Energy to provide the state of Colorado with solar power, David Eves, CEO of Public Service Co. of Colorado, remarked that PV-generated electricity is now cost-competitive with natural gas-fired generation in that state and had “made the cut . . . purely on a price basis . . . without considering carbon costs or the need to comply with a renewable energy standard . . .”

The installation of batteries and other devices to store solar energy for use at night is also now a commercial fact. In November 2014 the Southern California Edison Company announced the purchase of 250 MW of storage capacity. The state utility commission has ordered all California utilities to purchase 1,300 MW as a beginning. In Spring 2015, Elon Musk unveiled its Tesla Powerwall residential battery and a utility-scale battery, the Tesla Powerpack.

The lower cost of residential solar capability combined with better technology for storage is driving rapid adoption by households, beginning with the Sunbelt, and spreading rapidly. Increasing numbers are poised to leave the grid, provoking some utility executives and regulators to warn of an electrical “death spiral.” The threat, or more appropriately, the challenge, to utilities from companies offering solar plus battery storage to their customers is real.

Our rooftops alone are estimated by the Department of Energy to have a capacity of about 664 GW of generating capacity, a little over half the total U.S. electric capacity. Barclays bank analysts have predicted disruption of the utilities business and downgraded the bonds of the entire electric sector of the U.S. from high-grade to underweight. The best way for the utilities to meet the challenge is to join the revolution, and the best way for the American public to convince them to do so is to install solar capacity in their houses.

Solar power in the home has a long history. The adobe homes of Native Americans in the Southwest are an example. For all new homes being constructed, a range of passive solar features can be incorporated, such as south-facing concrete walls that absorb heat and trees that cool a home naturally.

Anyone building a new home could ask their architect about the possibilities and at the least should insist on installing rooftop solar. For those already in their homes, solar panels can easily be installed on your existing structure. And roofs are not the only place solar panels can be installed. You could also look into solar-enabled shingles for your roof. And many communities will establish neighborhood solar plants with microgrids.

Clever designers and architects are continually finding better ways to incorporate solar into designs, such as on awnings. If you haven’t explored the options, you will probably be pleasantly surprised by how many companies in your area that can do the job will come up in a Google search for “solar products and services.”

In the short term, the solar power you harness with battery storage will protect you from outages and cost fluctuation. In the long term, it will save households a great deal of money— several hundred dollars a year for many, many years.

For those who have already equipped their homes, if they’re not being paid the retail price for their surplus solar power, they should call their state public utility commission and complain and should write to their state regulator insisting that selling to their utility at retail price be made mandatory. Swaying the companies and the regulators will take time, but the more customers who make the move, the more leverage they will have.

Big Solar—Land Aplenty

Large-scale solar generation is well under way in California and the Southwest. The capacity to produce thousands of megawatts has been built and capacity for thousands more is under construction or in the serious planning stage.

The argument against large-scale solar comes from people who don’t want any development in their neighborhood or line of sight. They fear solar-field eyesores all over our communities and countrysides. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The environmental impact of solar can be minimized by placing panels on a wide range of structures in our already built environment. We have vast acreages available on rooftops, both on homes and on commercial buildings. Also available are parking lots, parking structures, and disturbed land once dedicated to industrial or other commercial uses, such as shopping centers and factories that have closed. The decentralized solar in or near already built-up communities is a favorite option.

But if we are to become all-renewable in thirty-five years, we need to also build where the sun is hot and the days are long—our deserts. We need not disturb pristine land; more than enough is already disturbed or environmentally suitable and available for solar development.

If, for example, we install solar PV on just 0.16% of our land we will generate the equivalent of 100% of our total 2013 electricity in the U.S. with PV alone. And 0.62% of total land cover would be needed to generate the equivalent of our entire projected 2050 energy capacity needs for a completely renewable energy infrastructure. The land that will be needed for an actual all-renewable energy infrastructure, however, is even less than this because resources that use less land such as wind and rooftop solar PV will be part of the energy mix.

Solar installations don’t scar or contaminate the land they’re on, as coal mining, oil drilling, and nuclear power plants do. By comparison, extraction and transport of oil and coal and fracking for natural gas are ecologically devastating. Oil spills are commonplace and kill large numbers of marine birds and animals in our seas every year. Coal mining kills miners and the land, not once, but every year. Fracking is contaminating our water tables with its cocktails of toxic chemicals. The land used for nuclear energy plants becomes contaminated with toxic chemicals. And the risk of accidents, such as that at Fukushima in Japan recently, is always present with the threat of large-scale and permanent destruction of large swathes of territory and exposure of the local population to radiation. The partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant in 1979 could have left an area larger than New England permanently contaminated with radioactivity, just as the 1986 Chernobyl accident did in the Ukraine and Fukushima did in Japan. And don’t forget the land disturbed to mine uranium and the health risks for those miners.

In sum, our land will be much better off with solar panels installed on it than by continuing to ravage it by mining and drilling for fossil fuels.

The Possibilities of Wind Power

As we embark on the road to reducing greenhouse gas emission and oil imports, wind power will have an essential role right away. Fortunately, the electric utilities have been receptive to wind generation. Al Gore, in a Rolling Stone article, explains how Texas has become our largest wind producer, how it has become cheaper than new coal, and that “nearly one-third of all new electricity-generating capacity in the past five years has come from wind. Installed wind capacity in the U.S. has increased more than fivefold since 2006.” More than 65,879 MW of wind-generated electricity had been transmitted in the country as of December 2014. And we’ve only scratched the surface of what we can do. In 2014, wind power produced roughly 4% of U.S. generated electricity in the country, when it is capable of producing 100%.

The Department of Energy has estimated that the country has a wind capacity of 11 TW from onshore wind farms and 4.2 TW from offshore installations. This is 8 times the total U.S. electric power capacity today and roughly 2.5 the total capacity required for all of our energy needs in 2050. Just as our deserts are gold mines for solar power, the central region of the United States is a veritable Saudi Arabia of wind, one of the best energy resource sites in the world.

Much of our current capacity has been built with the support of government subsidies and tax incentives, but wind is becoming competitive even without credits or subsidies. Utilities are willingly contracting for wind power to diversify their portfolios, and not only in response to mandates and public opinion. They have realized that wind power is a vital link in the chain to ensure they have low-cost energy to offer in the future.

In fact wind power often takes the place of nuclear-, coal-, and natural-gas-generated electricity in the late evening or at night when demand is low in the wholesale markets. This actually suppresses prices and can benefit the customer because wind farms are dispatched ahead of fossil fuels since their marginal costs are zero — e.g. renewable fuel is free. This, however, can make it difficult for existing fossil fuel plants to compete and make money on the wholesale market. This problem will disappear as we approach a 100% renewable and flexible power option that includes storage.

The U.S. Congress and states often threaten to phase out the existing tax credits that have really helped wind power get started. This uncertainty is yet another reason we need requirements instead of the volatility of the market to reach a zero greenhouse gas goal.

Examples of regions and states seeing wind compete on an even playing field include, but are not limited to Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Midwestern states. Additionally, utilities in Georgia and Alabama that are buying low-cost wind from Oklahoma, Kansas, and New England announced in 2013 that wind is cheaper than gas-fired alternatives.

In December of 2013, wind projects in the Midwest, which enjoy not only high wind speeds, but low construction and labor costs, won bids over natural gas and coal producers in competition for new contracts. The Midwest has seen agreements with wind farms for wind electricity priced as low as twenty-five dollars per MWh, compared to the cost of electricity from an existing gas plant of thirty dollars per MWh and about sixty dollars per MWh for a new gas plant. The comparison to coal-generated electricity, which runs between twenty dollars per MWh and twenty-five dollars per MWh, is also impressive.

In summary, with tax credits, wind power is a serious competitor to fossil fuels even on the basis of short-term costs. There are many places wind can compete even without tax credits. However, this is not enough and the continual threat of the expiration of the tax credit creates uncertainty and inhibits investment (As of June 2015, Congress had not yet voted to extend wind’s tax credit into 2015). The looming expiration in 2016 for solar and the threatened expiration for wind created a cloud over their economics in the short term. This is true even though it is very clear that over the life of the renewable power plant it is the lowest-cost option. For that reason we do need the force of law to do the right thing.

In addition, wind projects face opposition. One group arguing against them is animal activists, whose primary concern is that birds get caught in the turbines. But the truth is that wind turbines impact animal life, as well as land, very lightly compared to other human intrusion on the natural environment. And intrusion is quite minor by comparison to fossil fuels and generation of nuclear power. The American Bird Conservancy found that the number of bird deaths per year from wind turbines is 573,000 per year. This is far less than deaths caused by flying into windows, estimated at 300 million to 1 billion per year, and getting tangled in transmission lines, at 175 million per year. Other estimates calculate that wind turbines cause .27 avian fatalities per GWh of electricity generated, while nuclear power plants cause 0.6 fatalities per GWh, and fossil-fueled power stations (coal, natural gas, and oil generators) are responsible for about 9.4 fatalities per GWh. â€©So we will actually save millions of birds if we switch from fossil fuel and nuclear power to wind.

Concern has also been raised about turbines using up valuable land for grazing and agriculture. But the distance required between turbines permits both planting crops and grazing herds on wind farms on almost all of the land. In fact, only a tiny fraction (~0.0025%) of the land in a wind farm is actually occupied by the turbines themselves.

Much concern has also been voiced about the impact of offshore wind power on marine life. Offshore wind has been developed extensively in Europe and studies are finding little long-term impacts on wildlife. A study conducted in Denmark, for example, found minimal impact and concluded that, “. . . under the right conditions, even big wind farms pose low risks to birds, mammals, and fish . . .” The key phrase is “right conditions.” Wind farms need to be designed and built with the help of avian and marine experts and other specialists. And there are routes that need to be left alone.

The National Wildlife Federation warns that, “. . . as many as 30% of species worldwide will face extinction this century if warming trends continue. To protect wildlife from the dangers of a warming world, we must take appropriate, responsible action to replace as much of our dirty fossil fuel use with clean renewable energy sources. And wind is a key part of that task.” But the good news is that there are plenty of sites where impact will be minimal.

We don’t have to disturb our pristine deserts or sensitive habitats. We will need energy policy planners and local citizens to join together to identify land on which turbines will have the least impact on our communities and sensitive ecosystems and animal life.

Fortunately, there is plenty of such land, no one technology will have to do it alone, and with good planning it will be possible to find the right balance. Mark Z. Jacobson, professor at Stanford University, together with his partners, find that to power all our energy needs, with wind and solar being the heavyweights, the amount of land needed is minimal and will be roughly 0.42% of U.S. land. If we include spacing of wind turbines, the area required is still only 1.6% of U.S. land.

Jacobson created a model for an optimal balance of solar, wind, thermal storage and other renewable resources that can power all of the energy needs for the nation and each state individually in the year 2050. The analysis finds that roughly 31% onshore wind, 19% offshore wind, 31% utility-scale PV, 7% rooftop PV, 7% concentrated solar power (CSP) with storage, and 5% other renewables is the ideal distribution for the country. The team also mapped out the costs, resources, and lawmaking required, as well as the jobs, energy savings, cost savings, and health benefits that will result from this transformation. They find that we will use 39% less energy, save lives, increase jobs, and achieve cheaper energy. A summary for each state can be found on The Solutions Project’s website.


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