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A Clean Electricity Future is Affordable and Attainable—It’s Time to Act

Mark Dyson's picture
Principal - Electricity Rocky Mountain Institute

Mark is a principal with the Electricity Practice at Rocky Mountain Institute, where he has worked since 2008 and currently leads RMI research and collaboration efforts around the roles that...

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  • Jun 11, 2020

For a decade or more, even as renewables have gained market share within the US power grid, accelerated progress toward a lower-carbon grid has been held up by two dominant–but outdated–narratives.

First, utilities and others have long argued that renewables, in particular wind and solar, are costly compared to fossil fuel resources, and if adopted at scale would lead to increased customer costs. Second, grid operators have contended that wind and solar cannot contribute at scale to the reliable operation of the grid, due to their weather-dependent output.

new study released this week, using the most up-to-date data on renewables costs and industry-standard modeling tools to assess system reliability, has thoroughly debunked both of these outdated and inaccurate narratives. In the report, researchers at the University of California-Berkeley and GridLab find that 90 percent of US electricity can be supplied by carbon-free sources (mostly new wind and solar, but also including existing hydro and nuclear) by 2035, while maintaining system reliability and decreasing consumer costs compared to today’s system.

This “2035 report” is only the latest addition to the growing mountain of evidence that clean energy is the least-cost, least-risk choice for new investment in the US grid. But the work also breaks new ground in several areas, and contributes new insights and actionable strategies for utilities, regulators, policymakers, and other stakeholders.

Three aspects of the study deserve particular attention from utilities and stakeholders planning the transition to a decarbonized grid:

1. A focus on near-term opportunities avoids “missing the trees for the forest”

Much ink has been spilled in the utility industry on the feasibility of “100 percent clean” electricity grids, with 2050 being a common deadline to achieve this outcome. Such targets can be useful north stars for the industry to anchor discussion around; indeed, the latest climate science suggests a need for the global economy to reach net-zero carbon by 2050, making it imperative that the grid is as close to zero-carbon as possible.

However, the discourse concerning how to achieve a 100 percent carbon-free grid, and in many cases the debate around if it is even possible, has taken attention away from the opportunity at hand and the urgent climate imperative: to move as quickly as practical towards ever-higher levels of carbon-free electricity. In other words, the ongoing debates on net-zero carbon pathways have, in many cases, missed the trees for the forest.

The 2035 report avoids that trap. The authors still acknowledge the uncertainty around technology development through 2050, load growth due to electrification, and other possible confounding factors that may appear 15 years from now that are important for reaching a 100 percent clean grid. But by focusing on what is certainly possible in the next 15 years, not what is hypothetically feasible three decades from now, this study shows it practical and economic to eliminate the lion’s share of electricity emissions quickly.

2. Industry-standard modeling tools and benchmark data sources

Utilities often criticize 3rd party studies of future grid evolution, claiming that they use less rigorous, non-utility modeling software. On the other hand, stakeholders often criticize utility-sponsored planning because it often uses out-of-date clean energy cost assumptions inconsistent with actual project costs today.

The 2035 report avoids both pitfalls. GridLab and UC Berkeley use PLEXOS, an industry-standard grid simulation model widely deployed by utilities, researchers, and system operators around the world, to simulate a 90 percent clean grid. Further, they run this hourly simulation across multiple years of historical data to capture renewable and load variability and ensure that a 90 percent carbon-free portfolio is reliably able to meet load across different weather conditions.

The authors also use the US Department of Energy-sponsored Annual Technology Baseline, which has emerged as the benchmark source for current and future projections of electricity resource costs, including wind and solar. This corrects a major issue with many utility-led studies that often fail to account for actual wind, solar, and storage cost declines.

3. A clear, practical, and affordable roadmap for implementation

The 2035 report starts deliberately from the constraints imposed by today’s US electricity grid, and accounts directly for the steel currently in the ground in arriving at an investment pathway to support a 90 percent clean electricity future by 2035.

The study, and a companion article from Energy Innovation that lays out a policy roadmap to support a 90 percent decarbonized grid, tackles head-on many of the pressing questions facing utility planners, regulators, and policymakers as they grapple with the practicalities of the utility industry’s ongoing energy transition:

  • New gas power plants: The 2035 report, echoing analysis from Rocky Mountain Institute and others, finds strong evidence that new gas-fired power investments are not justified in the near or long term; instead, utilities and grid operators can leverage the sizable fleet of existing gas power plants to provide “backup” power for when renewables’ output is low.
  • Coal retirement: The 2035 report and its accompanying policy brief lay out a clear pathway for minimizing costs associated with existing coal plants, including both their current operations expenses (generally higher than new wind and solar project costs) as well as the minimal “stranded” costs that may remain in 2035 after most operating coal plants have been depreciated on their owners’ balance sheets. Securitization and other tools allow net-positive financial outcomes for consumers and utilities as coal plants retire, while supporting workers and communities currently dependent on coal plants and mines.
  • Transmission expansion: Due to the high level of wind and solar development required to cost-effectively reach 90 percent clean energy by 2035, the study finds that over $100 billion in new transmission investment is justified to help deliver those low-cost renewables to US homes and businesses. That total investment, spread over the 15-year study period, would add only 1-2 percent to current US electricity rates, while enabling a diverse and low-cost supply mix for decades to come.

In short, the Berkeley/GridLab report represents a distinctive new chapter in the evolving discourse playing out around the country regarding the future of the US electricity system. The study will likely be an important benchmark against which individual utilities’ investments are evaluated for compatibility with least-cost and feasible decarbonization outcomes.

Investors, utilities, regulators, and policymakers should take advantage of the wealth of insight and information contained within this body of work, and plan accordingly for their own role in accelerating the decarbonization of the US power grid.

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 11, 2020

John, maybe when Amory Lovins, the chairman of your organization, comes clean about the sources of the Rocky Mountain Institute's $36 million in revenue it earns each year, we can take these "90% renewable energy" scenarios appearing with increasing frequency at face value.

As a man who earns a high-six-figures income for performing "consulting" work for Shell and Chevron, certainly you can understand why he might want to encourage the unlikely premise intermittent sun, intermittent wind, and impractical batteries might power 90% of the grid. Pursuing such a strategy would, with far greater certainty, benefit his oily benefactors with hundreds of $billions in added profit for decades to come when wind, water, and sun fail to deliver. As expected, for the last 60 years.

Then there's the MacArthur Foundation, the source of the funding for the study itself:

Another serious concern is that the MacArthur Foundation has refused to shift the way its own endowment is invested away from the extractive carbon driven-economy that’s a leading contributor to climate change. The publicity for its $50 million initiative states that grants “will help to continue and accelerate U.S. greenhouse gas reductions, increase and sustain U.S. political consensus for climate action, and provide incentives for a low-carbon economy.”

"But when asked about divestment from fossil fuel companies, the Foundation’s response is this: “divestment is not a simple matter and the Board investment policy does not permit divestment to assert policy preferences, censure, or to gain political leverage.” In other words, while MacArthur is happy to fund others to push for policy change, it is unwilling to implement the same changes inside its own organization. And if the Foundation declines to follow its own advice then why should anybody else take it seriously? How will organizations that are funded convince or incentivize policy makers, corporations and members of the public to make major shifts in their behavior?  

"Sadly, it’s not uncommon for foundations to invest in the same companies that contribute to the looming climatic disasters their grants are trying to prevent. But the existence of such an obvious disconnect between principle and practice creates an inescapable contradiction at the heart of MacArthur’s strategies, and undermines the impact of its efforts.

"MacArthur’s response mimics the ‘pass the buck’ mentality of shirking responsibility for action around climate change that’s already seen from governments and businesses all round the world. At the same time, the Foundation’s president, Julia Stasch, is on record for stating that climate change “threatens to undermine virtually everything we care about as human beings.” If the Foundation holds this statement to be true, shouldn’t it transform its own investment practices?"

If the MacArthur Foundation wants a low carbon economy, why is it investing in fossil fuels and ignoring grassroots action?

As Michael Moore and Jeff Gibbs have so adeptly revealed in their documentary Planet of the Humans - follow the money.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jun 11, 2020

1. A focus on near-term opportunities avoids “missing the trees for the forest”

Much ink has been spilled in the utility industry on the feasibility of “100 percent clean” electricity grids, with 2050 being a common deadline to achieve this outcome. Such targets can be useful north stars for the industry to anchor discussion around; indeed, the latest climate science suggests a need for the global economy to reach net-zero carbon by 2050, making it imperative that the grid is as close to zero-carbon as possible.

Glad to see this be a focus-- I understand where the need to look out to 2050 comes from, but not only is that 'missing the trees' but it's also inherently passing the buck of accountability. Any early shortcomings can see the leaders simply say "well it's coming," but with a shorter timeline the people in a position to act now will be held more accountable.


Thanks for sharing, Mark!

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Jun 12, 2020

A very interesting study but Nuclear is far from renewable. It's the most subsidied power ever created, it is the most expensive, it can't ramp down and up to adjust for power use and the uranium before and after use is desdly.

 The biggest key to a better and lower cost GRID  is advanced Battery storage. Tesla has shown that combining Renewable Solar PV and Wind with Battery Storsge is lower cost and more stable than any other power. 

  I also love hydro and many dams can be improved to produce twice thrir current power. Just like an electric motor new hydro turbines are much more efficient. In the Arizona desert were I live SRP Salt River Project now upgrades their 7 major hydro plant when they do any repairs. We used to get i% of our power from the hydro and I predict it will be 15% as they do upgrades. It's a great steady 24/7 base power source. Combined with batteries it can also be a perfect duck curve cure. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 12, 2020

Jim, you're fortunate to live in Arizona, where nuclear electricity from Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station provides 71% of your state's clean electricity, safely and reliably, with no carbon carbon emissions at all. 

The largest nuclear plant in the U.S., Palo Verde is a perfect example of the importance of keeping existing plants open and building more in the future. Over its 34-year history this single plant has produced more carbon-free electricity than all wind and solar combined. 

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Jun 15, 2020

Palo Verde also used 60 million gallons of water a day. It's not waste water either. A friend of mine worked at a private water treatment plant that treated the water to one step from drinking water since it had to be clean but they wanted to say it was not drinking water. They also used tons of Uranium from Russia and could have a failure and wipe out all people from 60 miles in seconds. It's also the most expensive electricity ever made. Over 100 tons of waste is stored on site. When they ran out of space to store it the Government gave them permission to store twice as much as originally planned. 

  I'll keep the Solar PV I have on my home that make 100 to 300% more than we use with no water use and no imported Uranium. I also make the most during the Peak Time of Day and use a little back from the GRID at night when they have excess. I'll go total battery in a few year but need to make a Micro GRID to share my excess.   

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 16, 2020

Jim, your friend is wrong:

"Because of its desert location, Palo Verde is the only nuclear power facility that uses 100 percent reclaimed water for cooling. Unlike other nuclear plants, Palo Verde maintains 'Zero Discharge,' meaning no water is discharged to rivers, streams or oceans."

Palo Verde, like every nuclear plant in the U.S., did use tons of uranium from Russia - in total, 500 metric tonnes of warhead-grade uranium. During the Megatons to Megawatts program (1993-2013), the U.S. bought 20,008 nuclear warheads worth of fissile uranium from the Russian Federation and downblended it - rendered it harmless - to be used in U.S. nuclear power plants. For 20 years, it produced 10% of U.S. electricity with no carbon emissions at all.

So the next time someone tells you nuclear power is dangerous, tell them that it's making the world a safer place - it's converting the most dangerous weapons ever made to clean, carbon-free electricity.

"...and could have a failure and wipe out all people from 60 miles in seconds."

I don't know where to start with this nonsense.

"Over 100 tons of waste is stored on site. When they ran out of space to store it the Government gave them permission to store twice as much as originally planned."

Jim, Palo Verde never "ran out of space" to store 100 tons of waste. Nuclear waste includes the heaviest elements on Earth, making it extremely compact (100 tons of waste would only fill a dry cask storage container, below, 2/3 full).

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Jun 13, 2020

Even when wind and solar generation drops to low levels, existing hydropower, nuclear power, and natural gas capacity, as well as new battery storage, are sufficient to maintain system operations.

Thanks for providing this report.  I hope it receives the careful scrutiny that it deserves.  And I hope that this rebuttal to the arguments against renewables, despite the issues of their intermittency, holds up.  If this is a valid case based on today´s technology, the outlook can only get better as technologies improve and costs continue to tumble.

Ninety percent clean is way better than any other scenario available, especially in the 2035 time frame. I really do not particularly care who makes piles of money in order to make it happen. And it may be something of a blueprint that can be adapted to other countries and economies.

It is, indeed, time to act.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 13, 2020

Mark, would you care if people were making piles of money on the illusion they could make it happen, when they couldn't? If, say, there was another way - one already proven effective in other countries, that didn't cost electricity customers piles of money?

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