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U.S. Analysis Busts Myths, Shows No Need for New Gas Plants

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  • Jul 1, 2020

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It’s time to bust some myths about gas-fired electricity, renewable energy, and the United States grid, writes David Wooley, executive director of the Center for Environmental Public Policy at UC Berkeley, after a study earlier this month showed clean electricity could supply 90% of the country’s power by 2035, at less cost than non-renewable sources.

“By using updated cost figures for wind, solar, and batteries, the researchers found that it will be economically feasible to power a reliable grid by 2035, while only depending on natural gas for 10% of annual electricity production,” Greentech Media reported at the time. The plummeting price points explain how “in just a few years, decarbonizing the grid went from a solar-lover’s pipe dream to something many major American utilities have committed to.”

Now, Wooley is out with a post on Utility Dive that undercuts the conventional wisdom that gas is cleaner than coal, that renewables still raise grid reliability concerns, that gas is cheaper than renewables, and that renewables in the U.S. are only cost-competitive in the sunny, windy southwestern and Plains states.

Wooley counters that:

  • While gas plants reduce some pollutants compared to coal, the methane emitted along the entire supply chain makes gas a “serious problem for the climate”.
  • The U.S. grid has always depended on a mix of supply sources to ensure reliability. “Today, low-cost wind and solar, paired with battery storage technologies and existing hydro, nuclear, and gas generation, allows the U.S. to dramatically increase renewable generation and cut fossil fuel use without sacrificing dependability or raising costs.”
  • Utility-scale wind and solar “routinely out-bid gas and coal in wholesale electric markets.” Those projects receive federal tax credits in the U.S., “but gas production also enjoys a wide range of federal subsidies, and wind and solar plant costs in many cases are already lower than gas generation, even without considering the tax credits.”
  • And beyond the regions of the U.S. where the technologies got their start, “low costs are now driving a geographic expansion of renewables, making wind and solar cost-effective in all regions of the country.”

Read More on Utility Dive 

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 1, 2020

“By using updated cost figures for wind, solar, and batteries, the researchers found that it will be economically feasible to power a reliable grid by 2035, while only depending on natural gas for 10% of annual electricity production,”

Great illustration about why 100% renewable energy may be great as a slogan, but we can't let that perfect stand in the way of the very good that would be a practical energy transition like this describes

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 1, 2020

Here, the only myth being busted is that this MacArthur Foundation-sponsored "analysis" is something other than a glossy, unpublished, non-peer-reviewed advertisement for MacArthur's investments in renewables and natural gas.

Not a single individual trained in engineering, climate science, or physics dared sign their name as an author of "The 2035 Report" - and to avoid sullying their reputations, members of its Technical Review Comittee even felt it necessary to decline any and all responsibility:

"The TRC provided input and guidance related to study design and evaluation, but the contents and conclusions of
the report, including any errors and omissions, are the sole responsibility of the authors. TRC member affiliations in no way imply that those organizations support or endorse this work in any way."

If anything, The 2035 Report is remarkable for the depths renewables and gas marketers have sunk as public support slips from their grasp after release of  Planet of the Humans.

George Mamulashvili's picture
George Mamulashvili on Jul 2, 2020

Good afternoon colleagues! It is quite strange that the discussion died at this point, although in the end we got the construction of huge wheels more than 300 meters high to get the meager capacity of a single windmill of 6 MW. Of course such wheels can make the entire ocean surface, as is done in the case of solar panels, but neither land nor water is enough in the United States to meet the rapidly growing needs of the population. Some time ago, Bloomberg wrote about the bottomless financial pit where Germany is dumping money to the wind parks, that this project does not pay off at all. It's just purely expensive.

       At the same time, the analysis does not mention marine energy, which, unlike wind energy, has a huge potential. The ocean currents have a water consumption of hundreds of millions cubic meters per second, these figures are not comparable to traditional hydropower. Designs of underwater hydroelectric power plants that can convert the kinetic energy of ocean currents must have a completely different technology than just using air windmills on the bottom, and operate them as if they are installed on land. Of course, the cost of such power plants will be off the scale for 12,000 USD per kW. It is just that concerns that have mastered the production of onshore windmills will try to sell their products on the sea floor, but this is a dead end, since there is a limit on the size of these underwater windmills, and on the impact of the noise of their propellers for many kilometers around. At least the song of the cod going to mate will disappear from the fish forever, and they are already silent.           

         Meanwhile, ocean energy is such a significant factor in the development that it is already necessary to think about the predominance of this energy over all other sources of renewable energy. For example, the c/o "Power Ocean Project" development of a new technology for converting the kinetic energy of ocean currents the "Hydro Power Tower (HPT)" is just the direction of activity in the development of marine energy, which is most promising for obtaining the predominance of renewable energy sources over non-renewable ones in 2035.  

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on Jul 2, 2020

My opinion on this is that there may be a few specific locations across the US that will require new NG as we transition to a Zero Carbon grid but overall no new NG is needed.

We have a perfect example of not needing additional NG out in the Western US.

Currently the Western "grid"  - composed of AZ,CA,CO,ID,MT,NM,NV,OR,UT,WA,WY - has about 760 TWh of generation per year. Coal generaton is about 150 TWh - a 20% share of total.

The first question to ask would be - can the Western US replace this 150 TWh of coal without increasing NG?

Let's say we use 15 years for the timeline. That would mean an average of 10 TWh per year. Can the Western grid add an average of 10 TWh/year of non-NG generation each year for the next 15 years?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 3, 2020

"..overall no new NG is needed..."

...and electricity consumers won't mind being at the mercy of the sun and wind?

"Let's say we use 15 years for the timeline. That would mean an average of 10 TWh per year. Can the Western grid add an average of 10 TWh/year of non-NG generation each year for the next 15 years?"

If history is any guide, the answer is no. As Alex Trembath and Jessie Jenkins predicted five years ago, the marginal value of variable renewable energy to the grid declines as the penetration rises. Or in other words (and as Germany is learning the hard way):

Wind and Solar Eat Their Own Lunch

By that time, hopefully the scam of "self-scheduled cuts" - forcing customers to pay for wind and solar farms to turn their farms off so they won't destroy the grid - will be public knowledge, and its practitioners sent to jail. If not, all bets are off.

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on Jul 6, 2020

If history is any guide, the answer is no

Actually Bob - this is going to be pretty easy. Let's look at 3 things.

1) Demand - assumption will be that demand is relatively flat over next 10-15 years.  It might go up somewhat based on electrificaction but that won't change the results by more than a few years.

2) Coal - can/will the Western US get rid of 150TWh of annual generation within the next 15 years? 

  - Of the remaining 26 GW of Western coal capacity 18GW already has retirement date before 2035. The ducks are lining up.

  - At the end of 2019 the Navajo plant with generation of 10 TWh/year closed.  In addition, two units at Colstrip(MT), one unit at Cholla(AZ), one unit at Centralia(WA) and the Escalante(NM) plant are closing this year. So a drop to 130TWh over 2020/2021 is assured.  

  - In fact, for first four months of 2020, Western coal is already down 14 TWh. We are ahead of schedule.

  - With multiple other plant closing over the next few years - coal generation below 100TWh by 2025 out West is a no-brainer.

3) Can/will renewables generation increase by 150TWH over the next 15 years? This would be doable with 30GW of new wind capacity and 30GW of new solar capacity  with wind CF of 33% and solar at 25%.

So about 4GW of new wind/solar per year. For 2020... it looks like we will have 4GW of new solar capacity  and 5GW of new wind capacity.  Ahead of schedule.


As for the old Jessie Jenkins article.  He and team at Princeton are working on some new modeling - let's see what they come up with. I bet he wishes he could take back these comments about maximum production - especially as it relates to Ireland.

Indeed, according to a major new study of the challenges of integrating wind and solar in the Western Interconnection of North America, the maximum production of variable renewables at any instant can't exceed about 55-60 percent of total demand without risking system stability.

In Ireland, which, as we saw in part 1 is the world leader in variable renewable penetration, system operators currently limit variable renewable production to 50 percent of demand at any given time, although operators are working to increase this limit.

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