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Joe Deely's picture
Partner Deely Group

Involved with high-tech for last 30 years. Interested in energy.

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  • Jul 13, 2021
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Great article in the Wall Street Journal. Highly recommended interview of three respected sources.

How Big Can Renewable Energy Get in the Next 10 Years?

The Biden administration wants 80% of U.S. power to come from clean sources. Three experts discuss whether that’s doable—and if so, how.

Can renewable energy get that big in the U.S. over the next decade? We asked three experts to weigh in: Kevin Book, managing director at Clearview Energy Partners in Washington, D.C.; Jesse Jenkins, assistant professor at Princeton University with a joint appointment in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and Environment; and Leah Stokes, assistant professor of political science at University of California, Santa Barbara.

Note: Jessie Jenkins was a former contributor on this website.

 

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 13, 2021

"Note: Jessie Jenkins was a former contributor on this website."

Note: Jessie Jenkins wasn't formerly carrying water for BP and Exxon at Princeton, however. And $38,131,806 carries a lot of water, doesn't it?

  With you and Big Oil calling the shots, renewables should get REAL big in the next 10 years!

 

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 13, 2021

Important question to ask-- this is the decisive decade, as they call it, for a reason.

I don't have a WSJ subscription-- anyone care to share some of the many arguments / conclusions of the experts in this article? 

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on Jul 13, 2021

WSJ: The Biden administration wants 80% of U.S. power to come from clean energy by 2030. Do you think that is feasible?

MR. JENKINS: Our Princeton University Net-Zero America study charts several pathways to net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. We see wind and solar playing a major role in all pathways, scaling up rapidly over the next decade. 

Under the best scenario, wind and solar would provide about half our electricity by the end of the decade, up from about 12% over the last 12 months. 

That would require building about 600 gigawatts of new wind and solar facilities, or about 60 gigawatts a year. That would mean putting the pedal to the metal, as the U.S. deployed a record of about 29 gigawatts last year.

Share Your Thoughts

What do you think should be done to promote renewable energy? Join the conversation below.

That pace of growth looks feasible from a supply-chain perspective if the right policies are in place to offer certainty for business investments. When policy supports clean-energy expansion, annual growth can surge. 

Here we’re talking about increasing the rate of growth of wind and solar by about 10% a year over the decade. That’s a pace and scale that would meet President Biden’s goal of making clean electricity account for 80% of our total by 2030, provided the U.S. also preserves the foundation provided by existing nuclear and hydropower facilities, which produce about one-quarter of U.S. electricity today. 

MR. BOOK: Wind and solar generation have grown at a compound annual rate of about 16.5% over the past decade. Carry that forward to 2030, and you get about 50% of power generation from wind and solar. 

That 50% would require a heroic build-out, and the real world has a way of ignoring analysts’ spreadsheet projections. Policy decisions, and the political priorities that motivate those decisions, can make a big difference in outcomes. 

MS. STOKES: Last year, 2020, was the best year on record for renewables growth [in terms of generation], at 2.4 percentage points. I think we can double that pace in the coming years if Congress passes a bold legislative package this summer that includes renewables tax credits and a clean electricity standard.

If we are aiming for that 80%, it’s likely we would have 60% renewables by then. That’s eminently doable if the federal government gets behind it. 

MR. BOOK: I wouldn’t bet against a committed U.S. federal government and a supportive populace. But I don’t currently see anything like Apollo program unity behind a green agenda, especially when Republicans who fly too close to the figurative sun keep ending up more like Icarus. 

President Biden envisions triple-digit billions of dollars of tax credits for clean energy over the course of a decade. But they aren’t in the bipartisan infrastructure bill. And party-line passage of those credits looks far from guaranteed, though it’s possible.

Regional resource divisions make deal-making difficult until a supply shock focuses minds. It’s generally only then that the economic costs of inaction exceed the political costs of acting. 

WSJ: Leah, it sounds like you think a clean-electricity standard is crucial.

MS. STOKES: We need a clean-electricity standard to align incentives across the power sector—in markets, regulated sectors and nonprofit utilities alike. That would make sure we keep the clean power that we already have online, stop the building of expensive new fossil assets that will become stranded and rapidly scale up wind and solar. 

Reforming key federal investments will also enable wind and solar to grow. Right now, dirty infrastructure is subsidized, both directly and indirectly by not paying the cost of its pollution. 

MR. BOOK: Energy policy is constrained by politics, and political shifts could put a transition at risk. Electrons and molecules don’t belong to political parties, but people do. And those people look pretty divided in terms of their grids and roads.

Of 31 states and localities with binding clean-power targets, 25 voted for President Biden last November. Electric-vehicle sales penetration is four times greater in Biden states than the Trump states, and the Trump states produce about four times more of the nation’s onshore oil than the Biden states.

So, President Biden may lean into transition, but the GOP seems likely to push back. Republican corporate constituencies may start to see more upside in a green agenda over time, but an organic pivot still could take many years.

And, right now, rising pump prices and end-user cost perceptions could make energy a potent election wedge issue. If Washington flips to a Republican Congress in 2024, the transition policies Leah and Jesse mentioned could be at risk.

WSJ: Are costs for generating renewable energy, such as solar panels and wind turbines, an obstacle for its growth?

Global net electricity generation by fuel

trillion kilowatthours

Source: EIA 2019

MR. JENKINS: Cost isn’t a barrier for renewable energy. Thanks to public support and private ingenuity, the cost for wind, solar and lithium-ion batteries [the principal cost component of electric vehicles and the leading source of grid-scale energy storage] have all plummeted in the last 10 years. Solar and battery costs have dropped about 90% and wind costs almost 70%.

Those cost declines have fundamentally changed the economic and political calculus of decarbonization, and they are the primary reason why we’re here discussing how far solar and wind can go.

We still need proactive policy to push wind and solar growth to the pace required. But now the policy cost is much more manageable. Congress has the opportunity in a federal infrastructure and jobs bill to shift the costs of this historic energy transition to a progressive tax base rather than utility ratepayers. That could deliver 80% clean electricity by 2030 while keeping electricity costs at or below today’s rates.

Wind and solar are able to do the heavy lifting this decade precisely because public policy supported these technologies in past decades, transforming them from expensive alternative energy sources to cheap, mainstream investments. 

MR. BOOK: Jesse is right to bring up the importance of cost declines. The IEA’s [International Energy Agency’s] net-zero pathway calls for annual additions of 630 gigawatts of solar photovoltaics and 390 gigawatts of wind by 2030, four times the record levels set in 2020.

That dramatic increase envisions falling costs, and cost curves have historically plummeted over the long haul with manufacturing scale economies and because of learning effects.

But government policy-driven deployment booms can also create or contribute to short-term factor cost inflation. 

MS. STOKES: We shouldn’t underestimate the costs of the status quo. These old dirty plants are costing ratepayers every single day in areas where they face no competition. They’re also costing people in hospital bills through things like asthma. And they are costing us through billion-dollar weather disasters growing every year. The costs of delaying the transition are way higher than the costs of acting.

Global share of net electricity generation

Source: EIA 2019

WSJ: How do we deal with the shortage of transmission lines for renewable energy?

MR. JENKINS: We have a long history in this country of using public-policy, regulation and investment to build transportation networks to tap into our abundant natural resources. 

Now America must do so again, building long-distance electricity transmission to tap into the abundant wind-energy potential in America’s heartland, solar power in the Sunbelt and offshore wind along the Atlantic Coast. That will inevitably require expanding transmission across state lines. 

Yet transmission lines are currently permitted state by state and planned at a regional, not national scale, which has greatly constrained long-distance transmission. These processes will need to be reformed for wind and solar to realize their full potential.

Part of this drive to expand transmission comes from the need to tap into the best solar and wind resources across the country and bring that energy to our cities. But it also comes from the expected electrification of transportation and heating in coming years. More electricity demand means we’ll need a bigger grid.

MS. STOKES: Transmission is indeed a big barrier. Congress will need to get creative this summer to figure out how to make progress at the federal level.

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 14, 2021

If solar grows at the same rate it has over the last six years, it will only take 108 years to reach 50% solar penetration!* Jesse's right - we'd better put the pedal to the metal!

Joe, how many more $millions/yr do you think BP and ExxonMobil would have to kick into the pot if we wanted 50% solar penetration to happen in 100 years?

*Assumes no increase in electricity consumption.

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on Jul 14, 2021

What a defeatist attitude...

As the great John Belushi once said: "Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?"

 

I seem to recall some similar comments in 2008 when pundits were saying that Apple would never catch Nokia in phones. Luckily, Apple had folks who kept pushing.

 

Solar grew 24% Y-Y from 2019-2020.  That would get us to 25% solar by 2030.Will be extremely tough to maintain that rate but not impossible. Let's get moving.

 

US solar market passes 100 GW milestone

The US solar market surpassed 100 gigawatts (GWdc) of installed electric generating capacity, doubling the size of the industry over the last 3.5 years

The US solar industry installed 5 GW of new capacity in Q1 2021, a new Q1 record and a 46% increase over Q1 2020.

Looks like we will at least maintain that growth rate in 2021 - let's make sure we do the same in 2022.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 15, 2021

Defeatist?! I'm all for moving forward, Joe. Defeatism is accepting inferior, centuries-old sources of energy as the best we can do.

Supporting renewables in 2021 is like beating your head against a wall. Just think how good it will feel when you stop!

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Jul 18, 2021

Thanks for posting the interview. 

Of course it can be done if we are committed to it. It has been amazing so far. And the best is yet to come. What´s more, the technology will provide a way for developing economies to at least reduce their increase in emissions.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 19, 2021

"...the technology will provide a way for developing economies to at least reduce their increase in emissions."

Mark, sounds a lot like the Shell company line: "to at least reduce their increase in emissions by switching from their fossil fuel to ours." Wouldn't you agree?

 

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