Renewable Energy Political Misconceptions (M) and Realities (R)

It is relatively well-known in technical energy circles, but not so much in political discussions and media coverage of the issue, that renewable energy (RE) has reached cost and feasibility targets long ago established by the U.S. government. The market is responding with only minimal government economic and other energy stimuli and incentives while direct government subsidies to the fossil fuel industry continue at a time when the threat of disastrous climate change has become almost universally known in climate science and by energy- and climate-related government agencies. To a hopefully diminishing extent, major media coverage has largely failed to reflect these facts. Below is a brief summary of the misconceptions and realities that still pervade the political debate.

M1: Solar Energy is too expensive for generating utility electricity

R1: It may have been so, but no longer, and solar is getting cheaper while fossil fuels are more expensive

Utility-scale solar prices have fallen below $1 per peak Watt for the first time. Solar PV capacity in the U.S. is expected to triple over the next five years. (Mike Munsell, 7 June 2017, Greentech Media, LINK)

“Following rapid growth across the industry in 2016, the United States solar market added 2,044 megawatts of new capacity in the first quarter of 2017.
“As installations grow, prices continue to fall to new lows, with utility-scale system prices dropping below the $1 per watt barrier for the first time, according to GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association’s (SEIA) latest U.S. Solar Market Insight report.
“The first quarter of 2017 was the sixth straight quarter in which more than 2 gigawatts of solar photovoltaics (PV) and more than 1 gigawatt of utility-scale PV was installed.
“The residential and non-residential PV markets are both expected to experience year-over-year growth, even as the quarterly numbers saw a drop from last year’s record-setting pace, the report said.”

Details as of December 2016 are shown in the chart below. See also “Solar Energy Realities Not Understood by Some on Capitol Hill.”

M2: Energy storage is too expensive for generating utility electricity and batteries have low capacity

R2: It may have been so, but no longer. There are thermal, electrical, and hydro energy storage options that work and are being used. In particular, battery technology is improving rapidly. Lithium-ion batteries provide the lion’s share of electric utility installations as a result of “massive declines in lithium-ion battery prices.”

According to Greentech Media 2017 Q1 Energy Storage Monitor, the U.S. deployed 229.9 megawatt-hours of energy storage in Q4 2016, increasing more than sixfold from Q3 2016 and 230% from Q4 2015, marking that a record quarter in energy storage capacity increase.

“Lithium-ion batteries dominated the energy storage market for the ninth straight quarter, representing 98.4% of the market in Q4 2016, up from 96.9% in Q3 2016. For the entirety of 2016, lithium-ion batteries held a market share of ~97% or greater, driven in large part by massive declines in lithium-ion battery prices and growing acceptance of the technology’s bankability, leading to lithium-ion batteries’ implementation in the majority of large utility-scale projects throughout the year. This trend is expected to continue, as numerous megawatt-scale procurements were awarded in 2016 to developers implementing lithium-ion technology; these projects are expected to come on-line over the next three to five years.”
From the GTM 2017 Q1 energy storage report, “lithium-ion batteries dominated the energy storage [sales] for the tenth straight quarter, holding 96.5% of the market. The majority of utility-scale projects deployed in Q1 2017 employed lithium-ion chemistry…. Growing acceptance of lithium-ion is expected to cause this trend to continue over the next few years.”

M3: Electric utility grids are unable to efficiently manage varying loads and a variety of variable energy sources, especially small and large wind and solar electrical generation and a growing network of charging stations for electric vehicles around the country.

R3: It used to be that way, but integrated grid management technology is developing rapidly to solve these problems. High voltage and direct current long-distance transmission lines are also being developed and deployed, enabling more efficient energy transport from (base-load and variable) sources to existing customers, to both utility and distributed electrical storage facilites — including a growing variety of self-generating customers around the country.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, “As the nation moves toward an energy system with higher penetrations of wind [and solar] energy, it is increasingly important for grid operators to understand how they can reliably integrate large quantities of wind [and solar] energy into system operations; additionally, it is important to develop capabilities that enable these new … installations to actively improve the power quality of the electric grid.”

For example, sales of all-electric vehicles are growing. To somewhat replace gas stations for fueling, there is a growing network of vehicle charging stations around the country. See the PlugShare EV Charging Station Map (zoom out to view larger areas). Most of these charging stations are connected to existing utility grids, but the fraction generating electricity from on-site solar arrays and battery storage is growing.

In another example, the Modi government in India recently announced:

…an ambitious programme aimed at switching most, if not all, of its vehicles to battery power by 2030. In an audacious move worthy of Elon Musk, the key to the plan’s success will be the eschewing of subsidies driven by a battery leasing strategy. The scheme, which kicks off in the next few months, includes limited tax breaks for manufacturers and the sale of vehicles without batteries to improve affordability, said a senior government official with knowledge of the plan. (The Economic Times of India, 25 May 2017)

Such a program will reduce air pollution emissions, virtually eliminate smog, and greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.

If charging stations can generate their own electrical energy using RE and/or be connected to regional wind and solar RE grids, the transition away from fossil fuels to an energy efficient and renewable energy economy can be accelerated.

Considerable research is underway around the world towards the realization of an integrated smart grid capable of managing power flows to and from sources, storage, and electricity consumers over large areas.

M4: Wind and solar sources are variable in time and space, making them incapable of totally replacing greenhouse gas emitting fossil fuel power plants and very high cost nuclear plants. Without high-energy-density fossil fuels, which can be stored on-site at electrical generating stations for use at night and when the wind is not blowing and the sun not shining, a 100% renewable energy electric utility system is impractical.

R4: It used to be that way. However, the rapid drop in wind and solar equipment, installation, and operation costs, coupled with increased capacity and dropping costs of battery storage, also coupled to a modern smartly integrated grid management system, there are no more barriers to 100% conversion from fossil fuels to energy conservation and renewable energy sources.

As the currently small fraction of renewable energy sources grows toward a large fraction of the total, we will see that grid management technology, low-cost energy storage systems, and efficient long-distance electrical energy transport systems likely to enable the complete (or very nearly 100%) conversion of most electricity-using systems away from fossil fuels to RE sources. Many transportation systems can convert to electric propulsion coupled with an increased variety of battery replacement or charging stations along transport routes. Land and water-borne transportation should not be a big problem. Aircraft will become more efficient and possibly fueled by liquid bio energy or other sufficiently energy-dense fuels other than greenhouse gas emitting ones.

Highway vehicles will carry batteries that can be swapped out or rapidly charged at a growing network of charging stations along every route.

Trains can run from electrified tracks, wires above, or new, more streamlined methods made to accommodate safe, high speed transport.

Boats can move at modest speeds with low frictional energy loss; movement of vessels through water can be facilitated by substantial electrical energy storage on-board, in some cases aided by various wind propulsion methods.

The case for much of this has been made by Mark Dyson and Amory Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute in “The Grid Needs a Symphony, Not a Shouting Match” published 12 June 2017 at this link.

Ross McCluney holds BA, MS, and PhD degrees in physics, worked as an optical engineer at Eastman Kodak Company, an optical oceanographer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and as a Principal Research Scientist, at the University of Central Florida’s Florida Solar Energy Center. He writes for and the nonprofit blog

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