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Green electricity in the USA

By Dave Elliott

The share of renewables is growing in the United States, up from its current 13%, although the US does not have a nationwide renewable electricity target. However 30 individual states and the District of Columbia do, adding up to a cumulative target of about 18% by 2025. California has a particularly ambitious target, requiring the main utilities to deliver 33% renewable electricity by 2020, excluding generation from large hydro. The National Renewable Energy Lab has developed scenarios showing that the US could potentially generate 80% of its electricity from renewables by 2050 in its 2012 Renewable Electricity Futures Study, but that would require significant policy changes. There’s an interesting comparisons of the US with Germany in the first issue of the US-German Clean Energy Leadership Transatlantic Bridge publication, compiled by Ecofys: it’s some way behind overall, although leading on wind: US-German.CELS@ecofys.com.

Certainly the wind energy expansion has been dramatic. Lawrence Berkeley National Lab’s 2012 Wind Technologies Market Report  for the US Dept. of Energy, notes that wind power installations in 2012 were over 90% higher than in 2011 and 30% more than the previous record in 2009. Cumulative wind capacity grew by 28% in 2012, raising the total to 60 GW.  But it warned that even with a short-term extension of federal tax incentives now in place, the U.S. wind power industry is facing uncertain times.’ Given the (political) delay in setting the production tax credit and the uncertainty it caused ‘it will take time to rebuild the project pipeline, ensuring a slow year for new capacity additions in 2013. Continued low natural gas prices, modest electricity demand growth, and limited near-term demand from state renewables portfolio standards have also put a damper on industry growth expectations. What these trends mean for the medium to longer term remains to be seen, dictated in part by future natural gas prices, fossil plant retirements, and policy decisions, although recent declines in the price of wind energy have boosted the prospects for future growth.’ http://emp.lbl.gov/reports/re

The American Wind Energy Association said that the wind power industry ‘slowed dramatically’ in the first half of 2013, and it cited the late extension of the PTC and ‘historic levels’ of installation at the end of 2012 as reasons. But it insisted that activity was ‘picking up’ with over 3,950MW of long-term power purchase agreements signed, over 1,300MW of self-builds announced by utilities and 1,280MW under construction.

Solar PV is somewhat less developed, but has reached 10GW and it’s expected to accelerate. The US National Renewable Energy Lab says that wind and solar power generation will be cost competitive with fossil fuels without recourse to federal subsidies by 2025, with solar power costs in western US states falling by 35%, wind by 19%. The NREL study Beyond Renewable Portfolio Standards -an Assessment of Regional Supply and Demand Conditions Affecting the Future of Renewable Energy in the West, argues that locating renewable assets in the most productive regions could cut the electricity costs. Even when transmission and integration costs are taken into account, solar and wind could compete with new natural gas fired power plants on cost.www.nrel.gov/docs/fy13osti/57830-1.pdf  Also, on PV, see http://emp.lbl.gov/sites/all/files/presentation.pdf

Interest remains in hydro at various scales (it’s still, at over 100GW, the largest US renewable), despite concerns about impacts. Nearly 2GW of Concentrated Solar Power is in place or being built in desert areas, although Concentrated PV may have the economic edge at present, while geothermal electricity generation is already well established in the USA, with over 3GW operating, and a big potential, although funding for new projects is tight. Marine renewables are also now being looked at seriously. The US Dept of Energy has allocated about $13.5 m for eight projects to help U.S. companies build durable, efficient wave and tidal devices that reduce overall costs and maximize the amount of energy captured. The DoE has also allocated $2.4 m to nine projects that will gather and analyse environmental data from wave and tidal projects and potential development areas, aiming to ensure that ‘as this nascent energy industry grows, potential environmental impacts are addressed proactively and that projects can be developed efficiently and responsibly’.

Distribution and transmission issues are seen as central to future renewable energy development, not least to limit curtailment of excess output.   The National Renewable Energy Labs says that it would be ‘operationally possible to accommodate 30% wind and 5% solar energy if utilities substantially increase their coordination of operations over wider geographic areas and schedule their generation and interchanges on an intra-hour basis’. But it adds ‘the integration of 35% wind and solar energy into the electric power system will not require extensive infrastructure if changes are made to operational practices’. www.nrel.gov/electricity/transmission/western_wind.html 

However there is interest in smart grid and $3.7bn of American Recovery funding went into 100 Smart Grid projects.
 www.smartgrid.gov/sites/default/files/VoicesofExperience_Brochure_9.26.2013.pdf

New demand side management options are also being looked at. See the University of Berkeley’s study of the demand side impacts of variable pricing in California: http://energyathaas.wordpress.com/2013/10/21/2020-vision/?utm_source=Blog+Oct+21,+2013&utm_campaign=blog41&utm_medium=email

There is also continuing interest in Carbon Capture and Storage, especially for coal plants. The US Department of Energy is to provide around $1bn in cost-shared funding for a commercial-scale, oxy-combustion electricity generation plant integrated with carbon capture and storage technology. This project should demonstrate its economic viability- a major unknown at present.

Nuclear power is not fairing well. Following on from the early closure of 4 other old US nuclear plants, Vermont Yankee is to close since continued operation was deemed ‘not financially viable’ and both reactors at the San Onofre nuclear plant in California are being retired due to the lengthy and uncertain regulatory processes surrounding their return to service, after a fault and small radiation leak in one of the plants in Jan 2012, which led it to be shut down. More plans for new plants are also coming unstruck. Duke Energy has dropped plans to build two new reactors at the greenfield Levy site in Florida, blaming regulatory uncertainty. It had already abandoned plans for two AP1000s at Shearon Harris in North Carolina. And a decision on Duke’s application to build two AP1000 plants on a greenfield site in Cherokee County, South Carolina could be delayed by three years, the US regulator says. Meanwhile EDF has pulled out of the Constellation Energy Nuclear Group, a joint venture with Exelon, while Luminant has halted plans to build two Mitsubishi plants at Comanche Peak in Texas. With the combined pressure from shale gas and renewables, nuclear may well stall entirely, although some 4.5GW of new construction projects have survived. Even so, the nuclear renaissance seems to be over: www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/jul/11/nuclear-renaissance-power-myth-us

*The above focuses on electricity and ignores biomass/bionenergy/waste, some of which, as well as being used for power production, is also being used, along with direct solar, for heating, as well as for transport fuel, although with some environmental objections.

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