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US gets to grips with renewables

By Dave Elliott

The US currently gets about 17% of its electricity from renewables, including hydro, and its potential for rapid expansion is huge. A new study from NOAA, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says that a ‘US transition to a reliable, low-carbon, electrical generation and transmission system can be accomplished with commercially available technology and within 15 years’, according to Alexander MacDonald, one of the lead authors of the report, which was published in Nature Climate Change. But it would need supergrid  ‘electron superhighways’ to transmit electricity across the country.

The NOAA study calculates the cost-optimized configuration of variable electrical power generators using weather data with high spatial (13-km) and temporal (60-min) resolution over the contiguous US. The results show that, when using future anticipated costs for wind and solar, CO2 emissions from the US electricity sector can be reduced by up to 80% relative to 1990 levels by 2030, without an increase in the levelized cost of electricity. It says ‘the reductions are possible with current technologies and without electrical storage’.

Although they are variable sources, wind and solar power can increase their share of electricity production since the system can be balanced ‘by moving away from a regionally divided electricity sector to a national system enabled by high-voltage direct-current transmission’. MacDonald said ‘an HVDC grid would create a national electricity market in which all types of generation, including low-carbon sources, compete on a cost basis. The surprise was how dominant wind and solar could be.’ What’s more, the modelling regularly chose the supergrid option as the least cost. and

Stanford University’s Mark Jacobson, who commented on the findings in an editorial he wrote for Nature Climate Change, said the new study ‘shows that intermittent renewables plus transmission can eliminate most fossil-fuel electricity while matching power demand at lower cost than a fossil fuel-based grid – even before storage is considered’. It certainly complements the work of Jacobson and his team at Stanford, who have developed state by state scenarios showing how the US could obtain all its energy, not just electricity, from renewables by 2050.

The NOAA study saw wind and solar expanding rapidly, and that now looks very likely, with renewables being taken increasingly seriously. Wind has now expanded to 75GW in the USA, and the 5-year extension of the Federal Investment Tax Credit and Production Tax Credit system should help it to continue to develop. Offshore wind is at last getting started in the US, and maybe 3 GW could be in place off the West coast by 2020:

There are even ideas emerging for giant 50MW offshore wind turbines: And despite its usually quite conservative bias, the US Department of Energy says that overall wind could supply 10% of US electricity by 2020, 20% by 2030, and 35% by 2050:

As elsewhere, PV solar is also beginning to lift-off significantly in the US, with over 25 GW now installed and deployment booming, as its costs fall. How far it will go is unclear. MIT has talked of ‘terawatts ’(1000s of GWs) being credible in the US by mid century: That could be possible. A study by Oxford University researchers, using a new Moore’s Law-based forecasting model, notes that globally since the 1980s solar PV has become 10% cheaper each year. With that likely to continue, the Oxford study put solar on course to meet 20% of global energy (not just electricity) needs by 2027, much more than in many other scenarios:

There are some constraints. For example, the NOAA study made clear that grid interconnection upgrades and supergrid links would be vital to enable wind and solar to expand. Supergrids may still be some way off in the US, but the US Department of Energy recently launched a comprehensive new Grid Modernization Multi-Year Program Plan, aiming to improving the resiliency, reliability and security of the electricity delivery system. Up to $220 million will be invested over three years, subject to congressional appropriations, for 88 innovative and cross cutting R&D grid-technology projects led by 14 of DOE’s national labs in coordination with public- and private-sector partners. The projects cover advanced storage systems, clean energy integration, standards and test procedures, EVs, solar systems and other key grid modernization areas. That includes $18 million in funding for six new solar/storage projects across the US as part of the SunShot Initiative, using internet-capable inverters in conjunction with smart buildings, smart appliances and utility communication and control systems. Not too much on new grids though – for good or ill, the back-up emphasis seems to be on storage, with 13GW planned:

So what next? The progress on renewables made so far has often been despite strong opposition from Republicans to Obama’s policies. But even so, Obama was able to present a quite convincing progress report at COP21 in Paris last year: ‘Over the last 7 years, we’ve made ambitious investments in clean energy, and ambitious reductions in our carbon emissions. We’ve multiplied wind power threefold, and solar power more than twentyfold, helping create parts of America where these clean power sources are finally cheaper than dirtier, conventional power’.

He didn’t mention nuclear, which remains in the doldrums, with some new projects faltering and old projects closing early, though he has offered more R&D funding and loan guarantees to try to keep the show on the road:

With a presidential election looming, it’s hard to predict what will happen next. The  context was set by the two polar outliers, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. On the Republican side, Trump has expressed denialist global warming views: ‘I am not a believer. I believe there’s weather. I believe there’s change, and I believe it goes up and it goes down, and it goes up again.’   His opposition to wind energy is also well known (in Scotland too!) and he has been dismissive of solar as ‘unproven’ and as too expensive – he has talked of 32 year pay-back times: At the other extreme, radical Democratic contender Sanders backed renewables very strongly and, unlike all the other candidates, called for a nuclear phase out, with no more plant licensing renewals: Sanders had a lot enthusiastic grass roots support.

But for good or ill it’s now evidently going to be Hillary Clinton v Trump, unless he somehow gets sidelined. Provocatively he said, if elected, he would renege on the COP21 Paris climate accord.  And, like Clinton, he has a record of backing nuclear:

The political process in the US does seem rather slow and uncertain, much like the expansion of renewables in the US. In 2012, the Renewable Electricity Futures report produced by US National Renewable Energy Laboratory said that: ‘renewable electricity generation from technologies that are commercially available today, in combination with a more flexible electric system, is more than adequate to supply 80% of total US electricity generation in 2050 while meeting electricity demand on an hourly basis in every region of the United States’:

However, since then, as illustrated above, some good progress has been made, although it remains to be seen if it will be continued – with reaction from the Republican right always a threat, whatever the outcome of the election. Even before that, the US Supreme Court’s interim ruling against Obama’s Clean Energy Plan cast something of a cloud over the programme, although some states may ignore the ruling and it may get reversed.

Obama has certainly tried hard to push things on, taking climate issues seriously:  But, as in Europe, still reeling from the Brexit vote, politics remains in flux!

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