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Energy in the US: the rise of renewables

By Dave Elliott

Energy use and impacts are changing in the USA, in part due to progressive policies from Obama, but also because of structural changes in the energy economy. Carbon dioxide emissions from US energy sector have fallen 12% since 2005, mainly since there has been a decline in the use of coal, although its fall back has mostly due to an increase in the use of natural gas to generate electricity. However, renewables are also playing growing roles, supplying around 16% of US power, eclipsing nuclear (their output overtook that from nuclear in 2010) and they are expanding fast, hitting 17% in the first part of 2016. But all that could change when Trump takes power.

Given Trump’s dismissive views on climate change, we might expect some radically changed priorities.  He has said that ‘coal will last for 1,000 years in this country’, and he has been very hostile to renewables: 

For the moment though, renewables are doing quite well, and although Trump is likely to cut Federal funding, it may prove hard for him to slow their growth much, given that the main recent driver has been the rapidly falling costs of wind and solar PV.  He is after all committed to commercial enterprise and industrial growth, and this is one area that is growing. Moreover, a recent Pew Research Centre study found that 83% of American adults support expanding wind farms, while 89% support solar expansion: 

Hydro, with over 100GW installed, still dominates, but wind is catching up and leads in terms of the new renewables, heading for 80GW, including the first US offshore wind farm, with Deepwater’s five 6MW GE turbines now in place at Block Island, off Rhode Island.  There are plans for much more offshore wind, including a 765MW project, 25 miles off the Californian coast.  The US Dept. of Energy says, in theory, 86 GW could be installed offshore by 2050:  Meanwhile, on-shore wind is increasingly competitive, averaging 2c/kWh, and seems bound to expand rapidly:

PV solar, nearing 30GW, is also expanding: it already employs more people in the US than oil and gas. It’s been helped by net metering, which allows consumers to expand their use of PV at less cost, by selling any excess to the utilities- paying for the net amount transferred. But the PV boom means that consumers no longer need to buy so much power, so the utilities are expected to loose $2bn in revenue by 2019. Some utilities complain that the ‘prosumers’ also get free use of the grid without paying the full share of its costs and are trying to cut the rate at which they pay for power from them. Meanwhile though, some prosumers are going on the offensive, banding together in local shared ‘community solar’ micro-grid schemes and peer-to-pear trading:  And along with many off-grid projects, there are some good municipal micro-grid schemes elsewhere too:  This is all helping to push PV on and cut costs: a review of the DOE Sunshot solar programme says it’s attained ~70% of its 2020 price parity aims so far:  And the potential benefits are huge:

Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) is also doing quite well, with large focused solar arrays in desert areas, although there have been some economic problems and local eco-impact issues. Nevertheless, SolarReserve plans a 10-tower 2GW solar thermal plant in Nevada with storage for 2021:  Geothermal remains a sleeping giant- a major potential resource only partly exploited so far, with around 3GW(e) on line: Despite some objections in terms of eco-impacts and low energy productivity, biomass remains a major focus, much of it being biofuels for vehicles, but also forestry wastes for power production, much of this, controversially, being exported to the EU, the UK especially: 

There is some interest in wave and tidal power, with a grid linked wave project starting up on Hawaii and various other marine systems being under test, but with its huge landmass, the main focus so far in the USA has been on land-based options. It has much more space per capita than the EU, so it ought to be good for land-hungry wind, solar, CSP, and biomass.

However, given the size of the country and the dispersed resource, long distance grid links will be important, and that’s only now being looked at: For the moment, most grid links and management projects serve local, regional and state markets, with there often only being week interstate/regional link-ups. However, within these, much progress has been made on grid-balancing and backup management. Storage is currently one of the big new issues, though there remains the lively issue of the right balance between small mostly offgrid systems with domestic stores and larger grid-linked systems with larger shared stores. A extreme version of the later is a $8bn project involving a 2.1GW wind farm in Wyoming, which will send electricity by HVDC power grid 525 miles to an underground salt cavern compressed air storage facility in Utah, and then, after conversion back to electricity, 490 miles on to Los Angeles. That’s pretty bold, but even with more conventional grid upgrades, a lot can be done to integrate renewables:

Support for renewables is offered mainly via a Federal Production Tax rebate system and via various state-level ‘Renewable Portfolio Standard’ policies. But there are also some one off grant systems. For example, before leaving office, Obama announced a solar plan to help low/ moderate-income homes ‘go solar’- the ‘Clean Energy Savings programme. However, that is just the sort of thing that is likely to be cut by Trump, along, more significantly, with the EPA-led Clean Power Plan, which calls for states to cut fossil emissions and support the use of renewables. We have yet to see details of what he will actually do, but his teams initial plans look pretty aggressive:

Although it seems likely that renewables will still continue to expand, given their increasingly favourable economics, and the fact that many projects are supported at state level and by companies, there may be other problems ahead. As has been found in the EU, there are system level problems with rapid expansion: there’s allegedly too much renewable output forcing prices down!

Certainly the old fossil and nuclear generators are having problems competing, and there will be balancing problems to address, but the old order does seem to be changing:

What about nuclear? It’s enjoys major up-front incentives. It has access to generous loan guarantees and guaranteed cost recovery from consumers. But despite this, only a few new plants are being build while many older ones are being shut, some well before their expected retirement dates: nuclear is being squeezed out but competition from cheaper alternatives. In the latest closures, following the Fort Calhoun plant in Nebraska, Exelon is to shut the Clinton and Quad Cites plants in Illinois, which have lost $800m in the past 7 years. The Nuclear Energy Institute say 15-20 more are at risk of a premature closure in the next decade due to competition from cheap shale gas.  It increasingly argued that nuclear won’t prosper or even survive without new and significant subsidies:  Meanwhile, there are all the usual problems with the old existing plants and their legacies, including  this chilling nuclear waste threat:

Trump has backed nuclear in the past, but with extra subsidies being needed to keep existing plants going, few, apart from some stalwarts, now see new nuclear as a major option for the US, although there is some interest in small modular reactors and work on fusion continues. But for the foreseeable future, while gas will continue to boom and, under Trump, coal might too, renewables still look like the main way ahead, with some ambitious scenarios suggesting that, given proper attention to end-use energy efficiency in all sectors, they could supply near 100% of US energy by 2050:

With Trump in power that’s probably even further off now, but the potential for the USA to become what Hillary Clinton described as a ‘21st century renewable energy superpower’ still remains. Outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry’s parting shot at COP22 in Morocco in November  was that the US would cut emissions (from 2005 levels) by 80% and get 55% of its power from renewables by 2050:  Well, we will see.

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