From the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies:
Nearly 75 percent of coal-fired power plants in the United States generate electricity that is more expensive than local wind and solar energy resources, according to a new report from Energy Innovation, a renewables analysis firm. Wind power, in particular, can at times provide electricity at half the cost of coal, the report found.
By 2025, enough wind and solar power will be generated at low enough prices in the U.S. that it could theoretically replace 86 percent of the U.S. coal fleet with lower-cost electricity, The Guardian reported.
“We’ve seen we are at the ‘coal crossover’ point in many parts of the country, but this is actually more widespread than previously thought,” Mike O’Boyle, the co-author of the report for Energy Innovation, told The Guardian. “There is a huge potential for wind and solar to replace coal, while saving people money.”
Using public financial filings and data from the U.S. Energy Information Agency, O’Boyle and his colleagues analyzed the cost of coal-fired power plants compared with wind and solar options within a 35-mile radius. The report found that North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, and Texas have the greatest amount of coal capacity currently at risk of being outcompeted by local wind and solar. By 2025, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin will be in a similar situation.
“Coal’s biggest threat is now economics, not regulations,” O’Boyle told CNN Business.
Coal currently makes up just 28 percent of total U.S. power generation, down from 48 percent in 2008. Renewables, meanwhile, now account for 17 percent of electricity generation, dominated by hydro and wind, with solar capacity quickly growing.
The Energy Information Administration (EIA) recently highlighted a little-discussed benefit of using renewables like wind and solar to produce electricity: Unlike most power sources, they require “almost no water.”
According to the latest U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) data from 2015, 41 percent of the water used in America is for power generation. The next highest use is irrigation for agriculture, accounting for 37 percent of U.S. water use (and close to two-thirds of that is consumptive).
Here’s the release from the University of Colorado at Boulder:
CU Boulder on Tuesday announced it has joined the University Climate Change Coalition (UC3), a newly formed coalition of 13 leading North American research universities that have united to help communities achieve their climate goals and accelerate the transition to a low-carbon future.
UC3’s initial cohort of member institutions—representing distinguished universities from the United States, Canada and Mexico—formally unveiled the initiative at the Higher Education Climate Leadership Summit in Tempe, Arizona, during a panel discussion that included CU Boulder Chancellor Philip DiStefano.
“With our university partners in UC3, we can meet the challenges of climate resiliency and sustainability,” DiStefano said. “Through leadership and innovation, together we can positively impact humanity now and for generations to come.”
CU Boulder Chief Sustainability Officer Heidi VanGenderen will serve as the primary campus liaison for the UC3 endeavor, working closely with Vice Chancellor for Infrastructure and Safety David Kang, Vice Chancellor for Research & Innovation Terri Fiez and other campus leaders.
For more than half a century, CU Boulder has been a leader in climate and energy research, interdisciplinary environmental studies programs, and engaging in sustainability practices both on campus and beyond. These endeavors fit within CU Boulder’s mission to improve communities through collaborative research, innovation and entrepreneurship.
Campus leaders have set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 20 percent by 2020 from a 2005 baseline, a 50 percent reduction by 2030, and an 80 percent reduction by 2050.
It is with this blend of history, expertise and determination that CU Boulder will contribute to the efforts of UC3, which aims to foster an exchange of best practices and lessons learned in pursuit of carbon neutrality and greenhouse gas reductions. Together, these institutions have committed to mobilizing their collective resources and expertise to help businesses, cities and states achieve their climate goals.
Two of UC3’s major initiatives in its first year include:
Cross-sector forums: Each UC3 institution will convene a climate change summit during the 2018 calendar year to bring together community and business leaders, elected officials and other local stakeholders. Summits will be tailored to the local and regional context and will focus on proven, research-tested policies and solutions that can help communities achieve their climate goals and/or plan for resiliency in the face of a changing climate.
Coalition climate mitigation and adaptation report: A coalition-wide report, to be released in late 2018, will synthesize best practices, policies and recommendations from all UC3 forums into a framework for continued progress on climate goals across the nation and the world.
UC3 will operate in close partnership with Second Nature’s Climate Leadership Network, a group of hundreds of colleges and universities, of which CU Boulder is also a member, that have committed to taking action on climate.
Harnessing the exceptional resources and convening power of member institutions, the coalition will work to inform and galvanize local, regional and national action on climate change. Coalition members will bring to these efforts a critical body of expertise in areas including climate modeling, energy storage systems, next generation solar cells, energy-efficiency technologies, smart grids, transportation sector innovations, regulatory and policy approaches, and more.
In 2015, the U.S.-based members of the UC3 coalition together performed almost a quarter of the environmental research conducted by all U.S. institutions, according to data collected by the National Science Foundation.
“The research university has played an important role in creating new knowledge, convening thought leadership and serving as long-term community members,” Second Nature President Timothy Carter said. “By applying these strengths to locally relevant climate challenges, we see transformative potential for accelerating climate solutions in these locations in a way that couldn’t happen if the institutions and sectors continued to act on their own.”
Xcel decision fortifies calls for 100 percent renewables
The Sierra Club has been pushing Durango to commit to 100 percent locally produced and renewable electricity by 2050.
The argument of petitioners, reports the Durango Herald, is that in addition to cutting carbon emissions, the local, renewable energy would create local jobs and stabilize energy rates as the cost of fossil fuels continues to rise.
The petition in Durango fits in with a broad pattern across the country of calls for municipalities to embrace goals of 100 percent renewables during the next few decades. In Utah, for example, Salt Lake City, Moab, and Park City have all embraced that goal. In Colorado, so have the Front Range communities of Fort Collins, Boulder, and Pueblo.
That goal no longer seems so far-fetched. Major, investor-owned utilities have been rapidly investing in renewables not because they have to, but because of tumbling prices for wind, but also solar. Cost of utility-scale storage has also started sliding.
Last week, Colorado’s largest utility, Public Service Co., a subsidiary of Xcel Energy, announced that it would seek approval of state regulators to retire two coal-fired generating plants at Pueblo, which began operations in 1972 and 1974. The retirements, if approved by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, will mean Comanche I and II will be retired a decade earlier than previously scheduled.
Xcel wants to replace the lost power with some natural gas-fired electricity but mostly with renewables, with up to 1,000 megawatts of wind and 700 megawatts of solar. It wants to move fast, too, to take advantage of federal tax credits that are scheduled to expire in 2020.
Cost to consumers will stay the same or more likely go down, explained David Eves, the utility’s president of Colorado operations. Reduced greenhouse gas emissions are a bonus.
After the switch, Xcel expects its will be at 55 percent in carbon-free generation. This year, it will be completing conversion of a coal-fired power plant in Denver to natural gas. It had also converted a plant in Boulder last year.
Xcel delivers power to Colorado’s Summit County, where Breckenridge elected officials recently heard from a local group that wanted a commitment to 100 percent renewables, first in city operations and then a few years later in the community at large. Town officials weren’t ready to commit, lacking a clear path to achieve these goals. This was a week before the Xcel announcement.
Mark Truckey, a town planner in Breckenridge who is a member of the local 100 percent group, called the Xcel announcement “huge.”
“This has to speak volumes about how the cost is coming down,” he said. Yet he concedes it’s not exactly clear how Breckenridge can achieve what his group advocates.
In Utah, it’s the same story. Rocky Mountain Power last week reached a deal with solar advocates about a transition. The utility, which serves Park City, has a plan for adding more wind generation from southern Wyoming and upwards of 1,000 megawatts —the equivalent of a giant coal-fired power plant—in solar generation from Utah.
It used to be that renewables came with a price premium. As the Xcel and Rocky Mountain Power cases illustrate, that has changed. Aspen also proves the case.
Aspen Electric was an early adopter. The utility serves half to two-thirds of Aspen. More than a decade ago it invested in two wind turbines in Nebraska. It has also invested heavily in hydroelectric. As a municipality, it is also eligible for electricity from the giant dams of the West.
Several years ago it was able to achieve 100 percent renewables. Despite the renewables—or maybe because of them—residential customers in Aspen pay 20 percent less per kilowatt-hour than co-op members such as those serving Durango.
The rest of Aspen, including the ski area, gets its electricity from Holy Cross Energy. If moving briskly toward renewables, Holy Cross still gets a substantial amount of its electricity from another coal-fired power plant at Pueblo. Although news as of 2010, it increasingly looks archaic.
Solar panels have become abundant on rooftops. Even so, solar delivered just 2 percent of Colorado’s electricity in 2016. Solar energy proponents expect that will change. Costs of panels have declined 64 percent in the last five years, points out the Summit Daily News, citing the Colorado Solar Energy Industry Association. Too, utilities like Xcel, Rocky Mountain Power, and Tri-State Generation and Transmission are increasingly investing in giant farms of solar panels.
Tri-State provides electricity for the co-operatives that serve the Colorado mountain towns of Winter Park, Grand Lake, Crested Butte, and Telluride. The power for Durango also comes from Tri-State through La Plata Electric Association.
Last year, 53 percent of Tri-State’s electricity came from coal, although 27 percent came from renewables, and more is coming on line all the time, says Lee Boughey, spokesman. He points to 75 megawatts of wind generation from southeastern Colorado that will go on-line later this year.
About 4 percent of Durango’s power comes from local renewable sources, but a major solar plant on the Southern Ute reservation has also been added, reports the Durango Telegraph.
Can Durango get to 100 percent renewables, as the Sierra Club petition seeks? La Plata hasn’t said no, although there are many challenges. Most illuminating is a white paper from the co-op’s chief executive, Mike Dreyspring. The paper describes the evolution of markets that will allow slow-cost electrons from renewable sources to be moved around the grid to match demands. That other changes are poised to disrupt old business models—including the centralized power generation of the last half of the 20th century.
Locally produced power, called distributed generation, “shifts the balance sheet risk from owners of central station bulk power generation assets to DG owners,” the paper says. “The traditional, vertically integrated electric utilities that adapt to this changing market place will financially thrive.”
Another way of saying this is that yes, the train is out of the station. It’s just a matter of accommodating the new renewables. Whether 100 percent renewables is possible is a discussion for another day.
Despite Trump, train has already left the station, says former Obama aide
U.S. President Donald Trump has initiated steps to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement and end the Clean Power Plan. But a former advisor to President Barack Obama was anything but gloomy recently as he cited three major reasons for optimism.
Brian Deese said one reason was that economic growth has been decoupled from growth in carbon emissions. This was discovered as the United States emerged from the recession. Obama was in Hawaii when Deese informed him of the paradigm shift that had been observed.
Chastened, Deese double-checked his sources. He had been right. Always before, when the economy grew, so did greenhouse gas emissions. Now, the two have been decoupled. This decoupling blunts the old argument that you couldn’t have economic growth while tackling climate change. The new evidence is that you can have growth and reverse emissions.
The second reason for optimism, despite the U.S. exit from Paris, is that other countries have stepped up. Before, there was a battle between the developed countries, including the United States, and China, Indian and other still-developing countries. Those developing countries said they shouldn’t have to bear the same burden in emissions reductions.
But now, those same countries — Chna, India and others — want to keep going with emissions reductions even as the United States falters. They want to become the clean-energy superpowers.
“China, India and others are trying to become the global leaders in climate change. They see this as enhancing their economic and political interests,” he said. “They want to win the race.”
That same day, the Wall Street Journal reported in a front-page story that China plans to force automakers to accelerate production of electric vehicles by 2019. The move, said the newspaper, is the “latest signal that officials across the globe are determined to phase out traditional internal combustion engines that use gasoline and diesel fuels in favor of environmentally friendly vehicles powered by batteries, despite consumer reservations.”
The story went on to note that India has a goal to sell only electric vehicles by 2030 while the U.K. and France are aiming to end sales of gasoline and diesel vehicles by 2040.
In the telling of the change Deese said this shift came about at least partly as the result of an unintended action — and, ironically, one by the United States. Because of China’s fouled air, the U.S. embassy in Beijing and other diplomatic offices in China had installed air quality monitors, to guide U.S. personnel in decisions regarding their own health.
Enter the smart phone, which became ubiquitous in China around 2011 to 2012. The Chinese became aware of a simple app that could be downloaded to gain access to the air quality information. In a short time, he said, tens and then hundreds of millions of Chinese began agitating about addressing globalized air pollution, including emissions that are warming the climate.
A third reason for optimism, said Deese, is that Trump’s blustery rhetoric has galvanized support for addressing climate change. Some 1,700 businesses, including Vail Resorts, have committed to changes and 244 cities, representing 143 million people, have also said they want to briskly move toward renewable energy generation.
To this, Deese would like to add the conservation community, by which he seemed to mean hunters and fishermen. “In the United States, we need to reach people where they are, and communicate to them how they are being affected by climate change,” he said.
He also thinks scientists need to step up to advocate. “Use your voice,” said Deese, now a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. “The rest of the world is there.”
What impact will the climate-sceptic, coal enthusiast President Trump have on the prospects for renewable energy? How will Brexit affect the UK’s renewable sector? And what’s driving the growth of clean energy in Asia? These were key questions for participants at a Guardian roundtable on the future of wind and solar power, supported by Julius Baer.
And the answer to the Trump question? Precious little impact at all. The sheer strength of the renewables sector – driven by plummeting costs and a growing appetite among consumers and business alike – means it will continue to thrive despite the new administration’s doubts. That was the near-unanimous view of the participants. And it might even win over the president himself, as his business brain engages with the potential of clean energy on the one hand, and coal’s lack of it on the other.
Gina V Hall, investment director at The Carbon Trust, predicted that “a lot of the talk about bringing back coal jobs will start to fade. The rhetoric will be put aside in the face of the facts.” And the most persuasive fact of all is market logic. With renewables approaching grid parity (costing the same as electricity bought from the mains supply), their momentum is becoming unstoppable.
Many of America’s most powerful companies, such as Apple and Google, are strongly committed to clean energy, said Hall, “and they’re not going to let the government get in the way of what they want to do.”
Several participants at the roundtable pointed to the fact that clean energy enjoys strong bipartisan support. As Laura Cozzi from the International Energy Agency commented, over half of the renewable capacity installed recently is in Republican-governed states. Such support might even help secure the future of the tax credits that presently help underpin new investments in the sector, said Anja-Isabel Dotzenrath of E.ON Climate and Renewables.
“The word ‘renewable’ doesn’t feature in Trump’s America First plan – but it is full of talk of exploiting the country’s natural resources, delivering low-cost energy and creating jobs. Well, wind and solar can do all that.” And they have the potential to do a lot more, particularly in the rustbelt areas Trump is committed to helping.
The jobs argument is particularly powerful, given that more US citizens are employed in solar power than in generating electricity through coal, oil and natural gas combined. As Clark MacFarlane, CEO of Siemens Wind Power UK, put it: “Trump’s core policy is more jobs. So why do anything to destroy American jobs, especially ones delivering low-cost energy?”
Investors in the US are wary of being caught on the wrong side of history, said Martin Wright, chair of the Renewable Energy Association. “A lot of them are starting to view fossil fuels like tobacco – as a pariah sector.” And they don’t want to be left with stranded assets, stuck in coal as the market moves decisively away from it. By contrast, the falling prices of solar and wind make it increasingly appealing. Environmental economist Paul Ekins, of University College London, summed it up: “The markets will trump Trump.”
Growth in China and India
The real growth story in wind and solar, of course, is happening not in Europe or the States, but Asia, with both China and India investing heavily. So what’s driving that?
It’s partly the same story of falling costs, with China eyeing huge export markets – in solar in particular. But there’s also growing local demand, driven by two things – energy access and health. “Public health concerns in China are changing energy policy fundamentally. There’s no going back now,” said Helena Molin Valdés of the UN Environment Programme.
Anil Raj, co-founder of Indian solar business OMC Power, pointed out that air quality is front-page news there. “People worry about pollution in European cities, but they are like sanatoriums compared to New Delhi. Politicians spend a lot of time there, and they can’t help but see and feel it too, and that’s why things are happening.”
But, he added, the need for energy access will always be the prime driver. “There are two narratives around energy. A developing-world narrative and a carbon-reduction one.” For the former, energy access is king. “We have 350 million people living off grid in India. If we needed to burn coal [to connect them], we would do that.” So it is fortunate, he continued, that fossil fuels are not the solution: “The cheapest and fastest way of connecting [off-grid people] in India is via renewables.” Sarah Chapman, CEO of Faro Energy, said that’s increasingly true in Latin America too.
Energy storage next big thing
So is everything in the renewables garden rosy? Not for Ekins. “We’re not getting nearly enough investment to meet the Paris target [of keeping the global temperature rise to two degrees above pre-industrial levels].” Other panellists echoed his concerns.
So how can the process be sped up? “We need to design the power markets of the future to favour renewables,” said Cozzi. That will become all the more important as technologies such as smart grids and improved battery storage come into play. Wright argued for simplification, moving away from incentives based around specific technologies to a system in which if you’re producing renewables – or enabling storage of renewable power – you get paid for it, regardless of technology.
And, he added, the government shouldn’t be shy of setting some tough rules to drive progress: “Look at the buildings industry. If you hadn’t had some tough regulation there, you wouldn’t have indoor toilets or double glazing.” Householders need incentives to do the right thing, he argued: “So why not link stamp duty to SAP [energy-efficiency] ratings?”
All panellists agreed that the sheer speed of technological change would continue to disrupt the energy market – and, in the long term at least, renewables should be the clear winner. As battery technologies improve, so wind and solar will become even more appealing, overcoming the intermittent nature of such power sources (the wind doesn’t always blow, the sun doesn’t always shine), by storing the electricity they produce for when it’s needed. “Storage will give us the next generation of energy billionaires,” predicted Ekins.
Put all that together, and the logic of renewables becomes irresistible, said Wright. “It’s not a case of doing it to save the planet any more. People are seeing this as a business opportunity. It’s as simple as that.”