Renewable energy surpasses coal-burning in nation's power generation


The clean energy revolution is more than just a slogan:

The United States is on track to produce more electricity this year from renewable power than from coal for the first time on record, new government projections show, a transformation partly driven by the coronavirus pandemic, with profound implications in the fight against climate change.

It is a milestone that seemed all but unthinkable a decade ago, when coal was so dominant that it provided nearly half the nation’s electricity. And it comes despite the Trump administration’s three-year push to try to revive the ailing industry by weakening pollution rules on coal-burning power plants.

Please understand: It wasn't those air pollution rules that brought renewable energy to the level it is right now; it was the wise decision to harness the market and entice investors into the mix. Policies like NC's Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards created the demand that drove production and innovation, two key areas that had been dormant for wind and solar for so long. And once that process began, the costs associated with renewable energy would (naturally) drop, keeping the momentum going:

The cost of building large wind farms has declined more than 40 percent in that time, while solar costs have dropped more than 80 percent. And the price of natural gas, a cleaner-burning alternative to coal, has fallen to historic lows as a result of the fracking boom.

Not really happy with that last part (of course), because the entire life-cycle of natural gas needs to be analyzed before you call it "clean." Since methane is a much worse greenhouse gas, the fugitive emissions from fracking operations and pipelines may make it even worse than coal, as far as climate change is concerned. But it's easier to use as a "back up" to renewable energy:

Utilities and large technology companies, major consumers of electricity, are increasingly turning to wind and solar farms for their power, both because renewables keep getting cheaper as technology improves but also because of concerns over air pollution and climate change. Large power companies, including Duke Energy in the Southeast and Xcel Energy in the Midwest, are currently planning to retire at least four dozen large coal plants by 2025, and no utility is currently planning to build a new coal facility.

“The grid is changing so much faster than anyone expected,” said Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University. “A decade ago, I was teaching my students that coal was the ‘baseload’ source that runs all the time, and solar was something you might sprinkle in if you want to pay more. Now coal’s been pushed to the margins and it’s wind and solar that are the cheapest options.”

At the same time, electric companies used to worry that using more than just a tiny fraction of wind and solar would make it difficult to keep the nation’s lights on, since the sun isn’t always shining and the wind isn’t always blowing. But since then, utilities have discovered ways to tackle this problem by using technologies like natural-gas plants that can be quickly turned on to meet spikes in demand, better weather forecasting and, increasingly, vast battery storage projects such as those planned in Nevada and California.

I've gotten in more than a few arguments with fellow environmentalists over policy issues related to renewable energy. Some want to cut Duke Energy completely out of the process, pushing for an expansion of off-the-grid residential solar generation. I get the draw of that effort, and prices have dropped to the point it may be viable. But I am all about the volume. It isn't residential solar that has fueled this revolution, it's medium- and large-scale solar farms, that feed their energy "harvest" directly into the grid. A grid that is owned and maintained by utilities like Duke Energy. And the landowners didn't make that investment, that money came from investment firms from across the country (and world).

Last year I got in a long, sometimes bitter online debate about policy proposals, and one in particular that would be a trade-off. If Duke Energy would allow 3rd parties to install solar and sell directly to Duke customers, then Duke would be given concessions on PURPA. That's the Federal law that says Duke Energy must connect renewable energy projects into its power grid. If given such concessions, Duke Energy could substantially low-ball what it agreed to pay for energy from those large solar farms, turning a ten-year return on investment (ROI) to 25-30 years.

What would happen? Those investment dollars, which pushed NC to five Gigawatts of solar power generation, would soon dry up. The person I was arguing with said, "No, they'll keep building them." With what? Monopoly money? I'm sure some of those investors are environmentally conscious, but most of them are just looking for a decent return on their money. And 25-30 years doesn't even come close.

And what would we gain in that trade-off? A whole lotta happy talk. I applaud NC WARN for putting up a small solar grid on a church, and I understand why they did it. But if you're asking me to accept 5.25 Kilowatts here and there to replace a potential additional 5 Gigawatts, we're going to have a big problem.