Study shows US could convert its economy to renewable energy without battery breakthrough

Alexander MacDonald, a co-author of the study and the recently retired director of NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, says studying the national weather map gave him the idea.

“I heard people talking about how renewable energy doesn’t work because it’s intermittent, and I remember saying, ‘It’s intermittent if you just have it over a really small area, but weather is big,’” MacDonald recalls. “If you look at a weather map, you see, for example, a giant high [pressure system] in the western United States and a low [pressure system] that’s windy in the east, and you can kind of deduce that if you can share the power over a large area, then it’s not intermittent. So I wanted to find out if that was true.”

MacDonald’s study, called NEWS, the National Electricity with Weather System, began six years ago. It uses a complicated optimization model based on weather forecasting to analyze the cost of energy production.

“I decided, with my team, that we would do a ‘cost minimization,’ MacDonald explains. “In other words, we would allow wind, solar and other sources, like natural gas, and even nuclear and coal, to be part of the study and we would minimize the total cost of the system, with the requirement that it supplied electric energy to 250 places over the United States every hour for a year.”

The team found that the larger the geographic area, the more effectively wind and solar can compete with other energy sources — for the exact reason MacDonald hypothesized. He explains it this way:

“In a small area, if the wind stops in part of the area, it stops over most of the area. Take the state of Kansas: if it’s not blowing on one side of Kansas, it’s probably not blowing on the other side. However, if you take the whole [lower] 48 states, you can always find places where it is pretty windy. That’s essentially what the study showed us.”

The study had another intriguing result: It showed that renewable energy can compete on price even without a major breakthrough in battery storage technology.

“We included storage as one of the things we could use,” MacDonald says. “We included transmission where we could move power over a small area or we could move it over the whole country. We basically said to this optimization [program], ‘You choose what is the best option.’”

The optimization chose transmitting power across the country as the least expensive way to use wind and solar energy. “It showed that we could have costs of electricity about the same as today, but it would reduce carbon dioxide up to 80 percent — so I think it’s a pretty important result,” MacDonald says.

There is a possible downside to the findings. In order for the system to work as efficiently as MacDonald and his team calculate, the nation would have to build massive transmission lines that would send high voltage direct current from coast to coast.

These lines can transmit “huge amounts of electric energy a long ways, but still within the cost envelope of the studies that we looked at,” MacDonald says.

But recent history has shown that people strongly oppose these powerful transmission lines passing through their neighborhoods or across their farms.

“I think people are going to have to weigh it like everything else,” MacDonald says. “If we want to preserve the future, this shows policymakers a way to do it — and it’s not for free. You might have to have overland lines; you might have to pay extra money — say, add a penny per kilowatt hour to your electric bill to have underground lines. But it gives us an option to have a low-carbon and low-cost energy economy, and we think that’s a pretty valuable possibility.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood

The Clean Energy Revolution is Bigger Than You Think

Rooftop solar is without question the poster child of the clean energy revolution, with good reason: it’s visible, increasingly affordable, and growing explosively. Dubbed “power to the people” by leading environmental author and activist Bill McKibben, rooftop solar now symbolizes green commitment for the left and bootstrap self-reliance for the right. It would be hard to blame anyone for concluding that the shiny panels dotting communities everywhere were the principal drivers of America’s transition to clean energy.

Except that they’re not.

The truth is that the vast majority of America’s wind and solar electricity – more than 85 percent – comes from large scale facilities. Virtually all wind power comes from utility-scale installations in places so remote that they’re rarely seen by anyone who is not operating them. More than half of all solar panels in the U.S. are in vast arrays capable of powering tens of thousands of homes. Solar on residential rooftops is growing rapidly, but accounts for just 20 percent of total U.S. solar electric capacity, a proportion that will fall further as large scale installations grow.

Bigger is Cheaper

Economies of scale – the principle that the cost of making a unit of something falls as you produce more of them – applies to renewable energy just as it has to countless other products, from Henry Ford’s Model T’s to flat screen TVs. Large wind turbines produce energy for pennies on the dollar compared to small turbines suitable for commercial or residential settings. Taller towers reach stronger and more consistent winds at higher elevations, and longer blades capture more of the wind’s energy in each sweep. Despite using identical photovoltaic (PV) technology, large scale solar arrays generate electricity at less than half the cost of panels on a typical home (installed costs per watt dc: $1.38 for utility scale vs. $3.55 for residential[1]). Superior resource quality is a big driver of lower costs: utility-scale developers target very windy and sunny places far from where most people live. Large solar arrays save even more money by cutting unit installation costs and by ensuring that each panel sits at the optimal angle to the sun (not an option for most residential rooftops).

Bigger Networks Connect More Renewables – and Improve Their Performance

Moving power hundreds of miles from remote wind and solar facilities to customers is much more efficient than widely believed. In 2013, just 5% of the power generated on the U.S. grid was lost on wires[2], and most of that “line loss” occurred at the distribution level. Transmission is the smallest part of the average electric bill, only 9% compared with more than 65% for generation[3]. Generation cost savings from large scale wind and solar facilities are so large that they recoup the cost of transmission lines needed to connect them rapidly. Regional transmission investments in Texas, California, the Southwest Power Pool, and the Midcontinent Independent System Operator are delivering enormous amounts of large scale wind at net savings to customers. Benefits to electricity customers typically exceed costs by factors of 3 to 1 or more, and include reduced energy costs, congestion relief, improved reliability, reduced capacity costs, improved market liquidity and competition, and emissions reductions.

Robust regional transmission grids squeeze more kilowatts out of every wind and solar facility by finding demand whenever the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. When the grid is constrained, excess wind and solar generation are “curtailed,” i.e. wasted or dumped to avoid dangerously overloading the grid. Transmission expansions eliminate these losses, making wind and solar generators even more efficient and valuable. Texas wind curtailments plummeted from 17% in 2009 to 0.5% in 2014 – even as total wind generation nearly doubled – thanks primarily to well-planned transmission expansions and upgrades completed in 2013[4].

Big Solutions for a Huge Challenge

Small may be beautiful, but the global climate challenge is anything but small. The landmark agreement negotiated in Paris last year provided another stark reminder of its staggering magnitude. Avoiding catastrophic climate change impacts means reducing global carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050, with even steeper cuts in the electric sector. Big, cheap, and abundant wind and solar, enabled by expanded and upgraded regional transmission networks, are quietly leading the transition away from aging fossil power plants and toward an affordable, reliable, and universally accessible clean energy future. America has more than enough wind and solar to power everything – including transportation – dozens of times over. The key to capturing this potential is doubling down on the big solutions that are working better, cheaper, and faster than anything else.

[1] Solar Energy Industries Association, Solar Market Insight 2015 Q3, Executive Summary, December 9, 2015.

[2] U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), State Electricity Profiles, Table 10: Supply and Disposition of Electricity, July 10, 2015 update.

[3] U.S. EIA, Annual Energy Outlook 2015, Reference Case, Table 8: Electrical supply, disposition, prices, and emissions.

[4] Department of Energy, 2014 Wind Technologies Market Report, Ryan Wiser and Mark Bollinger, August, 2015.

Steven Bohn, an engineer at SunEdison oversees SunEdison's testing facility at SolarTAC in Aurora, CO. SunEdison is an Original Founding Member of SolarTAC. SolarTAC is an integrated, world-class test facility where the solar industry will test, validate, and demonstrate near-market solar technologies.The Solar Technology Acceleration Center is an integrated, world-class test facility where the solar industry will test, validate, and demonstrate near-market and advanced solar technologies.  The SolarTAC mission is to increase the efficiency of solar energy products and rapidly deploy them to the commercial market.

Stanford Study: U.S. Can Move to 100% Renewable Energy MUCH Sooner Than You Think. Transmission Infrastructure is Critical.

Powering everything in America with renewable energy by 2050 – including transportation – is economically and technically feasible using existing and proven technologies, according to a new study by Mark Jacobson and colleagues at Stanford University.  As scientific evidence grows that avoiding catastrophic climate change impacts might actually require the U.S. and other countries around the world to transition to a 100% renewable energy system (or something very close to it), Jacobson’s study provides a much needed, practical, and high level vision of how the U.S. could achieve it.  Three findings of the study stand out:

  • More than 90 percent of renewable generating capacity is utility-scale – including a large majority of solar PV; virtually all generation is connected to the grid.
  • Transmission and non-battery storage balance the natural variability of wind and solar to provide 24/7/365 power to everyone, everywhere.
  • Electrifying everything, including transportation, together with energy efficiency, demand response, and distributed generation make are essential to the ultimate goal.

Bigger is Better and Cheaper

The welcome and highly visible recent explosion of rooftop solar sometimes obscures powerful economies of scale at work in renewable energy.  Utility scale photovoltaics (PV) produce power at half the cost of rooftop installations.  Wind power is only economical at large scales.  The overwhelming majority of solar and wind power produced in the U.S. today comes from grid-connected, large scale facilities owned by or under contract with utilities.

US renewables

Source: The Solutions Project 

Jacobson’s vision of the future is no different, with large scale renewables providing about 93 percent of the power: 50 percent wind (30.9% onshore; 19.1% offshore); 30.7% utility-scale (PV), 7.3% concentrated solar power (CSP) with storage, 7.2% rooftop PV, 1.25% geothermal power, 0.37% wave power, 0.14% tidal power, and 3.01% hydroelectric power.

Transmission and Non-Battery Storage Smooth Out Variability

How does Jacobson turn myriad variable renewable generators into smooth and reliable 24/7/365 power in all 50 states?  Transmission and storage – batteries not included.  Transmission lines slash natural variability by blending diverse wind and solar resources over large regions:

“. . . while the study bases each state’s installed capacity on the state’s annual demand, it allows interstate transmission of power as needed to ensure that supply and demand balance every hour in every state. We also roughly estimate the additional cost of transmission lines needed for this hourly balancing.”

More transmission, Jacobson notes, would make it even easier and cheaper to achieve 100% renewable energy, by allowing the best quality, least cost resources to serve more customers in more states:

“ . . . if we relax our assumption that each state’s capacity match its annual demand, and instead allow states with especially good solar or wind resources to have enough capacity to supply larger regions, then the average levelized cost of electricity will be lower than we estimate because of the higher average capacity factors in states with the best WWS resources.”

Storage and demand response take care of the remaining variability – but not batteries – which are exclusively reserved for their higher value use in transportation:

“Solutions to the grid integration problem are obtained by prioritizing storage for excess heat (in soil and water) and electricity (in ice, water, phase-change material tied to CSP, pumped hydro, and hydrogen); using hydroelectric only as a last resort; and using demand response to shave periods of excess demand over supply. No batteries (except in electric vehicles), biomass, nuclear power, or natural gas are needed.”

Small is Still Beautiful – and Essential

Despite outsized roles for utility scale renewables and transmission, energy efficiency, distributed generation, and smart technologies to enable demand response remain as large and essential elements of Jacobson’s vision.  Efficiency alone reduces projected 2050 electricity demand by 39.3% – even as every end use, including transportation, converts to electricity.  Power supplied by distributed rooftop solar explodes from a fraction of one percent today to more than 7 percent in 2050.  Demand response plays a critical role in balancing variability. Finally, Jacobson deploys a suite of flexible low-cost resources to maintain high power quality:

“Frequency regulation of the grid can be provided by ramping up/down hydroelectric, stored CSP or pumped hydro; ramping down other WWS generators and storing the electricity in heat, cold, or hydrogen instead of curtailing; and using demand response.”

And It’s All Free

A 100% renewable energy system is actually better than free – a lot better.  The study estimates that by 2050, converting the U.S. to 100% renewable energy would, compared to business-as-usual:

  • Save the average U.S. consumer $260 per year in total energy costs (including transportation);
  • Produce a net gain of 2 million, 40-year energy sector jobs (accounting for fossil fuel job losses);
  • Eliminate 46,000 to 62,000 premature deaths or $600 billion per year due to air pollution; and
  • Avoid $3.3 trillion in worldwide global warming costs due to U.S. emissions.

The future energy system for the U.S. and the world looks clearer every day – all electric, all renewable, and all running on robust and sophisticated continental grids.  No it’s time to start building it.

New Michigan Study Supports Increasing Renewable Energy Mandate

A new study from the Michigan Energy Office and Public Service Commission—ordered by Governor Rick Snyder—shows the state can triple its renewable portfolio standard, achieving 30% renewables in the state’s portfolio by 2035. Michigan’s two key utilities – DTE Energy and Consumers Energy– are on track to meet the current 10% renewable target next year. Governor Snyder also ordered similar reports on energy efficiency programs, electric choice and “additional areas.”

The report points to improvements in wind turbines’ efficiency and cost-competitiveness as the key factors in the ability to meet 30%. Additionally, the report cites Michigan’s inclusion in PJM and MISO markets as ameliorating reliability and price volatility concerns. Access to the broader market – both to buy and sell renewable energy – and long-term power contracts mean Michigan’s consumers are able to capitalize on cheap, clean energy without worrying about the intermittency of renewable resources.

Indeed, because wind energy is proving to be so cost-competitive in the regional markets, DTE and Consumers have slashed their monthly surcharges for renewables by 85% and 79%, respectively. The report notes that additional transmission infrastructure could help “facilitate the introduction of wind power where it might not otherwise” have been feasible, and points to the recent development of transmission lines in the “Michigan Thumb.”

As we at Americans for a Clean Energy Grid have identified in our PJM and MISO studies, expanded transmission can help drive even further savings for customers in the region. Because wind has zero fuel costs, its inclusion in wholesale energy markets reduces energy prices across the region by kicking out more expensive generation on the margin. This “price-suppression effect” creates savings that are passed along to consumers. Our studies showed that the average MISO household can save approximately $150 a year by doubling the amount of wind in the market. In PJM, the region can save $7 billion annually in 2026 by doubling the states’ renewable portfolio standards. In both studies, the savings are net savings – after paying for significant investments in high-voltage transmission to deliver renewable energy from strong resource regions to population centers.

The Michigan findings follow on the heels of the Public Utility Commission of Ohio’s report that its state renewable portfolio standard could save customers nearly $30 million in 2014. It is the latest in a growing realization that a clean energy future is an affordable energy future. State mandates are creating jobs, lowering energy bills, and protecting the climate. Michigan’s study shows increasing renewable energy in the state is technically and economically attractive. Hopefully the states policymakers will see the writing on the wall and move to enhance the state’s renewable portfolio standard.

Public Utility Commission of Ohio Finds State RPS Lowers Electricity Costs

The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) recently released a study examining the costs expected to accompany renewable energy development. The report assessed the “changes in wholesale electricity prices and generator emissions that are likely to occur as a result of the state’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard (AEPS) requirements.”   Anecdotal reports from Ohio-based observers of the PUCO indicate that the Commission was surprised with the results: implementing the AEPS would save consumers money compared to the status quo.

The Commission analyzed the impact on electric rates of two unusually conservative renewable energy scenarios: the first considered only those renewable energy facilities currently in operation; the second added approved facilities that are not yet operational. Both scenarios were modeled only for calendar year 2014, meaning the study focused exclusively on the immediate rate impacts of increasing renewables.

Despite these conservative assumptions, the report found that currently operating renewable resources in Ohio alone would save the state’s investor-owned utilities – and by extension their millions of business and residential customers – $8.4 million in 2014. If currently approved facilities begin operating in 2014, Ohio utilities and their customers would save nearly $30 million in 2014. Additionally, the utilities would avoid over 500,000 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2014 alone.

Where do the savings come from?   The wind and the sun.   The price of electricity at any power plant is set by the cost of fuel.  Because renewable “fuels” are free, wind farms and solar arrays  can displace traditional plants with higher fuel costs.  The more cheap, clean renewable energy utilities use, the more the wholesale price of electricity in the regional market (PJM, in this case) drops. In the second scenario studied by PUCO, the wholesale price dropped approximately 0.51%.

This phenomenon – known commonly as  “the price suppression effect” – should come as no surprise to those who have followed our work here at Americans for a Clean Energy Grid (ACEG).  ACEG has commissioned and released two studies, both performed by Synapse Energy Economics, Ltd., that anticipate major economic benefits in two market regions as a result of increasing renewable energy.  The most recent showed that the price suppression effect has the potential to save $7 billion a year in the PJM region in 2026. Our 2012 study in MISO showed similar benefits, with average households saving nearly $150 a year from renewable energy displacing higher-cost fossil generation. In both studies, the savings are net savingsafter paying for significant investments in high-voltage transmission to deliver renewable energy from strong resource regions to population centers.  The PUCO study assumed that the existing grid would be adequate to handle the increased renewable generation in both 2014 scenarios, so their results are also pure net savings to Ohio consumers.

For years, conventional wisdom has held that the capital investments needed to build renewable energy facilities would make their power too  expensive to compete with traditional power plants.  But that conventional wisdom overlooks two things.  First, the capital cost of renewable technologies has plummeted in the last decade.  Second, and perhaps even more important, the price of power in a modern competitive market is set by marginal cost (fuel), not fixed cost (capital).  In other words, the power plant with the cheapest fuel wins every time. When renewable energy and its free fuel wins, everyone wins, because renewable energy cuts the price of every unit of power sold in the market.  This powerful leveraging effect is why even very small percentages of renewable energy, such as those studied in the PUCO analysis, can have such an outsized impact on consumer electric rates.

The PUCO analysis further underscores that a clean energy future is an affordable energy future, and it can be realized starting as soon as 2014. By delaying further, we are not only playing a dangerous game with climate change, but also wasting money. Now let’s see whether Ohio’s policymakers will draw the obvious lesson from the PUCO’s analysis, and stop attacking the renewable portfolio standard that is saving consumers money while delivering increasing their access to clean energy.

Letter to WSJ: We Need a Modern Electrical Grid and Must Pay for It

The following is a letter written by former Chairman of FERC and member of Americans for a Clean Energy Grid Jim Hoecker to the Wall Street Journal in response to an article called “The Wind Power Tax.” The letter was published in the WSJ and is cross-posted here.

February 21st, 2013

Your editorial “The Wind Power Tax” (Feb. 11) registers your opposition to modernity and clean-energy development by attacking investment in electric transmission, which is essential to connecting renewables to customers.

You ignore basic facts. Transmission, which is less than 10% of electric bills, is an integrated network that serves multiple societal needs. Major transmission additions are needed to ensure our nation’s electric reliability, replace aging and outdated facilities and reduce the extraordinary costs of congestion on the grid. Only about one-third of the coming grid upgrade must be built to serve remote wind and solar plants. Moreover, federal regulators actually agree with you that the beneficiaries of such new facilities should bear the costs in rates. Those benefits can nevertheless be widespread and powerful, like those of the highway system.

Your jeremiad against the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Order 1000 sides against the market competition among all electricity resources that transmission facilitates, and favors the continued Balkanization of wholesale power markets and an industry model that belongs more to post-World War II America than to the 21st century. The president, the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Bipartisan Policy Center aren’t promoting greater investment in our inadequate electric infrastructure for no reason. They, too, are concerned about the pocketbooks of electricity customers, not just tomorrow but 20 and 30 years from now.

James J. Hoecker

Husch Blackwell LLP


Mr. Hoecker is a former chairman of FERC and is counsel and adviser to the Working Group for Investment in Reliable and Economic Electric Systems.