November 3, 2017 Read More →

Unrealized Potential in U.S. Renewables


Years of efforts to nurture renewable energy have borne fruit dramatically in recent years, with wind and solar farms sprouting worldwide.

That growth has largely overshadowed fossil fuels like coal, which is struggling in competitive electric markets against cheap, cleaner natural gas. But people who study the system say there’s a lot of potential that isn’t getting tapped, in the United States and abroad.

“We’re not saturated in terms of the resource availability at all in any state,” Stanford University engineering professor Mark Jacobson told Seeker. “It’s just a question of deciding to deploy more.”

Fossil fuels — coal and natural gas — still provide about two-thirds of the electricity Americans use. They’re cheap, but they produce carbon dioxide and other gases that have been building up in the atmosphere, driving global temperatures upward, and destabilizing Earth’s climate.

By comparison, renewables other than long-established hydroelectric dams provided less than 7 percent of US electric power, and all but about 1 percent of that was from wind. But the numbers have been growing rapidly in recent years, buoyed by tax credits and state rules setting targets for renewable power.

More than a quarter of new utility-scale generating capacity came from solar panels last year, with wind providing nearly a third. Small-scale rooftop solar panels on homes and businesses add about half of 1 percent.

Jacobson has published a detailed but ambitious blueprint for converting the world to renewables by mid-century. Some of the Great Plains states are well along: Iowa and South Dakota generated more than 30 percent of their power from wind in 2016. Jacobson said there’s still huge amounts of wind power that can be harnessed in the Great Plains and off the coasts by wind turbines.

Solar has the most technical potential in the southern United States, “but most of the country could tap into it,” said Bret Fanshaw, solar program coordinator at the advocacy group Environment America.

A 2012 study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, an arm of the Department of Energy, found large-scale solar projects in rural states could produce thousands of gigawatts more power than today, especially in the southern and Plains states. Rooftop solar panels could add hundreds of gigawatts more — not only in sunny states like Florida and California, but in the Great Lakes and Northeastern states as well.

Meanwhile, wind turbines across the central United States and offshore in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf of Mexico could yield nearly 15,000 more gigawatts, or dozens of times more electricity than what Americans consume today., the study found.

The landscape is shifting even more dramatically toward renewables around the world.

“Countries are taking a step back on coal,” David Schlissel, who directs resource planning analysis at the Cleveland-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, told Seeker. “There are new coal plants being proposed and built, but they’re taking a step back on their plans for coal and moving toward renewables.”

In August, the US financial giant JP Morgan Chase announced it was pouring $200 billion into clean energy between now and 2025 — and would power all its operations with renewables by 2020. The company’s offices total about 75 million square feet, the equivalent of 27 Empire State buildings. It’s also curtailed investment in coal, swearing off funding for new coal-fired plants in the developed world and limiting funds in the developing world to high-tech, cleaner generating units.

But while other countries are moving toward wind and solar, Schlissel said, policies in the United States have lagged behind. Some public utilities have fought rooftop solar in the South, where their plants rely more heavily on coal. The Republican-led Trump administration is fighting market trends to revive the country’s moribund mines, while the bulk of the GOP now resists efforts to address carbon emissions — or calls the issue a hoax.

“I don’t think politically we’re going get from where we are today in 20 years to full renewables,” Schlissel said. “I think the future is going to be consistently declining coal, though it won’t be a straight line down … and then the alternative is going to be a mixtures of renewables and natural gas.”

More: Here Are the Best Places to Expand Renewable Energy in the US and Abroad

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