In the last two years Wind and Solar just wiped U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates on the floor. Here is a graph of their estimates in 2018 for which fuel sources would provide our electricity in 2020.
Well, it turns out that the EIA drastically underestimated the power of wind. Here is a graph of what actually happened from 2018 to 2020. This is not installed capacity, this is the power that was actually used and where it actually came from. Whoops! Looks like non-hydro renewables just blew past nuclear and coal dropped like a naughty child’s Christmas stocking filled with the stuff. When we look at the rate of change it is over three times what was predicted in 2018.
So, what does this mean moving forward? It means that we already have the capacity to switch about 10% of our grid to wind and solar every two years. The only thing we have to do is just continue building out wind and solar at the same pace just achieved between 2018 and 2020. So, what does this look like? Well, the first thing that happens is that coal gets knocked out of the picture by 2024.
Now that the worst offender coal is out of the picture, we can begin to tackle the next worst carbon offender, natural gas. Given that natural gas is now used for more electrical generation than coal this capacity will take a little longer to reduce. The good news is that these calculations don’t even take into account that wind is likely to continue to get cheaper over time. As towers get taller and blades get longer and the revenue stream from wind grows, the wind companies are likely to be able to build more turbines faster. The same applies to Solar. If anything these are likely to be conservative estimates if the playing field is left alone and politics do not get in the way. (I am being optimistic about politics and this may be the biggest flawed assumption in this whole piece)
Now, from a climate perspective, 14 years is a long time. We really need to have made this transition ten years ago. But hey, unfortunately that ship has sailed and this is what we got. In other words, this scenario should be our policy hack’s worst case outcome. We have shown that we are capable of achieving this rate of growth with current technologies and regulatory structures. We should aim to exceed and accelerate the transition to renewable energy now that the price points are in most cases competitive with or lower than every other fuel out there. Last but not least, after we have rid ourselves of natural gas we can begin to decommission our nuclear power plants and stop generating radioactive waste. Why create that mess when we have the cheaper, renewable, and infinitely safer alternatives of wind and solar. We can even begin to decommission some of the hydroelectric dams in the most sensitive wildlife areas restoring ecosystems that existed previously.
Ok, now that we know what is technologically possible at a macro scale, let’s get into some of the details.
- Current renewable energy tax credits and incentives remain in place.
- Efficiency standards continue to get more stringent for all energy usage leading to a plateau in electricity consumption (transportation, industrial, buildings)
- The growth of additional electricity required for the transition to all electrical vehicle fleets is mostly offset by drastically improving energy efficiency standards (mainly in the building sector).
- Politicians and corporations stop being stupid climate science denying responsibility dodging fucks (pardon my French) and start getting serious about solving climate change, or at least just get out of the damned way.
- Fuel sources are eliminated in the order of most carbon intensive to least carbon intensive.
Let’s go over these assumptions and see how they might affect these graphs.
1. Tax Credits Stay In Place
First of all, if the current federal renewable energy tax credits and incentives are allowed to expire we could see a drastic drop in the amount of renewable energy capacity being built. With Biden in the white house the only obstacle to this future is the Republican controlled senate. Unfortunately most Republicans seem to have their heads up their asses when it comes to climate science. Hopefully Biden can clear up the foggy mental denials of even just a few Republican senators and get to work doing what needs to be done for our collective futures.
2. Efficiency Standards Improve
California and New York are really leading the way in the U.S. when it comes to energy efficiency and pollution reduction. But the real deal is that saving energy saves money. The rub that has been removed recently is the cost of upgrading to newer more efficient appliances has reduced. While many places continue to operate dated machinery and appliances, all of the new appliances available today are significantly more efficient than their older counterparts. It is almost impossible to build a house or building that is less efficient today than it was 20 years ago. In addition, many industries and large institutions have begun taking serious looks at their infrastructure and machinery and finding ways to optimize for energy efficiency. Because most electricity today goes to buildings and industrial operations these are the two main areas where we would want to see and are indeed seeing efficiency improvements. The good news and the bad news is that there is still a lot of low hanging fruit in this area and there will likely be continued improvements in efficiency. For example if you read this post on all electric residential home construction you will find that homes can easily be built to use about 75% less total energy than they do currently. Even after converting cooking from natural gas to induction cook tops and electric ovens there is still a significant reduction in the amount of electricity being used by the household when using insulation and all high efficiency appliances.
3. EV Power Needs Offset by Efficiency
Right now transportation uses a massive portion of the energy in the U.S. But here is the thing. Switching to all-electrical vehicles is around 2 to 3x more efficient in terms of power needed. For reference, a Tesla semi trucks is advertised at less than 2.0kWh per mile versus a Cummins diesel prototype at 4.0kWh and 2017 fuel efficiency standards at 5.8 kWh per mile for new diesel trucks. So it is not really an equal offset. Really it is taking 100kWh of energy from fossil fuels and converting it to roughly 35 to 50 kWh of electrical demand. Moreover, this won’t happen all at once since we are inherently constrained by battery supply and limited EV manufacturing capacity. I expect any increases caused by EV adoption to be more than offset by the efficiency improvements in the building and industrial sectors mentioned above. Furthermore, any discrepancy can likely be addressed by simply increasing the rate of solar and wind capacity production. We really should be able to do put out more a few years from now with a supportive Biden administration than we were able to do from 2018 to 2020 with essentially negative support from the Trump administration.
4. Politicians and Corporations Get Real
I know, wishful thinking. But how about you spread this article to anyone in a position of power that might listen.
5. Fuel Source Decommissioning Order
This last one has to do with a simplification in the graphs. Basically, many nuclear power plants are reaching the end of their permitted service lives. In addition, nuclear power plants provide what is called base load capacity that is not as able to quickly respond to changes in the grid as a fuel source like natural gas or batteries. With an increase in renewable energy power generation, this means that generators that can quickly ramp up and down (I.e. batteries and natural gas power plants) will become more valuable for grid stability and large base load capacity like nuclear power generators may become less valuable since wind is cheaper to generate. As such, it is more likely that the nuclear power capacity will drop in smaller chunks over time as each plant is decommissioned. This capacity would likely be replaced by wind as it goes offline, but natural gas might increase utilization temporarily to fill the gap in a specific location where a nuclear power plant goes offline when wind or solar or energy storage facilities aren’t built to meet the demand in that location yet.
Now that the big kahunas are addressed, hopefully you can agree that the forecast for coal is pretty much baked in the cake and as significant as it is, this prediction actually seems pretty reasonable. Basically, over 70% of the new power generation capacity coming online was renewable energy in 2020. If we just assume that coal power plants are likely to be decommissioned at the same rate over the next 4 years we have easily eliminated coal from the electrical power mix. At current rates of wind turbine and solar construction that capacity is likely to be almost entirely made up with wind and solar. While 2034 is reasonable for eliminating natural gas due to the discussion regarding nuclear decommissioning above, it might also be conservative if we can simply increase our rates of wind and solar capacity production. I strongly believe that we could easily beat the predictions in these graphs by a few years if we really prioritize renewable energy moving forward. So, what does all this mean for our planet, our people, and our wallets?
GS 1. Planet – Less CO2, Toxic Pollution, or Radiation!
Wait, what? Yeah. In less than 20 years we can transition to a carbon, nuclear, and large hydro electric dam free future. We can power our society in a sustainable way. We can power our society in a way that does not pollute. We can power our society in a way that doesn’t generate any radioactive waste or emissions. We can generate our power in a way that makes it physically impossible to have any more nuclear accidents like Chernobyl, Fukushima, or numerous other nuclear accidents that devastated their surrounding communities. Why risk it?
GS 2. People – More Safer Jobs
These projects are generating thousands of new jobs and can continue to do so for many years while aggressively investing in a fossil fuel free future. To complete these projects we will need to build massive amounts of new battery factories, high voltage electrical lines and transformers, power switching gear, and all sorts of other electricity related infrastructure. This is in addition to keeping the current wind turbine and solar power plants manufacturing at full capacity and the ongoing maintenance of existing infrastructure. Jobs lost to coal mining, coal power plants, natural gas infrastructure, and natural gas power plants will be more than made up for with this long term construction boom. Oh and no one is going to get radiation poisoning from a wind turbine.
GS 3. Profit – Cheaper Power
Last but not least, photovoltaic and wind power generation continues to get cheaper as the technologies advance and the production capacities reach economies of scale. This means that as we get more efficient and more renewable we will be spending less and less money on powering our economy. In addition nuclear reactors and coal power plants end up as super fund sites generating toxic wastes that cost a ton of money to protect for long after they are no longer generating any revenue. This contrasts with any decommissioned solar or wind power which can simply and safely be demolished, recycled, and then made into new panels or turbines without having to put on a hazmat suit. These combined life cycle benefits mean that as a society we will have more resources and money to use and spend on other important ventures like rehabilitating our oceans, restoring destroyed ecosystems, and ending homelessness.
- US EIA Today in Energy
- US EIA Energy Efficiency Requirements to Continue to Rise
- US EIA Electricity Generation Sources (PDF Download)
- Trains are more Efficient at Hauling than Trucks
- Efficiency Standards for new Diesel Haulers at 7 MPG
- Convert Diesel to kWh
- Energy Efficiency Resource Standards adopted in multiple states
- Retroactive Tax Credits for Efficiency Upgrades in Construction
- Wind and Solar Cheaper than Coal
- Wind Cheaper than Natural Gas
- Wind Turbine Capacity
- Wind and Solar Combined can power 90-100% of the US
- Solar capacity growing
- Forbes Article on Renewables Surpassing Coal Globally
- IEA: Wind and Solar to Overtake Gas and Coal by 2024
- Nuclear Energy Information Service (NEIS)