Renewables generate climate optimism
by Dana Nuccitelli
Clean tech costs have fallen 41–94% over the past 7 years. Wind & Solar accounted for two-thirds of new energy installations in the US in 2015
A new report from the U.S. Department of Energy paints a bright picture for our prospects to cut carbon pollution and prevent the most dangerous levels of climate change. The report looked at recent changes in costs and deployment of five key clean energy technologies: wind, residential solar, utility-scale solar, batteries, and LED bulbs. For each technology, costs fell between 41% and 94% from 2008 to 2015.
Good news for doom & gloom environmentalists
Many who understand the realities and dangers of human-caused global warming are afraid that we’ll fail to avoid catastrophic climate change. Among this group, even positive climate stories are often viewed through a lens of pessimism, and we often see stories about the likelihood that we’ll miss climate targets.
However, it’s important to acknowledge the progress that’s being made, and retain a sense of hope and optimism that we can still avoid the worst climate consequences. This new DOE report highlights the fact that clean energy technology is quickly moving in the right direction, toward lower costs and higher deployment.
Wind energy is blowing away expectations
The report finds that due to its low cost, US wind energy capacity has nearly tripled since 2008. Wind now supplies nearly 5% of total U.S. electricity generation.
As a result, there are now nearly 90,000 U.S. manufacturing, construction, and wind operations jobs. Research has resulted in bigger turbines that can generate more electricity. A wind turbine installed today on average has 108% longer blades and is 48% taller than one installed in 1999. The longer blades allow each turbine to capture more energy, and taller towers allow access to the stronger and more consistent wind speeds that occur at higher altitudes in many parts of the country. Combined, these innovations allow each turbine to produce more electricity, reducing both the number of turbines needed to produce a given amount of electricity and the land area needed for their installation.
Offshore wind also presents tremendous untapped potential, with the first such project set to begin generating power off the cost of Rhode Island this month. The DOE envisions wind generating 20% of the nation’s electricity by 2030 and 35% by 2050, with costs falling a further 35% by 2050.
Solar energy’s bright future
Utility-scale solar farm costs have fallen 64% since 2008, and distributed (mostly residential) solar costs by 54%. While solar still accounts for a relatively small percentage of overall US electricity generation, its deployment has been increasing rapidly as costs have dropped. Even the military is getting on board. For example in 2015 the Department of the Navy procured 210 MW of a utility-scale PV project to support fourteen Navy installations in California.
In 2015, the solar sector employed about 220,000 Americans. The DOE envisions that solar power could supply 27% of US electricity generation by 2050. Solar deployment is surging in 2016, with around 10 gigawatts (GW) set to be installed this year – equal to all the solar capacity installed in the US through 2014.
Solar panel leasing from companies like Solar City and Sungevity has revolutionized the distributed solar market, accounting for the majority of domestic residential system installed in leading state markets in 2015. This approach makes solar panels obtainable for households that can’t afford to purchase them. Distributed solar costs are expected to fall a further 16–33% by 2020.
Stunning drop in LED costs
The best available LED bulbs use 85% less energy than incandescent bulbs. Although their high efficiency slashes electric bills, the bulbs’ high cost was initially a deterrent to many consumers. However, LED costs have plummeted 94% since 2008. From 2014 to 2015, LED installations in the U.S. more than doubled, and already account for 6% of installed A-type light bulbs, as well as 11% and 21% of directional bulbs and outdoor lighting fixtures, respectively. By 2035, DOE anticipates that LEDs will account for 85% of American’s lighting installations, saving Americans nearly $630 billion in avoided energy costs.
Electric cars are the future of transportation
Electric vehicle (EV) sales in the U.S. reached 115,000 in 2015, more than double the number sold in 2012. Overall US EV sales will surpass a half-million by the end of this year. As shown by a new paper and app from MIT, EVs reduce greenhouse gas emissions 58% compared to gasoline-powered cars, and often cost less on a per-mile basis. As low-carbon energy deployment increases, EVs will only become cleaner.
The technology is advancing rapidly due to heavy research, with batteries produced at high-volume now costing 79% less than they did in 2009. Chevrolet and Tesla will soon release electric cars with 200 mile-per-charge range and before-rebate prices under $40,000, and Renault beat both automakers to the punch with the 250-mile, $28,000 Zoe. There are now more than 35,000 public and private EV charging outlets in the United States, and in the UK, EV charging stations may outnumber petrol stations by 2020.
The MIT study showed that in order to meet climate targets, we need a transition to EV transportation fueled by low-carbon sources of electricity. The DOE report shows that this sort of high-tech clean future is entire plausible; we’re moving in the right direction with falling costs and rising deployment of the right technologies.
◊ Publ. here 24.10.16