7 Reasons Renewable Energy Will Soon Surpass Coal and Nuclear Power
By Steve Clemmer
As a certified energy geek, I always look forward to this time of year. On July 11 and July 12, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) holds their annual conference to discuss current energy technology, market and policy issues and presents results from their new Annual Energy Outlook (AEO) 2016 report.
Under EIA's reference case with the federal tax credits and Clean Power Plan, U.S. wind capacity nearly doubles by 2022, reaching 144 gigawatts.
One of the headlines this year is EIA's new projections for renewable energy, which under their reference case is expected to surpass nuclear power by 2020 and coal by 2028 to become the second largest source of U.S. electricity generation after natural gas (see Figure 1 below).
Here are seven key takeaways from the AEO 2016 that explain why EIA is projecting such a large increase in renewable energy this year:
1. Federal Tax Credits and Clean Power Plan Drive Growth in Renewables
EIA's reference case includes the recent five-year extension of the federal production and investment tax credits for wind and solar passed by Congress in December 2015 and implementation of EPA's Clean Power Plan (CPP). While the U.S. Supreme Court put a temporary hold on the rule in February 2016 until the merits of the case are decided, EIA decided to include the CPP in the reference case because the rule has not been overturned.
The federal tax credits, state renewable electricity standards (RESs) and continued cost reductions for wind and solar will drive significant growth in renewables though 2021 (Figure 1). During this time, EIA actually projects natural gas generation to decline slightly as wind and solar are more cost-effective with the tax credits.
After the CPP targets kick in 2022, EIA projects both renewables and natural gas to grow as the two most cost-effective ways (along with a modest increase in energy efficiency) for states to replace coal and comply with the CPP. These results are consistent with recent analyses by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), NREL and the Rhodium Group.
Figure 1. Renewables surpass nuclear power by 2020 and coal by 2028. Renewables include wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, and hydropower. EIA, Annual Energy Outlook 2016.
2. Wind and Solar Lead Growth in Renewables
The renewable energy (including wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and hydropower) share of U.S. electricity generation grows from 13 percent in 2015 to 24 percent in 2030 and 27 percent in 2040, with almost all of the growth from wind and solar PV (Figure 2).
This is because continued cost reductions are projected for these technologies beyond the 60-70 percent cost reductions already achieved since 2009. Under EIA's reference case with the federal tax credits and CPP, U.S. wind capacity nearly doubles by 2022, reaching 144 gigawatts, while U.S. solar capacity grows five-fold by 2030, reaching 125 gigawatts. Geothermal increases a significant amount in California and the Southwest, but provides a relatively small share of U.S. electricity generation.
EIA also projects virtually no growth in hydro or biopower. Despite EIA's inaccurate assumption that all biomass feedstocks are carbon neutral, biopower is still not economically competitive with wind, solar and natural gas. The lack of growth in hydro and biomass is consistent with recent analyses by UCS, NREL and Rhodium Group that include the federal tax credit extension and CPP.
Figure 2. Renewable electricity generation by fuel. Geothermal = red, biomass = gray.EIA, Annual Energy Outlook 2016.
3. Renewable Generation Increases in all Regions of the Country by 2030
The biggest increases occur in the West and Plains, which have abundant, low cost wind, solar and geothermal (Figure 3). The Southeast also sees a big increase in solar as costs continue to fall. The Northeast and Mid-Atlantic see a smaller increase in renewables and a bigger increase in natural gas.
The Southeast also sees a modest increase in nuclear generation due to five new reactors currently under construction or operating in Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee. This growth offsets a modest reduction in nuclear generation in Mid-Atlantic and Northeast states where EIA assumes a small number of existing plants will retire before their current operating licenses expire. (Note that the retirement of Diablo Canyon in California is not included as the announcement was made after EIA completed its modeling). The Midwest/Mid-Atlantic states also see the greatest reduction in coal generation and the largest increase in natural gas.
Figure 3. Renewables increase in all regions under the Clean Power Plan.EIA, Annual Energy Outlook 2016
4. Renewables Generation Varies Under different Clean Power Plan Implementation Scenarios
EIA projects renewable generation to increase the most if states chose rate-based rather than mass-based targets as part of their CPP compliance strategies. Broader regional trading with mass-based targets also results in more renewables, less natural gas and less reduction in coal than the more limited trading assumed in the reference case.
Not surprisingly, in their "extended case" EIA found that continuing to increase the CPP emission reduction targets through 2040 (the current program only goes through 2030) would result in more renewables and natural gas and less coal than the reference case.
Figure 4. Cumulative difference in generation in the CPP vs. the no CPP case. Renewables = green, natural gas =blue, and coal = black.EIA, Annual Energy Outlook 2016.
5. Increasing Renewable Energy is Affordable
EIA projects that average retail electricity rates would be 3 percent higher between 2025-2030 in the reference case (with the CPP) than in the no CPP case. However, total U.S. electricity expenditures would only be 1.3 percent higher in the CPP case over the same period because EIA assumes a modest increase in energy efficiency investments to comply the CPP.
A recent analysis by UCS found that energy efficiency could make a much larger contribution to state compliance with the CPP that would result in cumulative net savings to consumers of $30.5 billion between 2016 and 2030.
6. Renewables are Competitive Despite Lower Natural Gas Prices
While EIA's natural gas price projection is lower in AEO 2016 than it was in AEO 2015 (Figure 5), large amounts of wind and solar are still competitive due to continued cost reductions and the federal tax credit extension.
EIA projects natural gas prices to double by 2025, due primarily to an increase in LNG exports and greater natural gas use in the electricity and industrial sectors. The competition from renewables helps avoid greater reliance on natural gas that could increase natural gas prices even further.
Figure 5. Average Henry Hub spot prices for natural gas (2015 dollars per million Btu).
7. EIA is Finally Using More Realistic Cost Sssumptions for Renewable Energy
UCS has been an outspoken critic of EIA's pessimistic renewable energy projections and assumptions for many years. We have written several blog posts on the topic and provided input directly to EIA on a few of their analyses and as a participant on several EIA modeling working groups. We also use a modified version of EIA's National Energy Modeling System (NEMS) in-house to show how renewables could make a larger contribution to the U.S. electricity mix at a much lower cost when using more realistic assumptions.
One of the main reasons why EIA's projections have fallen short is because they have consistently overestimated the cost of renewable energy technologies like wind and solar. They often lag a few years behind what's happening on the ground. However, this year is different. For AEO 2016, EIA finally lowered their costs for wind and solar to be more in-line with cost data from a large sample of recent projects, as documented by DOE's national labs and the national wind and solar trade associations.
In EIA's defense, their reference case for each AEO only reflects state and federal energy policies that were enacted at the time they do their projections, as discussed extensively in a recent EIA report. With Congress allowing federal renewable energy tax credits to lapse several times before extending them for relatively short periods, and states adopting and increasing renewable electricity standards (RES) many times over the past two decades years, it is somewhat understandable that EIA's projections of renewable energy development have fallen short of reality.
While future EIA conferences and AEOs may highlight different topics, I'll remember 2016 as the year EIA turned the corner to show a bright future for renewables.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Mark Hertsgaard
What follows are not candidate endorsements. Rather, this nonpartisan guide aims to inform voters' choices, help journalists decide what races to follow, and explore what the 2020 elections could portend for climate action in the United States in 2021 and beyond.
Will the White House Turn Green?<p>Whether the White House changes hands is the most important climate question of the 2020 elections. President Donald Trump rejects climate science, is withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, and has accelerated fossil fuel development. His climate policy seems to be, as he tweeted in January when rejecting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to protect New York City from storm surges, "Get your mops and buckets ready."</p><p>Joe Biden, who started the 2020 campaign with a climate position so weak that activists gave it an "F," called Trump a "climate arsonist" during California's recent wildfires. Biden backs a $2 trillion plan to create millions of jobs while slashing emissions—a Green New Deal in all but name. Equally striking, his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, has endorsed phasing out fossil fuel production—a politically explosive scientific imperative.</p><p>The race will be decided in a handful of battleground states, five of which already face grave climate dangers: Florida (hurricanes and sea-level rise), North Carolina (ditto), Texas (storms and drought), Michigan (floods), and Arizona (heat waves and drought). <a href="https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/" target="_blank">Public concern is rising</a> in these states, but will that concern translate into votes?</p>
Will Democrats Flip the Senate, and by Enough to Pass a Green New Deal?<p>With Democrats all but certain to maintain their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate will determine whether a potential Biden administration can actually deliver climate progress. Democrats need to pick up three seats to flip the Senate if Biden wins, four if he doesn't. But since aggressive climate policy is shunned by some Democrats, notably Joe Manchin of coal-dependent West Virginia, Democrats probably need to gain five or six Senate seats to pass a Green New Deal.</p><p>Environmentalists, including the League of Conservation Voters, are targeting six Republicans who polls suggest are vulnerable.</p><ul><li>Steve Daines of Montana, who denies climate science</li><li>Martha McSally of Arizona</li><li>Thom Tillis of North Carolina</li><li>Susan Collins of Maine</li><li>Joni Ernst of Iowa (bankrolled by Charles Koch)</li><li>John James of Michigan (also a Koch beneficiary)</li></ul><p>Republican Senators are even at risk in conservative Kansas and Alaska. In both states, the Democratic candidates are physicians—not a bad credential amid a pandemic—who support climate action. In Kansas, Barbara Bollier faces an incumbent funded by Charles Koch. In Alaska, Al Gross urges a transition away from oil, though his openness to limited drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve dims his appeal to green groups. He faces incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan, who receives an 8 percent lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters.</p>
Will Local and State Races Advance Climate Progress?<h4>THE CLIMATE HAWKS</h4><p>Under Democratic and Republican leadership alike, Washington has long been a graveyard for strong climate action. But governors can boost or block renewable energy; the Vermont and New Hampshire races are worth watching. Attorneys general can sue fossil fuel companies for lying about climate change; climate hawks are running for the top law enforcement seats in Montana and North Carolina. State legislatures can accelerate or delay climate progress, as the new Democratic majorities in Virginia have shown. Here, races to watch include Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Colorado.</p><h4>THE CLIMATE POLICY MAKERS</h4><p>Perhaps the most powerful, and most overlooked, climate policy makers are public utility commissions. They control whether pipelines and other energy infrastructure gets built; they regulate whether electric utilities expand solar and energy efficiency or stick with the carbon-heavy status quo. Regulatory capture and outright corruption are not uncommon.</p><p>A prime example is Arizona, where a former two-term commissioner known as the godfather of solar in the state is seeking a comeback. Bill Mundell argues that since Arizona law permits utilities to contribute to commissioners' electoral campaigns, the companies can buy their own regulators. Which may explain why super-sunny Arizona has so little installed solar capacity.</p><p>In South Dakota, Remi Bald Eagle, a Native American U.S. Army veteran, seeks a seat on the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, which rules on the Standing Rock oil pipeline. And in what <em>HuffPost</em> called "the most important environmental race in the country," Democrat Chrysta Castaneda, who favors phasing out oil production, is running for the Texas Railroad Commission, which despite its name decides what oil, gas, and electric companies in America's leading petro-state can build.</p>
Will the Influencers Usher in a Green New Era?<h4>THE UNCOUNTED</h4><p>The story that goes largely under-reported in every U.S. election is how few Americans vote. In 2016, some 90 million, <a href="https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/08/09/an-examination-of-the-2016-electorate-based-on-validated-voters/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly four out of every 10 eligible voters</a>, did not cast a ballot. Attorney Nathaniel Stinnett claims that 10 million of these nonvoters nevertheless identify as environmentalists: They support green policies, even donate to activist groups; they just don't vote. Stinnett's <a href="https://www.environmentalvoter.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Environmental Voter Project</a> works to awaken this sleeping giant.</p><h4>THE SUNRISE MOVEMENT</h4><p>Meanwhile, the young climate activists of the <a href="http://www.sunrisemovement.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sunrise Movement</a> are already winning elections with an unabashedly Green New Deal message. More than any other group, Sunrise pushed the Green New Deal into the national political conversation, helping Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey draft the eponymous congressional resolution. In 2020, Sunrise has helped Green New Deal champions defeat centrists in Democratic primaries, with Markey dealing Representative Joe Kennedy Jr. the first defeat a Kennedy has ever suffered in a Massachusetts election. But can Sunrise also be successful against Republicans in the general elections this fall?</p><h4>THE STARPOWER</h4><p>And an intriguing wild card: celebrity firepower, grassroots activism, and big-bucks marketing have converged behind a campaign to get Latina mothers to vote climate in 2020. Latinos have long been the U.S. demographic most concerned about climate change. Now, <a href="https://votelikeamadre.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Vote Like A Madre</a> aims to get 5 million Latina mothers in Florida, Texas, and Arizona to the polls. Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayak, and Lin-Manuel Miranda are urging mothers to make a "pinky promise" to vote for their kids' climate future in November. Turning out even a quarter of those 5 million voters, though no easy task, could swing the results in three states Trump must win to remain president, which brings us back to the first category, "Will the White House Turn Green?"</p>
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By Tony Carnie
South Africa is home to around 1,300 of the world's roughly 7,100 remaining cheetahs. It's also the only country in the world with significant cheetah population growth, thanks largely to a nongovernmental conservation project that depends on careful and intensive human management of small, fenced-in cheetah populations. Because most of the reserves are privately funded and properly fenced, the animals benefit from higher levels of security than in the increasingly thinly funded state reserves.
Vincent van der Merwe at a cheetah translocation. Endangered Wildlife Trust
Under Pressure<p>Cheetah populations elsewhere in Southern Africa have not prospered over the past 50 years. In Zimbabwe, cheetah numbers have crashed from 1,500 in 1975, to just 170 today. Botswana's cheetah population has held steady at around 1,500 over the same period, but illegal capture for captive breeding and conflicts with farmers and the growing human population are increasing. In Namibia, there were an estimated 3,000 cheetah in in 1975; roughly 1,400 remain today.</p><p>In contrast, South Africa's cheetah numbers have grown from about 500 in 1975 to nearly 1,300 today. Van der Merwe, who is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Cape Town's Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild), says he's confident that South Africa will soon overtake Namibia and Botswana, largely because the majority of South African cheetahs are protected and managed behind fences, whereas most of the animals in the neighboring countries remain more vulnerable on mainly unfenced lands.</p><p>Wildlife researchers Florian Weise and colleagues have reported that private stock owners in Namibia still trap cheetahs mainly for translocation, but there are few public or private reserves large enough to contain them. Weise says that conservation efforts need to focus on improving tolerance toward cheetahs in commercial livestock and game farming areas to reduce indiscriminate trapping.</p><p>Van der Merwe says fences can be both a blessing and a curse. While these barriers prevent cheetahs and other wild animals from migrating naturally to breed and feed, they also protect cheetahs from the growing tide of threats from humanity and agriculture.</p><p>To simulate natural dispersion patterns that guard against inbreeding, the trust helps landowners swap their animals with other cheetah reserves elsewhere in the country. The South African metapopulation project has been so successful in boosting numbers that the trust is having to look beyond national boundaries to secure new translocation areas in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.</p><p>Cheetah translocations have been going on in South Africa since the mid-1960s, when the first unsuccessful attempts were made to move scores of these animals from Namibia. These relocations were mostly unsuccessful.</p>
Charli de Vos uses a VHF antenna to locate cheetahs in Phinda Game Reserve. Tony Carnie for Mongabay
Swinging for the Fences<p>But other wildlife conservation leaders have a different perspective on cheetah conservation strategy.</p><p>Gus Mills, a senior carnivore researcher retired in 2006 from SANParks, the agency that manages South Africa's national parks, after a career of more than 30 years in Kalahari and Kruger national parks. He says the focus should be on quality of living spaces rather than the quantity of cheetahs.</p><p>Mills, who was the founder of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Carnivore Conservation Group in 1995, and who also spent six years after retirement studying cheetahs in the Kalahari, says it's more important to properly protect and, where possible, expand the size of existing protected areas.</p><p>He also advocates a triage approach to cheetah conservation, in which scarce funds and resources are focused on protecting cheetahs in formally protected areas, rather than diluting scarce resources in an attempt to try and save every single remaining cheetah population.</p><p>"People have an obsession with numbers. But I believe that it is more important to protect large landscape and habitats properly," Mills said.</p><p>He suggests that cheetahs enclosed within small reserves live in artificial conditions: "It's almost like glorified farming."</p><p>"In the long run we have to focus on consolidating formally protected areas," he added. "Africa's human population will double by 2050, so cheetah populations in unfenced areas will become unsustainable if they are eating people's livestock."</p>
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