Published on January 31st, 2013 | by Zachary Shahan


Big Gas & Big Solar Are Big Friends, + More From Sustainable Energy In America 2013 Factbook Discussion

January 31st, 2013 by  

Earlier today, I joined the conference call for the release of the Sustainable Energy in America 2013 Factbook, a product of Bloomberg New Energy Finance and commissioned by the Business Council for Sustainable Energy. There wasn’t any breaking new info presented, but some of the most salient clean energy and natural gas facts of recent years were highlighted. In the post below are what I think are some of the key ones. However, before getting into the fun statistics, something else not related to stats really stood out during this press event: Big Solar and Big Gas seem to have formed a rather close and mutually congratulatory relationship.

Natural Gas & Solar

Dave McCurdy, President and CEO of the American Gas Association, and Rhone Resch, President and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), were each on the panel presenting the data, so one would expect a greater diplomacy between potentially competing industries. However, it wasn’t just diplomacy present at the meeting today — Mr Resch and others on the panel spoke in a surprisingly friendly way about natural gas (which is certainly not the cleanest energy option), even in their presentations on renewable energy matters. Throughout the conference call, Mr Resch and others seemed to steer clear of the term “clean energy,” but the implications were that natural gas was on the clean side of the table.

Mr Resch noted that natural gas and renewable energy together “probably made up 98% of new capacity” in the past few years. And he focused on the benefits of distributed generation (which does include natural gas) about as much as those of solar power itself. He pointed out that distributed generation options allow us to build where demand is greatest and help to stabilize grid; and that ” it’s not just clean energy, not just affordable energy, but a new type of generation.” Of course, we’re huge fans of distributed generation here on CleanTechnica, and I was happy to see that emphasized, but it seemed a bit odd that natural gas was being propped up so much in this discussion, and that Mr Resch went out of his way to be so inclusive of natural gas.

In the Q&A session, another person on the call posed a question about the “natural gas bridge,” asking if Mr Resch really saw it as a bridge (as it is widely reported) or if that was just an overly optimistic way of talking about the fossil fuel’s market growth that hides the fact that it is becoming an increasingly entrenched part of our energy mix (rather than a temporary energy source). Furthermore, if Mr Resch saw it as a bridge, the questioner asked when he saw us reaching the other side of that bridge and cutting its use.

Mr Resch said outright that he saw it as “a very long bridge” to a renewable energy future, and then he focused on the ways in which natural gas complements wind and solar energy, filling in well for their variability (I didn’t hear a single mention of energy storage in this whole conference call). As he did earlier in his presentation, Mr Resch also happily emphasized the huge supply of natural gas the US is known to have. Though, he did note that renewables were going to keep making up a bigger and bigger percentage of the energy mix. Regarding when “renewable energy would take over” and the bridge would be completed, he was hesitant to make any strong statements, but he speculated that it could happen in 30 years or so. (Not all that uplifting for those of us concerned about runaway climate change.)

Interestingly, when I went over to Rhone Resch’s SEIA page to include a link on his name above, I discovered something that I don’t remember noticing before — he previously served as the Vice President for the Natural Gas Supply Association! So, clearly, he was more than just playing nice in this presentation — he has a long history with natural gas, and he likely has a genuine belief that it has benefits worth trumpeting.

It also seemed that he and Dave McCurdy might be teaming up more in coming months to co-promote solar and natural gas. There were either hints along those lines or dry jokes that sounded like hints.

But it wasn’t just Mr Resch and Mr McCurdy who focused on natural gas. In fact, in the follow-up email I received from the PR team for the call, this was emphasized in bold right at the beginning: “[the] key finding is that contrary to conventional wisdom, natural gas isn’t blocking deployment of renewables. Quite the opposite – they’re growing together

I thought this was the most interesting part of the presentation today, but there were also much more uplifting and noteworthy stats along other lines, so let’s get to those. (But do feel free to chime in with your take on this natural gas–solar side story if you have some thoughts to add!)

Renewable Energy’s Rapid Growth & Price Drops

Solar PV prices keep falling fast. Click to see larger version.

Mr Resch (and I think Ethan Zindler, Head of Policy Analysis at Bloomberg New Energy Finance) noted that the installed cost of solar power in the US has come down about 50% in the past few years (to be specific, the price dropped about 45% from 2009 through 2012). That’s a pretty astounding price drop, and it has been accompanied with similarly impressive growth. In total, US solar power capacity is now at about 8 GW. Regarding renewables as a whole (not including hydro), in the past 5 years, the US has seen a near doubling of renewable energy capacity.

Renewable energy sees steady growth. Click here for larger version.

Back to the price drops, one of the speakers (I think Mr Zindler) emphasized something that I often try to emphasize: “if you’re using data regarding the cost of renewables that’s one year old, it’s too old,” and that even 6 months is probably too old. This most applies to solar. But, for now, here’s a chart of LCOE of various electricity technologies:

LCOE of different energy options at the end of 2012. Click to see larger version.

Here were some market growth and price reduction stats shared in a follow-up email from the organizers:

  • The cost of electricity generated by average large solar power plants has fallen from 31 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2009 to 14 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2012 (excluding the effect of tax credits and other incentives, which would bring those costs down even lower).
  • Over the same period, the cost of power from a typical large wind farm has decreased from 9 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2009 to 8 cents per kilowatt-hour.
  • Renewables including wind, solar, biomass and hydropower jumped to 9.4% of US energy supply in 2012, from 6.4% in 2007.

But, as highlighted above, it wasn’t just about renewables today.

“From 2007 to 2012, natural gas rose to 27.2% of total energy consumption (including electricity, heat, and transportation) from 23.4%, while renewables including wind, solar, biomass and hydropower have jumped to 9.4% from 6.4%. Meanwhile, during the same period, coal declined to 18.1% from 22.5% and oil fell to 36.7% from 39.3%. The winner of all this is U.S. emissions. From 2007 to 2012, U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions declined 13%.”

The point Jeffrey Sachs made at the recent World Future Energy Summit is that a 13% energy-related emissions reduction isn’t enough, and natural gas isn’t clean enough. The question is: is natural gas simply growing alongside renewables and supplementing them, or is it competing with renewables? I think you either have to be ignorant of our energy system or smoking some serious methane to get the answer to that question wrong. European countries not experiencing a natural gas boom are seeing much faster adoption of renewable energy. With proper policies in place, renewable energy could grow much faster — and it would do so at the expense of natural gas. Up to a much higher renewable energy penetration than we have today, dispatchable natural gas is not needed to deal with solar or wind’s variability. None of this was mentioned on the call today.

Global Market

Bloomberg New Energy Finance isn’t just focused on the US, of course, and Mr Zindler made some interesting comments regarding the global market.

One statistic that I think was new to me is that, globally, for the best in class, the LCOE for solar PV dropped to 1.89 per watt in 2012 — that’s really getting down there. Here’s the chart on that again:

Solar PV prices keep falling fast. Click to see larger version.

Furthermore, he repeated the obvious regarding one country always in the public eye — China. He noted China’s new focus on solar, its dramatically increased solar targets, and its potential to become the global leader in this market, as it has already done in the wind power market.

Electric Vehicles

Electric vehicles didn’t have much time in the sun in this presentation, but the time they got was used to put them in a positive light. Again, Mr Zindler made a point that we often try to emphasize: pure EVs and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) have seen more rapid adoption and sales than hybrid vehicles (like the world-leading Prius) saw in their initial years. The Prius, which last year rose to #3 in world auto sales, didn’t have nearly the growth rate of the Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt. And there wasn’t such a huge variety of hybrids brought to market as with EVs and PHEVs.

Mr Zindler noted that goals for EV sales were certainly far higher than they have been to date, but that the issue isn’t that the industry is seeing poor sales — the issue is just that some people had very ambitious (apparently, overambitious) assumptions regarding how fast EVs would penetrate the market.

Furthermore, it was pointed out that EVs and hybrids accounted for about 500,000 US vehicle sales last year, or about 3% of the market. That’s considerable, and that’s only expected to increase.

Energy Efficiency

Energy efficiency, as always, didn’t get a lot of attention in the press briefing (it’s not as sexy as solar and not as controversial as natural gas), but some cool facts were highlighted. I’ll just quote from the materials sent to me afterwards:

“The Factbook highlights how energy efficiency is increasingly becoming a priority, particularly among large power consumers such as manufacturers who are being ever more cost-conscious. US utility budgets for efficiency expenditures reached $7 billion in 2011 (the latest available date for which data exists), and financing for energy efficiency retrofits has become increasingly sophisticated, propelling further greening of U.S. buildings. Since 1980, energy intensity of commercial buildings has fallen by more than 40%.”

Utilities are spending more and more money on energy efficiency. Click to see larger version.

One of the presenters also noted what one of our readers picked out of various statistics: that US energy use has declined even as the economy has grown. The specific stat from the presentation was that total energy use fell 6.4% from 2007 to 2012, while GDP grew 3% in that time.

Energy-related CO2 emissions drop and primary energy consumption drops while GDP rises. Click here for larger version.

Solar’s Barriers

Beyond what I mentioned above, something Mr Resch focused on very firmly was the need to give solar power providers equal access to the grid. It should be a given: if you produce valuable electricity, you should be able to send it to the grid and receive a fair rate back for that electricity. He noted that a lot of work still needed to be done in order to implement net metering across the country, break down permitting and regulatory barriers that were set up for large coal and nuclear power plants (that simply don’t apply to solar power), and produce a level playing field for solar to compete on. Very good points, and ones we’ll be coming back to a lot this year — but hopefully not for many years to come.

Sustainable Energy in America 2013 Factbook

So, to wrap up, if you want more info, check out Bloomberg New Energy Finance and Business Council for Sustainable Energy’s press release, check out a slideshow of today’s presentation, or check out the Sustainable Energy in America 2013 Factbook itself. And, for those of you who prefer infographics, there’s one of those, too (larger version here):

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About the Author

is tryin' to help society help itself (and other species) with the power of the typed word. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director and chief editor, but he's also the president of Important Media and the director/founder of EV Obsession, Solar Love, and Bikocity. Zach is recognized globally as a solar energy, electric car, and energy storage expert. Zach has long-term investments in TSLA, FSLR, SPWR, SEDG, & ABB — after years of covering solar and EVs, he simply has a lot of faith in these particular companies and feels like they are good cleantech companies to invest in.

  • Shiggity

    Not enough people are differentiating between baseload power supplies. Coal and Nuclear cannot do what natural gas can do. Coal and Nuclear plants take hours to ramp capacity up and down where-as natural gas can do it in minutes, perfect for renewables. Because of this you can hybridize power plants like this one in Florida.

    Natural gas + Solar CSP + Molten Salt storage, kind of like a plug-in hybrid car. Yeah pure renewable would be better, but this is a very good start and setups like this will make slow ramping baseloads like coal and nuclear obsolete.

    Here’s another example in Turkey.

    They’re saying these hybrid plants could get up to 70% efficiency, that’s just redonkulous. Coal is around 33% and well run nuclear is around 40%.

    Going forward I see wind handling everything off-peak, solar will handle ALL peak energy (Germany is basically there already), and natural gas for everything in between. Then when cost effective storage comes onto the market for wind and solar PV then you won’t need the natural gas anymore.

    The most important project for the United States electric grid is this anyways.

    The unification of all the seperate regional grids and the ability to send power anywhere in the US and to parts of Mexico and Canada. Need moar merit order effect.

    • Bob_Wallace

      There’s a study out recently which may interest you. Let me post my summary…

      Researchers at University of Delaware used four years of weather and electricity demand/load data in one minute blocks to determine 1) if a combination of wind, solar and storage could meet 99.9% of demand and 2) the most cost effective mix of each to meet demand.

      The data for 1999 through 2002 came from the PJM Interconnection, a large regional grid that services all or part of 13 states from New Jersey to Illinois, from Pennsylvania south into Tennessee and North Carolina. This is the world’s largest competitive wholesale electricity market, serving 60 million customers, and it represents one-fifth of the United States’ total electric grid.

      They used currently available technology and its projected price in 2030. They included no subsidies for wind and solar in their calculation. They did not include hydro, nuclear, tidal or other possible inputs. They also did not include power sales to and purchases from adjacent grids.

      They found that by 2030 we could obtain 99.9% of our electricity from renewable energy/storage and the remainder 0.1% from fossil fuels for about what we currently pay “all-in” for electricity. The all-in price of electricity which includes coal and oil produced health costs currently paid via tax dollars and health insurance premiums.

      During the four year period there were five brief periods, a total of 35 hours, when renewables plus storage were insufficient to fully power the grid and natural gas plants came into play. These were summer days when wind supply was low and demand was high. The cheapest way to cover these ~7 hour events was to use existing natural gas plants rather than to build additional storage. Adding in hydro, tidal, etc. would further reduce this number.

      After 28 billion simulations using differing amount of wind, solar, storage and fossil fuels they found the best solution was to over-build wind and solar and at times simply “throw away” some of the produced power. Building “too much” wind and solar turns out to be cheaper than building more storage given the storage solutions we have at this time. Finding markets for the extra production, selling electricity to offset natural gas heating for example, further reduced costs.

      Budischak, Sewell, Thomson, Mach, Veron, and Kempton Cost-minimized combinations of wind power, solar power and electrochemical storage, powering the grid up to 99.9% of the time Journal of Power Sources 225 (2013) 60-74

      Remember, this is a “worst case” study. Add in hydro, tidal, geothermal, and residual nuclear and the price drops because less storage will be needed. The same happens when there is exchange of power between grids. And they used storage technology currently available.

      • Otis11

        Huh, very interesting! Also, what would happen if we implemented value power pricing (I think that’s what it’s called – allowing the cost to change throughout the day to reflect where on the supply/demand curve we currently are). With that people would tend to change optional loads to times where more electricity was available. Or if large commercial buildings used thermal mass storage for HVAC systems (which I know is becoming more popular down here in Texas) as more economical forms of energy “storage”.

        Or did they already account for that?

  • Otis11

    To start of, they’re playing a numbers game with those statistics – they say “Renewables represented the largest single source of new capacity growth in 2012” right after citing the statistic that natural gas went from providing 21.9% to 31.3% and renewables went from 8.3% to 12.1%. So renewables gained 3.8% market share while NG gained 9.4% market share! There are various factors that make both of these statements true, but they are purposely presenting misleading statistics the entire way!

    “The specific stat from the presentation was that total energy use fell 6.4% from 2007 to 2012, while GDP grew 3% in that time.” -Does that GDP figure account for inflation? Because if not overall GDP would have fallen during this time period.

    Also, while NG does make great “peaking plants” to fill in for regional RE power sources, that is not what is happening. The second they add a waste heat boiler to “improve efficiency” it’s no longer a peaking plant! While it could operate that way, it would completely defeat the purpose and it is more economical for them to run as base load.

    And “U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions declined 13%.” That seems fairly specific. What about overall US CO2 emissions? What about overall US energy-related GHG emissions? What about overall US GHG emissions? And then there’s other pollutants – fine particles, NOx, SOx… And what portion of that 13% was related to the fact that we dropped energy demand?

    You did a commendable job pointing out some of the misleading PR wording, but the way they engineered their wording really rubbed me the wrong way. Some of the points I raise may very well support them – idk I don’t have the numbers, but I think overall this was a feel-good PR bubble to distract more than inform.

    (“and it it would” => “and it would”)
    (“I thought this was all the most interesting part” might check this wording?)

    • Thanks for the very relevant points. Some of it was certainly too stretched.

      I don’t know about the inflation question, but would assume they incorporated it.

      Regarding emissions, this is a great piece tackling that issue (I tweeted it to the head of BNEF following a tweet of his regarding that emissions stat):
      Thanks for the stutter & questionable grammar catch. 😀

      • Otis11

        I’ve just seen, in my experience anyway that it’s all to easy to pick and chose statistics that say just about anything you want. Unless they give relevant context (actually relevant, not just seemingly relevant) numbers mean very little.

        Overall good points and good things to know, but IDK, I just felt like I was talking to a PR representative while I was reading.

        BTW, is there a way to submit editing corrections that are a little less public? I just feel kinda iffy throwing it out there in public if there could be a better solution, so thought I’d ask.

        • Thanks! I understand. Regarding corrections, yeah, I just emailed you a bit ago. 😀

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