Millions of customers in hurricane-torn Florida are suffering through the aftermath of the devastating storm without power, and into this mess steps the US Department of Energy with the announcement of a solar energy initiative that seems to indicate light at the end of the grid reliability tunnel.
The solar-friendly announcement also pretty much upends everything that fossil fan-in-chief and current US President* Trump has been saying about the nation’s energy policy. That’s not too much of a shocker if you’ve been following the Energy Department (and its various offices and labs) on Twitter, because the agency has been pushing renewables non-stop despite Trump’s position on climate change.
But, if you haven’t caught up recently, hold onto your hat — this one really is yuuuuge.
A Solar Light At The End Of The Tunnel
The new Energy Department announcement is especially interesting from a presidential policy perspective because it affirms and broadens the SunShot Initiative, which was former President Obama’s showpiece for US renewable energy innovation.
Trump’s policymaking seems to be geared around tearing down every other major Obama-era policy initiative — the Paris Agreement and the Affordable Care Act being just two among many examples — so the big question is whether or not he even knows that his own Energy Department is pushing the SunShot Initiative forward.
If you have any ideas about that, drop a note in the comment thread.
Meanwhile, another interesting backstory to the new announcement is the notorious Energy Department grid study, which was ordered by Secretary Perry last April.
In a leaked memo ordering the study, Perry indicated that it would be biased in favor of centralized coal power plants.
That freaked out renewable energy stakeholders. However, as noted above Perry was already committed to promoting the Energy Department’s renewable energy programs. And, just a couple of weeks after the memo leaked, his agency announced an update for an ongoing grid modernization initiative that pretty much trashed the idea that coal could make a comeback.
The Energy Department continued rolling out the good news about renewables all summer, capped by the August release of a new wind power study that seriously undermined whatever message Perry was trying to send to the coal industry.
The new “grid study” was also released in August, and on first reading it seemed to confirm the fears of renewable energy stakeholders.
However, on closer inspection the study makes a strong case that coal can only survive if Republican leadership in Congress can muster up the political will to increase taxpayer support for the coal industry.
With all this in mind, let’s take a look at that new Energy Department announcement.
Trump Or Not, The Obama SunShot Initiative Lives On
The Energy Department certainly was not trying to slip the new announcement past the censors. They made a big deal out of it, unveiling the news on Tuesday to coordinate with the big Solar Power International conference in Las Vegas.
The gist of it is that, according to the agency’s figures, last month the average price of utility scale solar power fell to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is the 2020 goal set by Obama for the SunShot Initiative.
Under the new policy, the Energy Department may not add new cost-reducing initiatives to its portfolio. However, it will let existing initiatives continue, so it seems that the Trump Administration is still committing taxpayer dollars to killing off coal. Here’s a snippet from SunShot’s plan for 2030 plan (not for nothing, but Trump’s Energy Department makes it clear that the 2030 goal was announced by the Obama Administration):
SunShot’s goal for 2030 is to cut the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) of solar by an additional 50% between 2020 and 2030 to $0.03 per kWh for utility-scale, while also addressing grid integration challenges and addressing key market barriers in order to enable greater solar adoption.
With the three-cent goal in hand, the Energy Department claims that utility-scale solar would drop below the cost of most fossil fuel power plants.
As for new programs, those will be focused on grid modernization — a top priority, as the aftermath of hurricane Irma clearly demonstrates. The Energy Department is steering its ship in that direction:
…DOE is looking beyond SunShot’s 2020 goals with an expanded 2030 vision for the Solar Energy Technologies Office. Specifically, while DOE will continue research to drive down costs, new funding programs will focus on a broader scope of Administration priorities, which includes early-stage research to address solar energy’s critical challenges of grid reliability, resilience, and storage.
If you were surprised by that thing about “Administration priorities,” join the club. Who knew that Trump was committed to pushing solar power’s role in the grid of the future?
Energy Dept. Puts Money Where Its Solar Mouth Is
The new announcement was not just another example of Perry trolling Trump (seriously, go check out his social media) on renewables.
In announcing the new priorities, the Energy Department committed up to $62 million in new funding for advanced concentrating solar power plus storage technologies for “on-demand” solar power.
Yikes! That’s bad news for the natural gas industry, which has been touting itself as a more nimble, flexible fuel than coal for power generation.
The Energy Department’s massive support for CSP is another Obama-era policy that Perry has carried forth, so there’s that.
Distributed solar also gets a shoutout from the Energy Department. A new round of up to $20 million in funding will go to advanced electronics focusing on the link between solar arrays and the grid, with an eye toward developing the “virtual power plant” of the future:
Advances in power electronics will help grid operators rapidly detect problems and respond, protect against physical and cyber vulnerabilities, and enable consumers to manage electricity use.
Energy Dept. Toots The Obama Solar Horn
The new announcement was particularly interesting because, without naming names, it gives the Obama Administration full credit for putting the US solar industry in a position to compete with fossil fuels:
Solar energy currently supplies about 1.5 percent of U.S. electricity. With DOE’s help, the solar industry has drastically cut costs to enable technological innovation and market growth. In the last 10 years, the amount of solar power installed in the U.S. has increased from 1.1 gigawatts (GW) in 2007 to an estimated 47.1 GW in 2017—enough to power the equivalent of 9.1 million average American homes.
As for next steps, the Energy Department appears willing and able to carry forth the Obama Administration’s work on reducing solar “soft costs” including financing, permitting, and grid connections, so stay tuned for more on that.
According to the report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory released today, low module prices have been the primary driver of cost reductions for solar energy. The more stubborn “soft” costs like labor, permitting, interconnection, customer acquisition, financing, and grid integration, remain challenges.
Image (screenshot): via US Department of Energy.