Mark Twain had a gift for demolishing cherished beliefs in just a few words. One of his famous witticisms claimed, “Man is the only animal that blushes — or needs to.” He also said, “What you don’t know won’t hurt you near as much as what you do know that t’ain’t true.”
One shibboleth that “t’ain’t true” is the common belief that nations can’t afford the cost of transitioning to renewable energy. A new study from the University of California Berkeley and GridLab claims the US could transition to 90% renewable energy by the year 2035. The changeover would cost no more than what the utility industry will spend during the next 15 years anyway, while creating a half million new high value jobs. The best news of all? After retiring most of the existing fleet of thermal generating stations, the wholesale cost of electricity would be 13% less than it is today.
A Daunting Challenge
The primary factor in the Berkeley report is the stunning drop in the price of renewable energy — a downward trend the researchers expect to continue or even accelerate. “Previous studies concluded either we need to wait until 2050 to decarbonize or the bills will go up if you decarbonize,” co-author Amol Phadketells the press. “I think we really need to revisit these conclusions because of the dramatic decline in costs. The key thing that was very exciting to us, and why we were prompted to do this study is that the cost declined much faster than all the experts in the field anticipated, including us.”
The goal is 90% renewables by 2035, not 100%, because the authors foresee the need for some electricity made from gas facilities. They say supplying 10% of America’s electricity from gas generators would eliminate the hardest and most expensive piece of the puzzle — long term storage and no new gas-fired facilities would need to be built to do so. 2035 was chosen as the target date because that allows enough time for most of the current thermal generation plants to be fully depreciated, eliminating the stranded assets problem.
The goal of installing an average of 70 MW of new renewable energy assets every year for the next 15 years will be one lollapalooza of a challenge, but it can be done, the researchers say. They point out that 65 GW of new gas generation were added in 2002, so adding capacity is not the problem. Saying it can’t be done just “t’ain’t true.”
Regional, Not Intercontinental, Transmission Lines
One of the common beliefs about building a nearly 100% renewable grid is that it will require massive new investment in intercontinental high voltage transmission lines. Green Tech Media says, “Previous clean-grid visions use continent-spanning transmission projects to transport power from optimal renewable-producing regions to load centers. That requires billions of investment dollars and overcoming local resistance to permitting such projects.” Maybe that was the thinking at one time but “t’ain’t true” anymore.
“As the price of wind and solar have come down dramatically, the conventional wisdom that wind is only cost-effective in the wind belt in the middle of the country, solar is only cost-effective in the sunny Southwest — that’s not true anymore,” says Ric O’Connell of GridLab. Ah hah. Another “t’ain’t true” moment. “While we still need to build significant transmission, most of that transmission is more regional as opposed to inter-regional.” Those regional grids — which could include plenty of microgrids — are far less expensive to construct than HVDC transmission lines to connect solar power from sunny Arizona to customers in New York City.
Jobs, Jobs, Jobs
The Berkeley/GridLab study also projects the transition to renewable energy could add about 500,000 net new jobs to the economy every year. “[I]ncreased employment from expanding renewable energy and battery storage more than replaces lost employment related to declining fossil fuel generation…..These jobs include construction, manufacturing, operations and maintenance, and the supply chain. Overall, a 90% clean grid supports more than 530,000 renewable energy jobs each year compared to existing policy.”
Federal Policy Initiatives Required
What will be needed to make this all happen is a vigorous policy initiative at the federal level, something like a federal renewable energy standard to replace the patchwork of standards created by the individual states. Sonia Aggarwal of Energy Innovation tells Green Tech Media, “Passing federal policy as soon as possible is a huge step in the right direction. At the same time, I think the scale-up of potential deployment within the renewable energy industry will be really important to pay attention to.” That means streamlining the permitting and interconnection process while also clarifying market rules.
For instance, at the present time, FERC has adopted a new policy that will greatly benefit thermal generators in the New York region to the detriment of renewables. New renewable capacity means curtailment of electricity from thermal generators — they can’t sell their electricity, so they have to give it away. The FERC rule requires the PJM grid operator to take the dirty electricity first, a boon to fossil fuel interests but bad news for renewable energy generators, especially those building new offshore wind farms along the Atlantic coast. Continued federal support of thermal generation is another proposition that is believed by certain people but “t’ain’t true.”
Social Justice & Renewables
The new FERC policy is a direct result of the Trump administration’s love affair with fossil fuels. It also jams federal policy down the throat of the states. Most states in the Northeast have aggressive clean energy policies that the federal initiative is blocking. This struggle is playing out in many different scenarios. At the same time that New York is bemoaning the heavy handed FERC ruling, it is also overriding local siting policy in the western part of the state in order to promote its own clean energy agenda.
Where to put all those renewables will require careful consideration of the needs of local communities, especially communities of color and Indigenous people, who for too long have borne the brunt of the pollution created by oil, gas, and chemical operations in the US.
The other concern is that the people working in thermal energy production today not be unfairly impacted by the inevitable job loses coming to that sector of the economy. It is all well and good to say technological changes will create new jobs, but if that means selling a home, uprooting a family, and moving halfway across the country, that is a burden many cannot afford.
Also, in America, health insurance is tied directly to one’s job. If your job ends, so does your access to affordable healthcare. It’s not enough to say a new job will provide coverage if pre-existing conditions are excluded. Today, most personal bankruptcies are related to the inability to pay medical bills. Any transition to renewable energy must take into account the economic needs of those most directly affected. Saying lots of new jobs will be created implies there will be no negative impact to current workers, which definitely “t’ain’t true.”
Conservatives & The Green Economy
The Republican Party of today is bitterly opposed to the transition to renewable energy. The Washington Post reports that conservative strategists are rolling out new talking points designed to convince voters that renewables will bring an end to millions of jobs and cost trillions of dollars. If the UC Berkeley researchers are correct, that simply “t’ain’t true.”
“If You Like the Pandemic Lockdown, You’re Going to Love the Green New Deal,” the conservative Washington Examiner said in the headline of a recent editorial. Elizabeth Harrington, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, wrote in an opinion article in The Hill that Democrats “think a pandemic is the perfect opportunity to kill millions more jobs” with carbon-cutting plans. Mercedes Schlapp, a senior campaign adviser to Trump, said on Fox Business that Joe Biden supports “rainbow and unicorn deals like the Green New Deal” that would raise energy prices and harm an already-ailing economy.
Today, Americans spend far too much time talking past each other and far too little time listening to what others have to say. One thing that definitely is true is that burning fossil fuels is killing people and dangerously destabilizing the environment. We need to work together on solutions, not hunker down in our intellectual bunkers, hurling verbal bombs at each other.
The 2035 Report from UC Berkeley and GridLab is thoughtful, well researched, and artfully presented. If you want to be well informed, considering taking some time to read and review it for yourself. It’s an excellent starting point for a discussion about how the US could be preparing for the future in a way that is practical, rational, and a benefit to all Americans.
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