Ultimately, every bit of energy on Earth comes from the sun. It’s what made the plants and animals that turned into fossil fuels grow. Solar power is the source of all our food, our energy for transportation systems, and the power needed for industries to function. While we think of water and wind as sources of renewable energy, in the final analysis they are dependent on the sun as well.
If the world has a desire to be totally self sustaining, maximizing the energy we harvest directly from the sun is the ideal way of doing it. According to the latest Power Transition Trends (paywall) report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, 182 GW of new solar was added worldwide last year — about half of all new capacity. Wind accounted for an additional quarter of new capacity. “Wind and solar are now the cheapest sources of new bulk power generation in countries that make up two-thirds of world population and three-quarters of global GDP,” BNEF said.
But there is a cloud among what otherwise would be good news. Fossil fuels counted for 14% of new emissions last year, led by coal, which jumped an unprecedented 8.5% from the previous year to a record of 9,600 TWh. That pushed carbon dioxide emissions from the energy sector up by 7% from the year before.
Nonetheless, that 14% figure for new capacity from fossil fuels is the lowest level ever, according to BNEF. About 13 GW of coal fired capacity was added last year, which was down from 52 GW in 2019 and 82 GW in 2012.
“It was a year of highs and highs, for the best and worst reasons,” Ethan Zindler, head of Americas at BNEF, said in a statement reported by Utility Dive. “Renewables grew very fast, but coal’s comeback and the fact that countries — including those that have pledged to achieve net-zero emissions — continue building coal is really disconcerting.”
BNEF said three factors contributed to the surge in coal-fired generation last year: a 5.6% increase in global power production driven by a rebounding economy, lower hydroelectric generation due to droughts, and higher natural gas prices. In terms of increased coal capacity, China was up 9%, India was up 16%, and the United States was up 14% compared to the prior year. China’s power plant fleet accounted for 36% of the global power sector carbon emissions from energy generation last year, followed by the United States at 12% and India at 8%.
Coal-fired generation could increase again this year as European nations seek to offset droughts and high natural gas prices by returning mothballed plants to service or delaying planned coal plant retirements, BNEF said. Half of the countries that pledged at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference to phase out coal recorded increases in coal-fired generation last year.
The US & Solar Power
The annual solar report from Berkeley Lab is also out this week. It says the US added over 12.5 gigawatts of new capacity last year, bringing the total installed capacity to over 50 gigawatts, with Texas responsible for about a third of that increase. Combined with residential and other distributed solar installations, solar alone accounted for 45% of the new generating capacity added to the grid last year.
According to ArsTechnica, the average cost of building solar power in the US today is $1.35 per watt. The levelized cost of solar electricity is falling faster than construction costs. In the US it is now $33 per MWh, with some PPAs coming in at $20 per MWh. The Inflation Reduction Act may reduce that number to around $27 per MWh or less.
The IRA may interrupt a trend in the industry. Previously the only way to claim a tax credit for battery storage was to pair it with a renewable energy installation. Now stand-alone battery systems are eligible, which may lead to more of them being built.
The Department of Energy is reporting that the cost of solar is now competitive with “the cost of burning fuel in existing gas fired generators.” In other words, ArsTechnica says, it can potentially be more economical to not operate an existing gas generator and use the money spent on fuel to install a solar farm instead.
Prior to the passage of the IRA, the DOE was saying it expected the amount of new solar energy to triple by 2030 and increase rapidly from there. But now it says the new incentives in the IRA are “likely to stimulate significant additional deployment.”
All that additional solar will alter “business as usual” for grid operators. Increasingly, non-solar generating capacity will be forced off the grid at midday on sunny days, Ars says. That means the value of solar will drop in some areas as generation starts to regularly exceed demand. That, in turn, will make batteries — both personal and grid-scale — which are charged up during this periods of excess more valuable while dropping the value of rooftop solar. And these changes are likely to be felt before the decade is out.
The Forest For The Trees
All those sunny predictions by the DOE are subject to finding a place to put all those new solar farms. One of the biggest costs of any new energy facility is connecting it to the grid. Solar developers can save a lot of money by siting a new solar farm where a grid connection is already available.
Charlotte County in south central Virginia happens to have several long distance transmission lines that cross it. There are plans to tap those resources to accommodate the Randolph Solar Project, a 4,500-acre installation that will require removing some 3,500 acres of forest during construction. At least 5 other solar facilities are planned for the are as well. When complete, they will be one of the largest solar installations east of the Rockies.
Recently, local resident P.K. Pettus spoke with the New York Times about the solar projects. After Virginia passed a law in 2020 requiring the elimination of fossil fuels from its power sector by 2050, Pettus says, “I was so excited and hoped to see solar canopies over parking lots, solar panels on rooftops, solar panels on big box stores. I never dreamed it would involve so much deforestation and grading in a place I deeply care about.”
Conservationists and farmland advocates argue that solar development is displacing valuable forests and farms. They think solar farms should be built on land that has already been developed or on degraded land such as abandoned industrial sites and landfills. Some warn that a plan to protect the Chesapeake Bay that has been underway for decades could be compromised by the loss of so much forested land.
Pettus fears the Randolph project and the other large solar farms in the area will send soil and storm water streaming into Roanoke Creek, which includes several pristine wetlands and ultimately drains to the Roanoke River. Runoff from deforested slopes could harm water quality and aquatic life, she says.
“It’s very unsettling from our side to see the hardening on the sides of the issue,” says Judy Dunscomb, a senior conservation scientist with the Nature Conservancy, which supports both renewable energy and forest conservation. “Folks are trying to push through these really big projects on the one hand and localities are becoming increasingly anxious about the potential impacts of those projects.”
The US Department of Energy says installing solar panels on rooftops and carports could meet nearly 80% of the nation’s electricity needs. And while that may be true, there are far fewer incentives for such installations and the cost of those systems per watt are significantly higher than they are for grid scale solar installations. They also have no interconnection with the grid but they do offer the promise of supporting more resilient, more diversified microgrids.
Dominion Energy plans to develop a solar farm in southwestern Virginia on a flattened mountaintop that was blasted away for coal. Projects like that hit a sweet spot, the NY Times says. They are big enough to realize economies of scale, sited on land that is already degraded, and can boost the economy of a region that sorely needs economic help.
More such former industrial sites are available on top of landfills, for instance, but they are often far from transmission lines. And the surfaces of such sites can be unstable, making construction complicated and expensive. Just about the worst thing that could happen to the climate is for one of its best allies — solar power — to be seen as such a bad neighbor that nobody wants it around.
The Inflation Reduction Act will turbocharge solar power installations all across America. The hard work is not in building them. The hard work is figuring out how to put them in places that will have community support and lend themselves to grid connections.
States will also have to balance their interests in luring large employers. In Virginia, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft have committed themselves to renewable energy, but combined they use up to two gigawatts of power, almost one-sixth of the state’s total power consumption. If Virginia wants the benefits those employers can bring, it will need to figure out how to meet their demand for renewable energy or watch them go elsewhere.
It’s a delicate dance, and in the end it will be impossible to make everyone happy. The key will be deciding how much of a role the necessity of lowering carbon emissions should play. Because unless the Earth stops overheating, as many as three-quarters of humans could perish from the face of the Earth by the end of this century. It’s a matter of priorities, but that doesn’t mean the process won’t be messy.
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