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Setting the record straight about renewable energy

Setting the record straight about renewable energy

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By Susan Tierney and Lori Bird

As analysts and observers of the transition to a lower-carbon and workable energy economy, we don’t normally write about films. But we’re venturing into the realm of cultural commentary in light of the recent release of ‘Planet of the Humans’, produced by Michael Moore.

Throughout Moore’s career, he has used documentary films to illuminate social and economic issues in many domains. Sadly, his newest film includes so many misconceptions and so much dated information that we feel compelled to clarify the facts about renewable energy.

We understand the ultimate message of the film: that societies around the world need to make fundamental changes in their consumption patterns. But in a misguided approach to making that point, the filmmakers discredit the value of clean energy technologies and the people that seek to advance their deployment.

Over the last decade, the clean energy industry has changed tremendously. Costs have fallen dramatically, technologies have become more efficient and solutions for integrating renewables into electric grids have advanced. Here are the facts:

1. Renewables replace fossil fuel energy on the grid.

In the U.S. and in virtually every region, when electricity supplied by wind or solar energy is available, it displaces energy produced by natural gas or coal-fired generators. The type of energy displaced by renewables depends on the hour of the day and the mix of generation on the grid at that time. Countless studies  have found that because output from wind and solar replaces fossil generation, renewables also reduce CO2 emissions. For example, an NREL study found that generating 35% of electricity using wind and solar in the western U.S. would reduce CO2 emissions by 25-45%.

Solar and wind farms have dominated new power plant builds in the U.S. in recent years, while fossil fuel plants—particularly coal-fired plants—continue to be retired at record pace. In 2019, wind (9.1GW) and solar (5.3GW) represented 62% of all new generating capacity, compared to 8.3GW of natural gas, while 14GW of coal-fired capacity was retired. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) has also projected that most new electric generation added in the U.S. in 2020 could come from wind and solar, with new natural gas plants projected to represent less than a quarter of new generating capacity. Certainly, some of these installations may be delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. While natural gas builds exceeded those of renewables in 2018, reversing the earlier trend of renewables leading, there were 12.9GW of coal-fired capacity and 4.6GW of gas-fired capacity retired in that same year, according to EIA.

Source data: EIA, Tables 4.2.A and 4.2.B, Existing Net Summer Capacity by Energy Source and Producer Type (https://www.eia.gov/electricity/annual/html/epa_04_02_a.htmlhttps://www.eia.gov/electricity/annual/html/epa_04_02_b.html)

2. Clean energy has created millions of jobs – and can create more.

At the start of 2020, the clean energy sector employed about 3.4 million workers in the U.S., with much of the workforce concentrated in the energy efficiency industry. In 2019, clean energy jobs outnumbered jobs in the fossil fuel sector 3 to 1; across 42 states and the District of Columbia, the clean energy workforce was larger than that of the fossil fuel industry. The quality of these jobs is also important. According to research by the Brookings Institute, clean energy workers earn higher and more equitable wages when compared to workers nationally, with mean hourly wages exceeding the national average by 8 to 19%.

Clean energy jobs are only expected to continue growing — notwithstanding the hit to the sector as a result of COVID-19. Through 2028, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that the two fastest-growing jobs in the United States will be solar installers (projected to grow by 105%) and wind technicians (projected to grow by 96%). Under the International Renewable Energy Agency’s “Transforming Energy Scenario,” the number of renewable energy jobs worldwide could more than triple, reaching 42 million jobs by 2050, while energy-efficiency jobs would grow six-fold, employing over 21 million more people. By contrast, the fossil fuel industry is expected to lose over 6 million jobs over the same time period, even without the impact of the virus.

3. Wind and solar plants can be built with minimal environmental impacts, and often with co-benefits.

All power plants, including renewables, result in some environmental impacts during siting, development and operation. Over the past two decades, siting practices for U.S. wind projects have become more sophisticated and effective at minimizing impacts. As a result, wind projects have fewer impacts than other types of projects, falling near the bottom on lists of developments that can have negative effects on the environment and wildlife, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. What’s more, these projects often provide co-benefits. Wind farms sited in rural areas benefit farmers and ranchers by providing annual revenues from $4,000 and $8,000 per turbine, while allowing landowners to continue to use the sites for agriculture or grazing. Additionally, wind farm owners pay county property taxes that support schools, recreation centers and other county activities.

Solar siting practices require environmental investigations to identify and minimize negative impacts. Plans can be developed that provide additional benefits such as protecting wildlife, improving soil health and water retention, nurturing native vegetation, or incorporating pollinator-friendly plants. Additional benefits can include lease income to farmers and county or city tax revenues. Payments to landowners vary widely across the U.S. and can range from $300-1,000 per acre.

And operating these plants, of course, requires no fuel-delivery infrastructure like gas pipelines, propane trucks, coal barges and railroads, all of which produce their own negative environmental impacts.

4. Solar and wind now provide the cheapest power for 67% of the world.

The costs associated with solar and wind have fallen dramatically in recent years. According to BNEF, the cost of energy globally for onshore wind and utility-scale solar is now $44 and $50/MWh (on a levelized basis), compared to $100 and $300/MWh only a decade ago. In the U.S., the levelized cost of energy (LCOE) associated with onshore wind ($24-46/MWh) and utility-scale solar ($31-111/MWh) is now less than that of almost all gas-fired power production. Battery storage, which is crucial to address the variability of wind and solar power, has seen the swiftest global price drop among all technologies, from nearly $600/MWh in 2015 to about $150/MWh in the first half of 2020.

This precipitous drop in the cost of utility-scale solar and onshore wind has made them the cheapest sources of power in two-thirds of the world. Today, solar projects in Chile, the Middle East and China, or wind projects in Brazil, the U.S. and India, are approaching figures lower than $30/MWh, lower than the costs of building and producing power from plants that use coal or even the cheapest gas. By 2030, upcoming innovations are likely to reduce costs even further.

5. Although wind and solar cannot produce energy every hour of the day, the energy they generate can be managed on the grid.

Wind farms produce electricity when it’s windy and solar farms produce power when there’s sun, leading to variability in the supply of energy. However, this can be — and is being — managed by utilities and grid operators through operational practices, forecasting, responsive loads and infrastructure such as storage and transmission. Electricity grids are designed to address variability in customers’ electricity demand, maintain continuous balance between generation and demand and maintain reserves for any type of outage on the system (e.g., power plant failure), so they are already designed to manage variability. However, grids need to be modified to be more flexible over time, to integrate larger amounts of wind and solar and address the additional variability that comes with heavier reliance on renewables. Increased investments in storage and transmission, as well as market reforms, can help.

Around the world, grid operators are managing larger amounts of wind and solar every year. In 2018, operators in California, the Southwest, and Texas used wind and solar for nearly 20% or more of their energy on an annual average basis, and in excess of 50-60% on an hourly basis. In Europe, several countries have managed even higher hourly penetrations of wind and solar, including Denmark (139%), Germany (89%) and Ireland (88%).

6. Battery storage is economically viable to address the variability of wind and solar and can help reduce emissions.

While most energy storage currently comes from pumped hydro storage facilities, the use of battery energy storage is growing rapidly, because of its increasingly cost competitiveness. Lithium-ion energy storage systems have seen dramatic price declines — as much as 85% between 2010 and 2018.  Batteries are efficient carriers of energy, with round-trip efficiencies of 85-90%. If they are charged by renewable energy sources, they have no added GHG emissions.

Batteries can provide a variety of services to the grid, including smoothing the variability of wind and solar. Storage can provide the necessary back-up or standby power that the film implies must come from standby gas or coal-fired generators. Using batteries to replace fossil fuel backup will mean higher levels of wind and solar on the grid, less need for gas and coal and fewer emissions. 

Batteries with four-hour discharges can’t solve all power-system requirements, of course.  More work is needed — and is underway — on long-duration storage options as part of the suite of tools needed for a reliable, affordable, low-carbon power system.

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7. Wind and solar projects can operate for decades and can be developed more rapidly than other generation sources.

All power plants and their components have a “useful life” before they need replacement or repair. The useful lifespan of renewable facilities can exceed two decades. Wind turbines, for example, are estimated to last for about 20 years, and photovoltaic systems often remain operational from 25 to 40 years. In some instances, as large wind turbines become more efficient and economic, equipment turnover has been accelerated. In these cases, smaller turbines have been replaced earlier than they might otherwise have been by larger, more efficient turbines, to substantially increase electricity production at existing sites.

Furthermore, renewable energy facilities can typically be deployed more rapidly than fossil fuel plants. While solar and onshore wind farms normally take less than two years to build, gas-fired power plants usually take as many as four years to become operational, and can also require construction of gas pipeline infrastructure.

8. Renewables generate more energy than is used in their production, and produce fewer emissions than other power sources over their lifetime.

While all sources of electricity result in some GHG emissions over their lifetime, renewable energy sources have substantially fewer emissions than fossil fuel-fired power plants. One study estimates that renewable energy sources typically emit about 50g or less of CO2 emissions per kWh over their lifetime, compared to about 1000 g CO2/kWh for coal and 475 g CO2/kWh for natural gas. Most of the lifecycle emissions from fossil generators occur from fuel combustion, but also come from raw materials extraction, construction, fuel processing, plant operation and decommissioning of facilities.

While the manufacture of solar panels requires substantial amounts of energy, studies have found that they offset the energy consumed in production within about two years of operation, depending on the module type. Both crystalline silicon and thin-film solar panels contain toxic materials such as lead, silver and cadmium; therefore, efforts need to be accelerated to address proper disposal practices and module recycling, such as is done in Europe and by First Solar in the U.S., to appropriately capture and reuse these materials.

9. Electric vehicles reduce emissions substantially.

Electrification of passenger vehicles has quickened in recent years, with more than 1 million electric vehicles (EVs) now operating in the United States. Several studies suggest that number could grow to 20 million EVs by 2030, with over 4 million EVs in California alone.

EVs offer substantial emissions benefits — and associated health benefits — because they are two to three times more efficient than conventional internal combustion vehicles and have no tailpipe emissions. However, they do release GHG emissions during the fuel production, vehicle manufacturing and vehicle use stage. Studies find that approximately 50% of all EV battery lifecycle emissions come from the electricity used in the battery manufacturing and assembly facilities. Further, an EV’s net carbon footprint depends on the electricity used to charge it.

Across the country, many cities and corporations are converting their vehicle fleets to EVs and have made commitments to use 100% renewable electricity to meet the electricity demand. But, as we point out in a recent WRI report, new solutions are still needed to enable customers to charge their EVs with renewables more easily. Potential reductions in an EV’s overall lifecycle emissions could also be achieved by manufacturing EV batteries in facilities powered by renewable energy.

10. Private sector investment in clean energy is critical to lowering GHG emissions.

Aligning financial risk and reward with low-carbon energy investments is critical for shifting the economy in the direction of lower GHG emissions. Without substantial private sector investment in clean energy, it will be more difficult, more costly and more time-consuming to address climate change. Unlike in many other countries where energy providers, including in the electric sector, are publicly owned enterprises, most ownership and investment of electric infrastructure in the United States comes from the private sector. Shifting private investment toward renewables and other zero-carbon energy resources makes good sense and can be a safer investment.

Renewable energy is not perfect. No form of energy is. But people the world over need electricity, and pursuing clean energy sources is far better than continuing down the path of polluting fossil fuels. Renewable energy is an essential, although not exclusive, part of what is needed to address the urgent and important global challenge of climate change.

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