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Analysis again shows: clean energy future totally affordable

January 26th, 2016 · 2 Comments

Without doing fully burdened cost-benefit analysis, NOAA and University of Colorado Boulder researchers analyzed various electricity portfolios (article) over the coming decade and found that:

Even in a scenario where renewable energy costs more than experts predict, the model produced a system that cuts CO2 emissions 33 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, and delivered electricity at about 8.6 cents per kilowatt hour. By comparison, electricity cost 9.4 cents per kWh in 2012.

Not surprising, this conclusion leads to headlines like Bloomberg’s “Cutting pollution from coal cheaper than you think“.  As discussed below, however, the study team seems to understate the real case — with a richer study perhaps leading to a title “Cutting pollution from coal more profitable than we realized”.

As to the study, this team modeled an integrated national system — leveraging regional differences for renewables based on high-fidelity weather records — to foster a designed grid to reduce the need for backup generation to cover intermittencies. The grid buildout, in their model, relies heavily on HVDC (high-voltage, direct current) power lines which would enable moving electricity long distances with minimal transmission losses.

Alexander MacDonald, co-lead author and recently retired director of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL), compared the idea of a HVDC grid with the interstate highway system which transformed the U.S. economy in the 1950s.

“With an ‘interstate for electrons’, renewable energy could be delivered anywhere in the country while emissions plummet,” he said. “An HVDC grid would create a national electricity market in which all types of generation, including low-carbon sources, compete on a cost basis. The surprise was how dominant wind and solar could be.”

The modeling has interesting (powerful, even) results.

“Our research shows a transition to a reliable, low-carbon, electrical generation and transmission system can be accomplished with commercially available technology and within 15 years,” said MacDonald …

And, it is getting praised

“This study pushes the envelope,” said Stanford University’s Mark Jacobson, who commented on the findings in an editorial he wrote for  the journal Nature Climate Change. “It shows that intermittent renewables plus transmission can eliminate most fossil-fuel electricity while matching power demand at lower cost than a fossil fuel-based grid

The team found that

“The United States could slash greenhouse gas emissions from power production by up to 78 percent below 1990 levels within 15 years while meeting increased demand”

… and at a price similar to (if not below) currently delivered electricity prices.

That is a powerful result …

Yet, the analysis looks to undermine that power: there is no discussion of all of the value streams that come from driving down carbon emissions in the electricity system. Here are just a few direct payoffs for the U.S. economy through moving toward a cleaner electricity grid.

  • Employment (Jobs! JOBS! JOBS!!!) is higher with renewable energy, per kilowatt hour, than traditional fossil fuels: building wind turbines, installing solar panels, and, with efficiency, insulating homes (and manufacturing that insulation), etc …
  • Railroad capacity to move goods and people as lower coal movements reduce bottlenecks.
  • Reduced pollution leading to higher productivity (fewer lost work days due to asthma attacks).
  • Etc …

And, of course, that ‘oh by the way’ value from reduced climate risks.

This looks to an important study — showing that an accelerated move to a clean electricity grid is viable at essentially low cost.  Regretfully, by what looks to be a stove-piped analysis solely within the electricity market, the analysis fails to highlight a simple truth: this transition would create tremendous value — not just be cost neutral — while lowering risk.




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Tags: analysis · electricity · emissions · Energy

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Sven Eberlein // Jan 26, 2016 at 12:49 pm

    Really exciting to see this, the writing is all over the wall. Here in SF, our CleanPowerSF program has just officially launched! ( Residents and businesses will be able to get cleaner energy than PG&E’s mix for a slight discount–and also have the option to choose 100% in-state renewable power for a small premium (~10%). And what’s even cooler is that these community choice aggregation programs are spreading across California and forcing PG&E to offer their own competitive clean/green energy much faster than they would otherwise choose to.

  • 2 John Egan // Feb 6, 2016 at 7:20 pm

    It certainly did not turn out that way in Germany under the Energiewende.

    Sigh. Yes, John, if one does fully-burdened cost analysis, it certainly is more than affordable even in Germany. Exports benefits, health benefits, etc …

    Where, BTW, right-wing populism is surging as in many other E.U. countries. Not all E.U. right populist parties are alike; however, most have Euroskeptic, anti-immigrant, and climate skeptic components. One could argue that their climate skepticism falls under general hostility to Brussels.

    So, embracing polluting energy is going to be some great panacea because …

    Because Donald Trump and the UKIP are climate science deniers, this is something that should be embraced to rescue progressive policies?

    Sigh …


    And we may be looking at more Penn Centrals with American railroads since coal revenue represents their largest income source.