Lots of our customers go solar to get a 100% clean energy source, which the grid can’t offer. But how clean is the grid and how is it expected to change in the next 30 years? We’ll look at the role of renewables, fossil fuels, storage, and nuclear and shed light on the importance of consumer-owned solar as the grid slowly gets greener.
The role of fossil fuels
Here’s a graph from EIA that shows how the energy mix evolved over the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st:
Even as the number of coal-fired power plants operating in the US dwindles, natural gas, a fossil fuel, accounts for about 40% of the electricity that Americans use today. According to a UC Berkeley study, if unaltered, our current path leads us to only 55% renewables by 2035, largely because of this locked-in natural gas investment made decades ago as the shale gas era dawned in the early 2000s, when gigaWatts of natural gas plants were rapidly built.
This fleet of carbon-intensive natural gas facilities depends on a fuel that looked like a safe bet then. Nowadays, natural gas faces price volatility, difficulty ramping up domestic production to outpace high demand abroad, and likely continuing upward pressure on price in the future, our reliance on gas is a problem.
There are those who say coal should increase for the sake of lower prices, but the climate impacts would be unacceptable if the goal is a livable planet.
Nuclear power isn’t likely to be the solution because of the high construction costs including various kinds of bonds and insurance because of the risk, and public opinion isn’t favorable towards new nuclear plants.
Solar and wind (land-based and offshore) are steadily increasing. Now over 75% of US states have a large utility-scale solar farm. Today, interstate transmission and the cost of batteries remain the main barriers to allow urban areas to consume the energy from new capacity built far away from demand.
What’s holding up transmission projects?
These projects aren’t being built quickly anymore. At the height of transmission construction in the U.S. in 2013, 4,600 miles were built, but in 2018 we added only 1,300 miles of projects. The slowdown is due to a few factors. There are more environmental reviews than there used to be, the same kind of construction hurdles that new fossil fuel power stations and pipelines face. There are more levels of government with authority to stop or reroute a project. There are also more restrictions on taking land and using eminent domain to make a right of way “easement”.
Permitting red tape and litigation have tied up hundreds of miles of proposed projects in recent years, and even though power lines don’t pose the same risks of dangerous leaks or aquifer contamination that oil and gas pipelines do, legal precedents and public concern about such interstate construction projects are stacking up to lengthen permitting timelines.
A 2020 report from UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy roadmapping a path to 90% clean energy with only about another $4-5 billion of high voltage transmission lines, both bulk and spurline, thanks to shorter term energy storage, explained in this hourly load chart.
(Plus there are older energy storage concepts like pumped hydropower facilities that could help in some places.) But this study relied on battery prices being low, and they have since jumped in cost. Excess renewable energy construction will be needed as battery costs stay high, to chart a viable path to increasing the proportion of clean energy on the grid in all regions of the US.
According to the UC Berkeley study already discussed above, with no new policy and a business-as-usual course, the US will have only 55% clean energy in 2035. Strong state and federal policies put forth, which the report shows would be feasible and would decarbonize our economy at the pace that we need to meet, would support the most jobs, reduce energy costs, reduce air quality-related disease cases and prevent premature deaths, and result in a dependable grid.
Consumer-owned solar matters for solving a dirty grid
Consumer-owned solar helps further all these goals, too, and makes a direct contribution to the shift to a 90% and eventually 100% clean energy grid. Solar on homes and businesses enables more clean energy job creation in your community, helps avoid the need for new natural gas burning plants that may become stranded assets as renewable energy’s levelized costs become cheaper and future carbon rules take effect, and increases the value of the building it’s on. Tomorrow’s safe, dependable, clean grid is getting closer with help from solar customers like you!