Saturday, February 22, 2020

Inexorable Trend

Inexorable - Impossible to stop or prevent

Among the criticisms I got when I started writing columns advocating for grid-scale wind and solar energy is that they cannot power a very energy intensive use such as the electric arc furnaces used in steel mills. The very idea was laughable.

No longer. A NY Times article from last October detailed how a steel mill is being transformed to use solar during the day and wind at night.  Overall, 95% of the mill’s energy demand will be provided by solar alone when the transformation is complete.  It’s just the first plant, but I have no doubt that it won’t be the last.

Never say never.

This transformation is possible because the cost of alternative energy has dropped precipitously over the last decade. The U.S. Energy Information Agency, according to an article in a January Forbes article, predicts that 76% of new electric energy going online this year will be solar and wind. Conversely, coal and gas plants will account for 85% of closures.

Coal can no longer compete with renewables, even as federal subsidies phase out. Solar and wind costs have dropped about 90% and 70% respectively over the last decade. Although renewables still make up a fraction of US grid-scale energy production it’s growing exponentially, while coal is collapsing.

Solar and wind are cheaper than nuclear by a factor of three. It’s now cheaper to add alternative energy to the grid than even natural gas.

Another common criticism is that because the wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine, these sources are unreliable. This criticism also no longer valid because of the parallel precipitous drop in the price of battery storage systems, making even rarely-used natural gas-powered standby plants increasingly uneconomic.

Even more dramatic is a new technology being prototyped where excess solar and wind power is used to generate hydrogen by splitting water molecules. The hydrogen can be stored until needed. Hydrogen can be used to run a power turbine just as easily as natural gas. Burn hydrogen and you get . . . water. No batteries needed.

Given current trends, solar is projected to make up 20% of US electrical generation by 2030, up from about 3% now. Likewise, wind is expected to grow to 40% by 2030, compared to today’s 8%.

What do all these numbers mean? It means the trends have become inexorable despite the retrograde policies of the current administration.

Not only that, but the jobs in alternative energy now outstrip those in fossil fuel extraction by 3 to 1, according to Forbes, especially in solar. Given how much room there is to grow in these industries, the trend can only continue.

I also think these projections are underestimates because many states have mandated aggressive goals to “decarbonize” their energy production by 50 to 100% by 2050 or earlier. These states represent 28% of all US power demand, according to the World Resources Institute.

In addition, investor-owned utilities are pledging to do the same thing. WRI states that “These pledges suggest that power companies are beginning to recognize that the shift to low-carbon energy is inevitable and are finding it advantageous to lead in this transition.” I will say that seeing will be believing on that score.

These mandates don’t even consider what counties, cities and towns are doing, which will only increase the economic demand for low or non-carbon energy. At the municipal level in Massachusetts, many communities are making the same commitments. Last fall, Westborough Town Meeting voted to join them.

This is just the beginning. The transition should have started two decades ago, but it has started and the momentum is increasing.

As another Forbes article stated, “… it’s cheaper to save the climate than destroy it.”

This article was published in the Village News, February 22, 2020