Just how realistic are the prospects of renewable energy in providing a significant portion of our future daily energy needs? Physicians for Social Responsibility Environmental Health Policy Institute recently asked experts on various types of renewable energy to provide an answer.
First lets look at the challenges:
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the expansion of renewables is the absence of a federal energy policy. If we had a policy in place we could use it to provide incentives and drive costs down. US manufacturers have had to deal with temporary incentives and an uncertain shifting political landscape.
Another challenge is the lack of infrastructure. It takes transmission lines to get electricity from where it is generated to where it is needed in large cities. Building new transmission lines includes the cost of buying private land, purchasing right of way, and adhering to environmental regulations.
The intermittent nature of power generation from wind and solar can make it difficult to integrate them into the power grid.
A lack of capital funding- "Since the global banking system collapsed in 2008, banks are only offering short-term loans for very limited amounts per loan, which is insufficient to finance these large power projects." (Michele Boyd, Government Relations Manager at Abengoa Solar in her report about concentrating solar power plants)
Despite all these challenges renewable energy generation is one of the fastest growing business sectors in the US today. "Over the first term of the Obama Administration, while the nation's overall energy production from all sources grew by roughly 8%, non-hydro renewables grew by 33%. Particularly dramatic growth rates were experienced by wind (249%), solar (238%), and bio-fuels (44%). In the electricity generation sector alone, while overall production from all energy sources during the first eight months of 2012 dropped by 1.6% compared to the same period in 2011, net electrical generation from solar photovoltaics and solar thermal increased by133%, from wind by 17.7%, from geothermal by 8.8%, and from biomass by 1.5%." (Ken Bossong, Executive Director of the SUN DAY campaign, a non-profit research and educational organization founded in 1993 to promote sustainable energy technologies, in his article on the current status and potential of sustainable energy technologies to meet U.S. energy needs)
"The Geothermal Energy Association reports that 147 geothermal projects are now in development in the United States. The 59 in Nevada alone have a combined potential capacity of 2,000 MW. According to a study recently released by a multi-disciplinary research group at MIT, market changes and an investment of $800 million to $1 billion over 15 years could bring more than 100 GW of geothermal energy to the U.S. grid by 2050. In addition, ground-source geothermal heat pumps now make up 5% of the total domestic heating, ventilation, and air conditioning markets with an estimated 100,000 new units being added annually." (Ken Bossong)
Wind Farm development has resulted in:
- The opening of 470 wind turbine factories in the US
- Farmers using wind generated electricity as a second cash crop
- A 24 fold increase in wind generated electricity between 1999 and the end of 2012
- Enough electrical generation to serve 15 million homes
- Prevention of 94 million tons of C02 emissions each year
"For a growing number of farmers in the American heartland, wind-generated electricity has become a lucrative second crop. In Iowa, for example, where wind provides more than 20 percent of all the electricity generated in the state, landowners are receiving more than $14 million annually for leasing small portions of their land for more than 3,000 wind turbines." (Randall Swisher adjunct professor at the School of Engineering at Catholic University in his report on wind energy)
The issue of intermittent power generation can be solved by adding power from less intermittent sources and expanding the variety of sources and number of connections. For example as wind dies down in one area of the country it is picking up elsewhere. Being able to track where the power is dropping and draw power from where it is increasing will help provide greater stability for the grid.
Not all renewable energy is intermittent. Concentrating solar power plants take in heat from the sun during the day and store the heat in sand allowing the plant to continue to generate power at night. Geothermal energy is heat from the crust of the earth used to create electricity twenty-four hours a day. The more power we can obtain from sources that do not fluctuate the more intermittent power sources can also be added to the grid without causing instability.
Progress is being made on the grid system itself. "The grid is slowly being strengthened, and today we even have examples of wind power generated in Illinois, Kansas and Iowa being transmitted to the Tennessee Valley Authority." (Randall Swisher)
Not mentioned in the article is a project called Tres Amigas in New Mexico where all three power grids are being tied together. "By tying the nation's three grids together, the Tres Amigas station will catalyze the adoption of renewable power while at the same time increasing the reliability of our electricity network, which is fundamental to the expansion of the U.S. economy." Jeff Bingaman, former U.S. Senator.
For more information on the structure and operation of our power grid see the North American Electric Reliability Corporation.
One of the concluding paragraphs in Ken Bossong's report sums up the future well: "Because of the wide variation in governmental subsidies and institutional incentives offered to competing energy sources, as well as the failure to incorporate environmental and social costs, it is difficult to provide a generally agreed-upon economic comparison of renewables versus fossil fuels or nuclear power. Nonetheless, the trend line over the past four decades, and particularly during the past five years, has been one of sharp price reductions for all renewable energy technologies while the costs for oil, coal, and nuclear power have risen. Thus, while there are variations based on geographical region, size, and design, most renewable energy sources are now cost-competitive - or soon will be - with fossil fuels and nuclear power. Biomass, geothermal, and hydropower can now often provide base-load electricity that is cheaper than their non-renewable competitors. Wind-generated electricity, though intermittent, is also cost-competitive in many locales while solar, already competitive or cheaper in specific off-grid applications, is frequently projected to be cost-competitive with conventional sources within five years."