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Monday, February 17, 2014

100% renewables by 2050? Really?

The Solutions Project makes the provocative claim that our nation can get all of its energy from renewables by 2050, and has offered state-by-state plans to get us there.

The abstract  for its report: 100% Wind, Water, Sunlight(WWS) All-Sector Energy Plans for the 50 United States says this:
This study presents roadmaps for each of the 50 United States to convert their all-purpose energy infrastructure (for electricity, transportation, heating/cooling, industry) to ones derived entirely from wind, water, and solar (WWS) power generating electricity and electrolytic hydrogen after energy efficiency measures are accounted for. The numbers of devices, footprint and spacing areas, energy costs, numbers of jobs, air pollution and climate benefits, and policies needed for the conversions are provided for each state. The plans contemplate all new energy powered with WWS by 2020, about 80-85% of existing energy replaced by 2030, and 100% replaced by 2050. Electrification plus modest efficiency measures would reduce each state’s end-use power demand by a mean of 37.3% with ~85-90% due to electrification, and stabilize energy prices since WWS fuel costs are zero.
More details can be found here.

Pennsylvania’s “solution” is presented in this graphic:

We’ve all heard the adage "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” Indeed, recently four top climate scientists raised the concern that renewable energy can't scale up in the same time frame as proposed here.  But a very quick review of the roadmaps and the FAQs raises a few points to ponder: 
  • The plan proposes a total electrification of the economy, including industry and transportation. A complete transformation. Think revolution, not evolution.  
  • “Modest” energy efficiency measures include replacing every appliance, insulating every home and building in the nation, (vastly) expanding public transit, and changing out the nation’s entire vehicle fleet.
  • The capital costs of scaling all of the technologies prescribed (some of which are far from market-ready), of electrifying the economy, of providing a brand new (ground, at least) transportation system and fueling infrastructure, and re-doing the nation’s building stock and the systems that run them are not specifically provided. Just getting off coal and oil has been estimated by one expert to cost around $6 trillion. The resultant costs of electricity is an analysis I'll leave to others.
  • The footprint calculations apparently do not seem to include the necessary transmission infrastructure that would be needed to take advantage of all that renewable energy.  The National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) has said that it's possible to get to 80% renewable energy by 2050 with currently-available technologies, but as I wrote here: 
Getting to 80 percent renewables implies the need for construction of 110-190 million miles of new transmission and 47-80,000 miles of new intertie capacity, according to NREL...there will be enormous habitat fragmentation and myriad other impacts as transmission towers and power lines spiderweb across the landscape.
  • The policy prescriptions that the authors claim can drive all of this appear a bit thin, if not facile. To be sure, the climate and public health benefits surely need to be monetized and included in any calculation of the true cost of energy. That addition to our energy calculus is long overdue.
The report is certainly provocative, and maybe it’s inspiring. I’m sure it’s intended to be both – and should be, if we are to envision a fundamentally different way of powering our nation, and the world. And while NETL and others have shown that the hurdles we face are not technological, but much more economic and fundamentally political, getting to energy Nirvana is much easier said than done.  Beware oversimplification of a wildly complex issue.

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