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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

We need to double down on renewable energy

The IPCC's new report on climate change mitigation says that the world needs to at least triple - and maybe quadruple - the energy it gets from renewables and other no-carbon sources by 2050 to stave off climate disaster.

And there is hope.  IPCC says:
many [renewable energy] technologies have demonstrated substantial performance improvements and cost reductions, and a growing number of RE technologies have achieved a level of maturity to enable deployment at significant scale.
Indeed, renewables have more than doubled in the US energy mix from 2005-2012, according to and an analysis by the US Energy Information Administration.
From 2005 to 2012, nonhydropower renewable generation more than doubled, encouraged by policies such as federal tax credits and grants, state renewable portfolio standards (RPS), and a variety of other state and local policies such as rebates, tax incentives, financing assistance, net metering, and interconnection standards...
But EIA says that renewables currently account for about 12% of US energy generation. Under a business-as-usual projection, renewables will rise to a whopping 16% of generation by 2040 – a pace far below where IPCC says we need to be.
In the [business as usual case, without a continuation of the policies mentioned above], renewable electricity generation grows by 69% from 2012 to 2040, including an increase of more than 140% in generation from nonhydropower renewable energy sources. Renewables are collectively the fastest-growing source of electricity generation in the projection, with annual growth rates that exceed the growth rate for natural gas-fired generation. However, because renewables start from a relatively low 12% market share of total generation, their contribution to U.S. total electricity generation is just 16% in 2040…well below the natural gas and coal shares of 35% and 32%, respectively.
EIA explains:
Near-term growth in renewable generation is constrained by a combination of factors...: growth in electricity demand continues at a relatively low annual rate (less than 1% per year in the Reference case) compared with historical levels, and generating capacity required to meet demand and reserve requirements in many regions already exceeds near term requirements at the start of the projection period. As a result, demand for new generating capacity of any type in the first decade of the projection is minimal in most regions. From 2012 to 2025, total generating capacity—including renewables, fossil fuels, and nuclear—increases by only 4%. However, as renewable technologies become more economically competitive, they capture a larger share of the growing market…
Is setting a price on carbon emissions the answer to growing renewable energy rapidly enough to save the planet?

Maybe not.

EIA says:
[P]lacing an explicit or implicit value on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions would make the cost of operating fossil-fueled capacity higher, improving the relative economics of renewables…
[E]ven with low rates of electricity demand growth, the presence of a significant and growing fee on CO2 emissions creates enough pressure early in the projection period to spur significant growth of renewable generation in the near term.
EIA’s analysis says that that imposing a fee on CO2 emissions that starts at $25 per metric ton and rises 5% annually would push non-hydro renewables (largely wind and solar) up to 27 percent of the U.S. power mix in 2040.

Even “significant growth” of renewable energy driven by a carbon price is not likely to be sufficient growth to meet the urgency of climate disruption. When it comes to saving the planet as we know it, the current incentives for renewable energy matter. The current advances in technology and steep price declines in technologies like solar matter. But even combined, they may not be enough.

The need for wise public policies like tax credits, renewable energy standards, and carbon pricing could not be clearer. The need for public investment in renewable technology improvement – funded by an elimination of fossil fuel subsidies – could not be clearer.  The need for both could not be more urgent.

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