We need an alternative energy grid

The specter of climate change relentlessly haunts the news. Just in the last month, the Council of Economic Advisors released a report estimating that each decade we wait to reduce emissions increases the cost of meeting carbon standards by 41 percent, the Senate Budget Committee held a hearing on the cost of inaction on climate change, and even bastions of the financial community like former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin are issuing similar warnings. To avoid the most severe impacts of climate change, we must drastically cut fossil fuel consumption and replace that energy with renewable alternatives. Given this, we need to focus our attention and efforts on determining the best strategies to move forward for the next five years and the next fifty.

The good news is that the U.S. has an abundance of renewable energy resources. The sun shines hot and long in the South and West, wind howls in the mid-Atlantic and Midwest, and the water runs freely in the Northwest. The bad news is that the U.S. power grid is not designed to integrate many of these resources, even though today’s renewable technology could provide enough power to match national electricity demand.

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Building a grid based primarily on renewable resources will not be an easy undertaking. The first steps to get there, however, are very doable with existing technologies. Most scientific assessments indicate that by 2050 we can provide 80 percent or more of our energy with renewable resources, but to do so we have to play a smart short, middle, and long game.

The short game requires rapidly increasing the use of technology we already have available. Non-hydro renewables such as solar and wind technologies provided a paltry 6 percent of US generation last year, but individual states have demonstrated that much higher levels are achievable. In 2013, non-hydro renewables provided 20 percent of California’s electricity and 26 percent of generation in Iowa. The mid-Atlantic grid operator PJM released a study showing that it could use renewables to meet 30 percent of generation without major infrastructure upgrades, yet the region currently only gets 2 percent of electricity from wind and solar. Across the country, there is enormous headroom to scale up with current technology.

Cost should not be a limiting factor either: electricity from wind now costs the same on average as natural gas without subsidies, and solar prices fell by half in the last three years. Four of the five states with the highest rates of wind generation have below-average electricity prices, indicating that wind is affordable.

Even if renewable energy does cost more in some states, a June Bloomberg poll shows that 62 percent of Americans would be willing to pay more for energy if it meant a reduction in carbon emissions.

As we scale renewable technologies, we also need to halt the development of new fossil fuel infrastructure. It is a wasteful use of capital for technology that will ultimately be downsized, and should instead be used for the upgrades necessary to integrate renewable energy into the grid. The fossil fuel divestment movement is focused on achieving just that goal, encouraging institutions, individuals, and (eventually) policymakers, to shift assets out of oil, gas, and coal and into sustainable and clean energy solutions.

Scaling renewable technology can also create lasting, skilled, green jobs. A July study released by Stanford estimates that a net gain of 220,000 manufacturing, installation and technology construction and operation jobs could result in California alone from a complete conversion to wind, solar, and hydro technologies.

The midrange game is about testing and deploying technology that has not been brought to mass market. California is shouldering part of this burden with its recent 1.3 gigawatt energy storage target – similar in capacity to a very large power plant.

Storage can play a key role in running the grid more efficiently and helping mitigate renewable intermittency, i.e., supplying electricity when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. By the time the rest of the country needs storage to help integrate very high rates of renewables, California will have set the stage for these technologies to be deployed on a large scale.

The long game is to continue to support and fund research on advanced energy technology which will hit the market in a couple of decades when we most need it to integrate high levels of renewables. The long game also depends on us having executed phases one and two correctly. If we deploy everything we’ve got, halt new fossil fuel infrastructure, test and scale existing technology, plan for an advanced energy grid, and support and fund advanced energy research, we will be equipped to integrate technology tomorrow that is still in the research and development phase today.

As we progress through these phases, new challenges will undoubtedly arise, but these difficulties also mean new opportunities. We already know what a future that depends on oil, gas, and coal looks like: rising seas, severe storms, drought and floods, sweltering summers and Arctic winters.

Other nations like China and Germany have seen the writing on the wall and are deploying renewable technology as fast as they can. America has long prided itself on being at the forefront of innovation; let us stop debating if we should transition to renewables and instead focus on the more productive debate about how.

Krieger, PhD, is the director of the Renewable Energy Program at Physicians, Scientists & Engineers for Healthy Energy, and Peek is the campaign associate with Divest-Invest, a project of the Institute for Policy Studies.

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