The trouble with over-hyping clean energy
© Getty Images

This is the second installment in a two-part series. Read the first installment here.

While renewables go unmentioned in President Trump's "America First Energy Plan," environmentalists have found solace in the notion that wind and solar can withstand political headwinds. Headlines proclaim renewable energy to be "unstoppable," "inevitable" and "cheaper than fossil fuels." President Obama wrote of the "irreversible momentum of clean energy."

In the long run, those headlines are true. Wind and solar are already the cheapest forms of new electricity generation, even before accounting for tax credits and environmental benefits. Thus, Trump's fossil-first plan cannot reverse market moves toward cleaner cheaper energy.

But, as John Maynard Keynes quipped, "In the long run we are all dead." What matters now is accelerating the rate at which wind and solar displace fossil electricity.

The pace of the clean energy transition impacts health and climate now and later. Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists estimate that air pollution from power plants kills 52,000 Americans each year. Meanwhile, climate-warming gases emitted by power plants today can last in the atmosphere for centuries.

Faster progress means saving lives now while slowing the accumulation of carbon dioxide.

In a companion piece, I wrote of the trouble with government forecasts that under-predict the growth of renewables. Yet excess optimism brings its own dangers. Seeing clean energy as "inevitable" masks the urgency of policies and actions to accelerate its adoption.

ADVERTISEMENT

Wind and solar are indeed affordable. Even before subsidies, wind costs as little as 3.2 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), and solar as little as 4.6 cents per kWh. With current tax credits, long-term power purchasing agreements lock in even lower rates, protected from inflation or a potential carbon tax.

 

Yet even with plunging prices, progress is slowed by the glacial pace of replacing old power plants. In a typical year, only 1 to 2 percent of the country's electricity capacity retires, while slightly more new capacity is added.

Wind and solar have led new capacity additions for the past decade, and will likely expand their lead as their costs continue to fall. But clean energy is slower to displace old fossil power plants whose capital costs have already been paid. Inefficient coal plants, most of them over 35 years old, still comprise a substantial portion of electricity supply.

Policy and action are needed to accelerate the clean energy transition. Tax credits for wind and solar dramatically increase the rates at which they're adopted. While those credits are scheduled to phase down, other options can catalyze clean energy markets.

The conservative Climate Leadership Council (CLC) has proposed a revenue-neutral carbon tax and dividend. The nonpartisan Citizens Climate Lobby advocates a similar plan. As I discussed in a recent column, the CLC proposal would be especially effective at accelerating retirements of old coal plants and catalyzing adoption of wind and solar.

If renewables tax credits and carbon taxes are politically unpalatable, other options are available.

Here in Texas, carefully designed competitive renewable energy zones have linked wind- and solar-rich regions with urban areas. That has spurred Texas to lead the nation in wind power. As I argued here, similar investments, including high-voltage transmission in Trump's infrastructure plan, would boost jobs while enabling a cleaner and more reliable grid.

Texas also illustrates the link between clean air and clean energy. Litigation by the state has impeded plans to comply with the EPA's regional haze rule. Enforcing that and other air pollution rules would ensure that the dirtiest coal plants close or install modern control devices, with solar and wind likely to replace most retired capacity. Enforcement now depends upon Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt, who sued to block clean air rules while serving as attorney general of Oklahoma.

Other states have achieved progress by stronger renewable portfolio standards, which set rising targets for renewable power generation. While some states are considering strengthening their standards, others are considering policies that would slow the growth of renewables. Lawmakers in Wyoming and Oklahoma have even tried, unsuccessfully so far, to tax wind energy. With federal action stalled, states will be the key battlegrounds for efforts to propel or impede renewables.

Beyond government policy, actions by individual, municipal, and corporate power purchasers matter, too. RE100 now lists 87 major companies committed to 100 percent renewables. The city of Houston recently added 20 megawatts to its solar deal while lowering the price. Homes and businesses can install solar panels, while companies like LocalSun enable renters to buy solar power as well.

A key feature of these clean power purchases is their "additionality" in adding new wind and solar supply. Doing so yields economies of scale that cut costs, creating a virtuous cycle of self-reinforcing progress.

As more wind and solar are added, further steps will be needed to reliably integrate them into the grid. That includes battery storage, demand response, and other means of balancing supply and demand. Research and investments are needed to enhance storage technologies and modernize the electric grid to accommodate larger amounts of variable supply.

Propelled by low prices, clean energy is indeed irreversible. But lack of a reverse gear doesn’t mean clean energy is an autonomous vehicle that can drive itself forward. Sensible government policies and actions by businesses and consumers can move us closer to a clean energy future and the climate and health benefits that come with it.

Dan Cohan is associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University.


The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.