Monday Study: A Look Ahead At New Energy In Buildings
A Chapter From: The Future of Buildings, Transportation and Power
Roger Duncan and Michael E. Webber, 2020 (DW Books)
The Changing Power Industry: Wind and Solar
The electric power industry is undergoing the most dramatic change since its inception more than a century ago. The who, what, where, when, and why of electricity generation is changing.
The who are the owners, operators, and decision-makers of the power industry. The utility and the customer are changing roles as customers start to produce their own electricity.
The what are the fuels we use to generate electricity. Decarbonization of fuels is perhaps the single biggest economic change in the industry.
Where we generate electricity is also changing. Rooftop solar and other on-site generation are driving a decentralized trend.
Energy storage is changing when we use electricity, decoupling the times between when we generate and consume electricity.
And finally, new electrical workloads and power needs are changing why we generate electricity.
It is easier to explain the consequences of these changes if we start with the what and end with the who. Here we will go through the wind and solar sectors of the changing power industry:
There’s plenty of wind circling the globe to meet our power needs. A Stanford University study showed that wind power could meet world energy demand five times over. Because of its ready availability, simplicity, and low cost, wind has been leading renewable energy growth, both in the U.S. and worldwide. U.S. wind capacity has risen from about 2.4 GW in 2000 to more than 97 GW in early 2019. World wind capacity soared from just under 17 GW to more than 597 GW by the end of 2018.
In the U.S., the cost of wind energy has plummeted in the last few decades, dropping from over 50 cents/kWh in 1980, to less than to 2 cents/kWh in 2017. Prices for wind energy worldwide have dropped correspondingly, and are now competitive with coal and gas.
Transmission remains a primary problem for onshore wind because people typically don’t live where it’s windy. In the early 2000s, hundreds of turbines were built in remote west Texas, far from the cities that wanted the power they were generating. Transmission was the obstacle, as it still is in many parts of the world. Toward the end of 2013, much of Texas’s transmission problem was addressed, as the $7 billion CREZ project was completed. CREZ, or Competitive Renewable Energy Zones, can today send 18,500 megawatts of wind power throughout the state, or three times as much wind power as any other state in the U.S.
On December 27th, 2018, the Texas grid operator, ERCOT, was getting 54 percent of its energy from wind generation. And for a brief time in 2018, the Great Plains electric grid, powering customers in 14 states, was meeting 60 percent of its requirements with wind energy.
Similar long-haul transmission issues don’t exist for offshore wind. Nearly 80 percent of the world’s population (and load centers) reside within 200 miles of an ocean coastline making offshore wind a natural fit for co-locating electricity generation with electrical load.
The leaders in offshore wind production are Great Britain, Germany, and Denmark. Great Britain gets more power from offshore wind than almost all other countries combined, with more than 1,000 turbines. In 2017, the Dutch opened what was billed as one of the world’s largest offshore wind farms in the North Sea, with 150 turbines, that could supply the energy needs of 1.5 million people. In 2016, the U.S. opened its first offshore wind farm near Block Island, New Jersey, consisting of 5 turbines with a capacity of 30MW.
In a signal of just how fast shifts to clean, safe, renewable energy can be made, Japan is building 140 massive wind towers 12 miles offshore from the ruin of the Fukushima nuclear plant. It’s said this wind complex alone could produce over 1 GW of power by 2020. And wind turbines are getting much larger. GE’s newest offshore model, the Haliade, is a 12 MW behemoth installed off the coast of Rotterdam, with a 220m rotor diameter.
Many industry experts predict that the next great wind boom in the U.S. will be offshore along the coast of New England and the central Atlantic states. There are currently 12 active offshore wind leases being developed in the U.S., with a combined potential for 15 GW of generation. The future of U.S. offshore wind will depend heavily on the progress of these projects. But based on offshore wind’s success in Europe, it is very likely that we will replicate that approach to great scale in the United States in the coming decades.
Yes, wind could meet our energy demands five times over. But the sun dwarfs even that power. In fact, Sandia Labs estimated that the solar energy striking the earth’s surface in less than two hours could easily meet the world’s energy demands for an entire year. Solar energy’s unparalleled abundance, eminent renewability, and rapidly declining cost are driving exponential growth in capacity. This trend will undoubtedly continue, and solar will almost certainly become the leader in renewable energy growth in the coming years.
Solar PV panels have no moving parts, and aside from the carbon footprint associated with their manufacture and end-of-life management, produce zero emissions during the decades-long life of their operation. The sheer simplicity of a device that just sits in the sun and yet produces the electricity we all crave and depend upon is rapidly changing our relationship with energy. The sun is the primary source of most every form of energy we access, and solar PV panels provide us the means to harness it and transform it directly into electricity.
The solar PV panel has “democratized” power generation for the world. The simple, modular, scalable, and solid-state nature of solar PV has put electric power generation within reach of individuals with one or a few dozen panels, commercial and industrial consumers with hundreds to thousands of panels, and even traditional utilities with millions of panels. It is this simple universality of the technology that is driving its exponential growth, since almost any electricity consumer can take advantage of it.
Photovoltaic deployment might look like the adoption of a new consumer product such as a smartphone, not following the usual timeframes for standard large-scale power plants.
Solar cells can be manufactured in a factory, shipped over conventional distribution systems like consumer electronics, and don’t require the planning, permitting, construction, fuel acquisition, and operation and maintenance of a large utility power plant. And solar manufacturing continues to become more automated. First Solar has a new manufacturing facility that is now almost completely automated after originally requiring hundreds of employees.
In 2008, the U.S. had 618 MW of solar capacity installed. Just 11 years later, solar capacity had expanded two orders of magnitude to 67,000 MW. Much of solar power’s rapid and accelerating growth is due to its low cost. From 2010 to 2017, utility-scale solar PV power fell from more than 20 cents per kilowatt-hour to under 3 cents. From 2010 to 2016, the average per-watt cost of a solar PV system in the U.S. dropped by 15 percent per year. Utility-scale installations fell to under $1 per watt in the first quarter of 2019.
No other fuel used for power production—renewable or not—is predicted to see as much percentage growth as solar in the near-term. Its competitors are taking notice. Shell, a company once known almost entirely for oil, believes that solar will be the number one source of electrical power on earth by the end of this century.
Austin-based Roger Duncan and Michael E. Webber are highly credentialed and international thought leaders in energy efficiency and smart transportation, and have deep experience in the worlds of policy, politics, planning, and academia. The Future of Buildings, Transportation and Power is available on Amazon.