Renewables Beat Coal; Let’s Talk Transition to Emissions Free Energy

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For the first time in April the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) data shows that, less power was generated using coal than was generated by wind, solar, and hydro. On May 1, wind power in Texas supplied about 3 times more power than coal did where wind power is generally at about 2 cents per watt these days.

Aged and inefficient coal plants have become uneconomic to repair. Now, with the cost of large wind power plants dropping by 40 percent and solar arrays dropping by 80 percent, what was once more than half of US Power has dropped to unprecedented lows. The low cost of natural gas is largely the reason.

That said, the slowdown of the economy has reduced electricity demand significantly and this is supporting an interesting dynamic. Renewables are more flexible for peak demand, even baseload in some territories. Coal plants are not technically capable of switching on and off with such fluidity, they break under those conditions. This is costly and with renewables and natural gas plants being cheaper to run right now, coal plants are not the go-to solution in this low demand scenario.

The EIA is projecting that coal will provide nothing more than about 17 percent of power, lower than nuclear plus renewables. Natural gas will remain at 38 percent although that is something that will hopefully fade over time. The transition from coal to gas has resulted in a sizable drop in emissions over recent years but the data shows an uptick in emissions staring in 2018. Natural gas is expected remain the majority of US power, resulting in approximately 5 billion tonnes of CO2 per year by 2050.

Spending on new gas power plants is surging as a result of poor planning and low technical expertise by regulators, states and politicians. Yet given that seven states including New York, California and the District of Columbia have 100 percent renewable energy targets by 2050, these gas plants would ideally end up like old coal plants in the next 10 years — stranded assets. The shale boom can’t last forever.

We need Wall Street to disincentivize this surge in superfluous and ill-advised billion dollar gas plant construction especially when building a wind farm or solar array is far cheaper. We need regulators to set intelligent limits and we need to support the growth and development of wind and solar toward eventual baseload production if we have hope of meeting Paris targets. At least during the pause, we have a view of what the future could look like if we really want it.

Heather Langsner, VP Impact Analysis

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Idaho Power plans to transition to 100% clean energy by 2045. Minnesota-based Xcel Energy, aims to be carbon-free by 2050. Duke energy, however, claims “a critical market need” for gas pipelines to be built (they own pipelines and sell gas to their own utilities).

Grass roots activism can be effective sometimes. If you live in a state where state legislators are benefiting from large utility deep pockets to look the other way amidst profligate overinvestment in natural gas capacity, let them know you prefer your power to come from renewables — follow these instructions here.

Check out Creating Climate Wealth: Unlocking the Impact Economy by Jigar Shah.

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