Renewables “On Fire”

The theme that renewable energy is cheaper than some kinds of fossil fuels keeps recurring. The Guardian reported last week that solar and wind are often cheaper than coal, noting that the cost of solar and wind have dropped 85% and 56% respectively over the last decade. Last fall, the IEA said Solar is now the cheapest electricity in history. In January 2021, the US EIA forecast that 84% of new capacity would be zero carbon. In fact, according to IRENA (the International Renewable Energy Association) global installs of renewables last year hit a record. And finally, in the 3rd episode of the Big Switch, University of Texas post doc researcher Dr. Joshua Rhodes talked about how Texas (home of big oil!) now deploys the largest wind generation fleet in the United States.

The energy industry is building zero carbon capacity, and this will be a key factor in the effort to decarbonize global supply chains. Should we expect to see the entire grid become zero carbon? That’s probably unrealistic, for now.

For starters, there will always be a need for a reliable energy source that can be turned off and on at will. Large scale energy storage solutions, such as massive battery systems, will get us part of the way there. However, unless new technology, or new nuclear installs, bring us the instantaneous generation that fossil fuels offer it’s unlikely fossil fuels will go away completely. We will need fossil fuel or nuclear generation, and then appropriate abatement strategies.

In addition to the reliable energy source need, the grid itself is constructed around a paradigm of centralized generation, and then transmission to substations, and then homes. It’s a forward feed system that presumes we will truck fuel to generation sites, generate power, and then distribute the power forward for consumption. The impact of this is that generation tends to be placed close to consumption sites, in order to minimize transmission losses. But you can’t truck the wind, or the sun, to a convenient place to generate power. The other challenge is reverse flow. Feeding energy bi-directionally into the grid from what are today’s consumption sites creates a whole new set of problems. It’s likely the grid itself will need to be updated.