Students Telling Congress: Bring Solar and Wind Home

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Part III of a three-part series on U.S. energy policy and student activism

Take a close look at the true costs that coal and nuclear power foist on society, and it becomes clear that neither is economically viable.

As we discussed in our first two articles, the external costs of coal power – in both environmental and social damage – and the rising capital costs of new nuclear plants suggest that the market is ripe for change.

There are increasingly affordable alternatives, and the 10,000 university and college students converging on Capitol Hill for Power Shift starting tomorrow will be talking about them as they knock on the doors of Congress.

In our final article looking at the energy policy issues students will be discussing, based on our U.S. Electricity Policy 2009 report, Quentin Gee and I investigate some interesting trends for renewable energy and the technology needed to make clean energy a national climate solution.

Solar and Wind: Cheaper and Cheaper

The prices for solar and wind power are dropping, making them increasingly competitive with coal. Both also have far fewer external environmental and social costs.

Investors are taking notice. In 2007, nuclear technology received zero dollars in private investment; the wind sector received $34 billion, about 47 percent of worldwide investment in renewable energy. In the United States, 42 percent of all newly installed capacity in 2008 was wind-generation.

Why so much investment? The wind industry has reported cost-competitiveness with other technologies, and as economies of scale improve and production ramps up, costs are likely to drop.

Solar’s costs are also falling and show little sign of slowing down. Just this week, First Solar announced it had broken the $1 per watt manufacturing cost barrier, and analysts suggest that several other companies are close.

The Department of Energy has a research and development goal of making solar cost-competitive with other technologies by 2015. Industry is optimistic about the possibility, predicting “grid parity” in some states by 2012 and in almost all states by 2016. This could be achieved even sooner. A new 10 MW plant in Nevada, for example, came in at a cost of 7.5 cents per kWh, 16% lower than the national average.

As with wind, solar is likely to get even cheaper as ingenuity and investment increase. In fact, silicon solar PV prices are likely to fall by 40% this year alone.

Renewable energy is clearly becoming available to aid in the phase-out of coal. In addition, other renewable energy sources, such as geothermal, biomass and co-generation, are expanding.

Challenges: The Grid

A common complaint against renewable technologies is that the aging power grid can’t handle them, and that the necessary infrastructure will take both time and money to build.

That argument ignores a number of important considerations.

First, blackouts and brownouts in recent years have shown that the grid needs work that will be expensive anyway. In the book Understanding Electric Power Systems, Jack Cassaza and Frank Delea point out that some key power transmission facilities are upwards of 75 years old and "needed maintenance has not been performed in recent years in order to cut costs."

Poor maintenance ups the risk of outages, both long and short term. The Electric Power Research Institute estimated in 2001 that across all business sectors, the U.S. economy was losing $104 billion to $164 billion a year to outages.

At those costs, we would do well to take a closer look at different storage systems, newer technology and their potential benefit to the U.S. economy. For example, the current power grid wasn’t intended to carry power long distances, such as from desert solar plants or Great Plains wind farms to large cities. It also isn’t flexible enough to handle the wide variability hour to hour of their power contributions. A modern power power grid should be capable of both, and at the same time encourage energy efficiency. Distributed storage will likely be a better economic solution than a standard “on demand” supply.

Other forms are already accessible, even with the current state of the power grid. For example, rooftop solar, which does not require much infrastructure change, is capable of meeting 15-50% of current electricity consumption in industrialized countries.

With only $11 billion slated for new grid development in the recent stimulus package, it’s a surprise that the business lobby isn’t pushing for more creative thinking and development.

Where Now?

Students are ready to engage their government on energy. As we have documented, coal and nuclear are not economically viable, let alone environmentally friendly. The power grid is already in desperate need of upgrades. Rather than simply patching the problems, a major effort to construct a revolutionary grid infrastructure, combined with more cost-effective wind and solar technologies, would set us up for a better future and enhance our ailing economy in the process.

The biggest problem now is the will of the government.

This country’s future leaders are headed to Washington right now to call for action. These students know that if Congress continues to ignore climate change, inaction will mean a far more dangerous and expensive future for them. They have the facts. They know what needs to be done. So, lawmakers, listen up.


See also:

Part I: Coal’s Hidden Costs Make it Anything but Cheap

Part II: Nuclear Energy: Skyrocketing Costs, Fruitless Subsidies