It is completely clear to me as a solar developer that escaping from climate disaster is rapid deployment of readily available solar technology. The latest IPCC report Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, Vulnerability finds that global carbon emissions continue to increase, as well as atmospheric methane, a potent and fast acting greenhouse gas. The IPPC concludes: green house gases must peak by 2025 and be reduced by 43% by 2030. “It’s now or never, if we want to limit global warming to 1.5C (2.7°F). Without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, it will be impossible.”
Time is not on our side. Immediate action is required and solar is one of the tools that can be immediately put to large scale use. The IPCC warning is happening in the midst of expanding global solar and wind installations and record solar and wind investments. But the rate of renewable transformation must rapidly accelerate, at a minimum doubling and continuing to double the rate of solar and wind installations, storage and grid improvements for 100% renewables.
Solar must be supported by the accelerating use of green hydrogen, energy storage, grid improvements, and massive efficiency retrofits. Yes, we are on the path toward a global renewable transformation. The question is not if, but when. Unfortunately, the trend line for increasing global greenhouse gas emissions and for inescapable climate catastrophe is rising more steeply than the rate of renewables and efficiency improvement that displace the deadly cocktail of anthropogenic greenhouse gases of carbon dioxide, methane, NOX and CFCs released by global industrial civilization.
You can watch the increase of atmospheric greenhouse gases at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii. Carbon dioxide is soon to be above 420 parts per million (ppm). Carbon dioxide has been soaring in the last 50 years from 320 ppm in 1970. The data tells the tale and correlates with hot, hotter and hottest yearly climate records and the consequences of drought, flood, wildfires, and wild temperature swings, superstorms, ecological habitat destruction and species displacement and species distinction.
Locally, the price of Maine lobster soars in the warming Gulf of Maine. The Northwest Atlantic, especially the Gulf of Maine, has been warming 99 percent faster than the rest of the world’s oceans. The threat is that lobsters will head north to colder waters leaving behind empty lobster traps. In 2020 Gulf of Maine water temperatures were 2 degrees Celsius higher than in 1981.
Climate deniers are not the only problem
If carbon emissions must peak by 2025 and decline 43% by 2030 to avoid climate disaster, why haven’t we sprung into action? We have proven solar technology and a dynamic solar industry. But there is little sense of urgency and it is insufficient to spur the kind of emergency commitment required. In the US, it’s easy to blame climate deniers in league with oil and fossil fuel giants like Exxon and Peabody Coal and the Republican Party with powerful Democratic allies like Senator Joe Mansion, a coal broker millionaire, for all our troubles.
My experience working on solar in Massachusetts, a notoriously liberal and Democratic controlled state tells a different story. Massachusetts had been a leader in solar development. It established the SMART program to install 1,600 megawatts of solar and then an additional 1,600 megawatts. The program is based on a feed-in-tariff where power can be sold to the distribution utility at a subsidized price. All good.
But 3,200 megawatts of solar is a small fraction of the power needs of Massachusetts. In 2020, solar energy accounted for 19% of Massachusetts' total in-state electricity net generation. Unfortunately Massachusetts generates only about 25% of its electricity needs. The rest come from out of state, most of which is not from renewables. Massachusett’s solar amounts to about 7% of total electric consumption.
Total US energy consumption in 2020 was equal to 3,664 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) — or 3.7 trillion kWh. Instate Massachusetts electricity consumption, according to the US EIA, is a little over 50 billion kilowatt hours of electricity.
The latest Massachusetts 2022 legislative effort SB 2819 calls for development of 5,600 megawatts of offshore wind contracts to be completed by 2027. So far the speed of building offshore wind has been dismal, with projects waiting a decade for approval. Wind is expanding rapidly in the US on paper. But this does nothing to address the 2025 and 2030 deadlines for greenhouse gas reduction just in time to mitigate climate disaster.
The reality of the slow pace of wind development is to be found in the US 2021 Offshore Wind Marketing Report. Of the 35,324 MW in the US offshore wind energy project pipeline, there are only two rather small operating projects: the Block Island Massachusetts Wind Farm (30 MW) and the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind (CVOW) pilot project (12 MW). One large project Vineyard Wind 1 in Massachusetts (800 MW) is fully approved, and has received all permits. Given our track record, 5,600 megawatts of offshore wind in Massachusetts would be expected to generate power in the early 2030s at best. These 5,600 megawatts could supply about 25 billion kilowatt hours, about half of current consumption if we wait at least another decade. What’s the rush?
But for solar, little is planned in SB 2018 other than yet another study by the state to determine the value of solar and submit another plan for further review by the end of 2022. In addition, woody biomass is not to be considered a renewable resource.
In its last iteration of solar planning and ‘environmentalism’ in 2021, the state of Massachusetts forbade solar on much of the state’s open land. Solar should not be built on farmland or critical habitat unless it is dual-use agricultural solar, which is great, but almost no dual-use solar has been permitted by the state, which has a rule regarding shading one-square inch on a farm seasonally more than 50%.
A real Massachusetts solar development plan for the 2020s
This is how we can use solar to supply 50% of current Massachusetts electric energy consumption as well as displacing most fossil fuels from gasoline and home heating, and by 2030 confidently slash greenhouse gas emissions in half to meet climate deadlines.
The basics: A megawatt of solar can be built on a 100,000 square foot roof, or on 3 to 4 acres of land. A one megawatt solar array produces about 1.2 million kilowatt hours a year or 1,200 megawatt hours a year. To meet Massachusetts current total electricity energy needs by solar alone will require 42,000 megawatts of solar.
Assuming solar would do half the job, or 21,000 MW megawatts, with other renewables and efficiency providing the rest, and dividing solar evenly between ground mounts (50%) and a mixture of parking lots, systems alongside roads and railroads (50%). This would mean 10,500 MW for roofs, parting lots, roads about 38 square miles of panels. For ground mounts, 10,500 MW, or about 66 square miles of solar. Total solar is then 104 square miles.
The total Massachusetts area is 10,560 square miles of solar. Solar would be installed on less than one percent of Massachusetts land and generally with little effect on existing uses of solar on roofs and parking lots, on dual-use solar on farms and recreation areas.
There are 14 counties, 39 cities and 312 Towns in Massachusetts. Assuming each town and city would be assigned an equal responsibility, then each of the 351 towns and cities would plan for three-tenths of a square mile of solar panels or a total of 192 acres of solar on roofs, over parking lots, waste dumps, railroad tracks, roads and decontaminated sites not suitable for people. Also in fields, over cranberry bogs, on cleared scrub land. This will be financed by a job-creating productive investment of about $31.5 billion dollars for 21,000 MW of solar at an average cost of $1.50 per watt. Requisite extra billions for grid improvement and upgrades that can become part of the utility rate base to be paid for by energy users through rates. Alternatively such systems can be financed and owned by large micro-grids and cooperatives of energy users, for example all Boston residents using low interest state or city revenue bonds.
Of course, equal solar entitlement by town and city might not be optimal. The point is that responding to the climate emergency must be a shared responsibility. The benefits of success are enormous. The consequences of failure are incalculably grave.
The renewable transformation will also require systematic and statewide upgrades of the electricity distribution and transmission network for solar and other renewables, for energy storage both decentralized and at key sites, for example, at decommissioned fossil fuel and nuclear plant sites which already have heavy duty grid transmission access. These storage hubs are crucial to help provide grid automatic generation control (AGC) services to help stabilize grid frequency and voltage as grid demand fluctuates. Distributed renewables with storage and electric vehicles able to both charge from the renewable grid and feed power back in peak hours to the grid and for home needs. The renewable grid would also include green hydrogen generated by renewable powered electrolyzers able to both respond to daily peaks and to provide an energy store for seasonal variations.
The renewable grid will increasingly be composed of micro-grids that can be city-size, containing substantial amounts of their own renewable generation and storage. Micro-grids are able to separate from the grid, if necessary, and keep running at reduced load during grid failures.
Building a distributed renewable grid also presents opportunities for all energy users to become owners of the new renewable energy systems through actions by cooperatives, towns and cities, and associations. Cities can provide low interest renewable bonds to help finance citizen ownership.
The adoption of new financial tools to value ecological sustainability and to monetize sustainable conduct, for example, the ecological value of carbon dioxide displacement by solar. The use of Sustainability Credits (SCs) based on the displacement of one metric ton of carbon dioxide by renewables, is valued at $100 dollars per metric ton by the US National Academies of Scientists. SCs can be monetized on the books of banks as paid in capital and as cash. The cash is to be loaned by banks for further renewable development. The ordinary magic of banks means $10 dollars in SCs can be loaned for each dollar of the bank’s capital.
Essentially, in Massachusetts and most of the world, renewable energy policies do not seriously challenge business-as-usual for nations, states and their electricity utilities who still make their money by selling fossil fuels and nuclear power. Keeping renewable penetration below 15% is easily compatible with the pollution status quo. Solar, wind and efficiency represents a direct hit to utility sales, and a threat to the continuation of business and pollution as usual.
A serious step would be to change the utility revenue model, allowing utilities to make more money and a higher rate of return by facilitating the development of the efficient 100% renewable grid as they did recently in Hawaii. Yes, solar will shortly become cost competitive without subsidies in almost all markets since it has zero fuel cost and decreasing capital costs and increasing efficiency. But for utilities, oil, natural gas, nuclear suppliers, politicians in Massachusetts, and elsewhere, the future of a renewable grid is always postponed for sometime many years in the future.
To escape from a climate catastrophe and mitigate its worst effects, now, not years from now, is the time for action.
The massive installation of solar in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and beyond is the path to ecological sanity, ecological economic growth and prosperity. It’s time to wake up and act to save ourselves by the pursuit of a solar future. Now.
IPCC 2022 Report. Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, Vulnerability.
Global Monitoring Laboratory. Mauna Loa Observatory.
US Department of Energy (DOE) Massachusetts Energy Consumption.
US Energy information Administration (EIA) US Energy Consumption.
National Geographic online Maine Lobster.
US Department of Energy (DOE) Offshore Wind Marketing Report.