The latest news of the accelerating global renewable energy transformation driven by sun, wind, and energy storage comes from hitherto unlikely places. This is the message from major utilities and regulators, the G-7, Bloomberg News, and the uber-cautious International Energy Agency (IEA). This is not the word from Extinction Rebellion, of 1,500 activists arrested in the Hague on May 27, 2023.
Major utility Integrated Resource Plans (IRPs) for the next thirty years, required by utility regulators, are filled with coal plant retirements and their replacement year after year of increased solar, wind, and storage resources. Utilities generally have long been the trailing indicators of renewable energy development. Economic, technical and climate change realities are finally pushing utilities to take steps in the right direction in their IRPs to be updated every three years.
Dominion Energy in South Carolina, for example, in its 2023-2025 IRP of 142 pages, begins with the line “Actions Speaks Louder.” The IRP plans the retirement of their remaining coal plants, Williams and Wateree. What is striking is the proposed “Figure 3 Resource Additions under the Preferred Plan – Reference Build Plan” that summarizes utility plans from 2026 to 2050. There are yearly additions of solar of 150 to 300 megawatts from 2026 through 2049. There are plans for 1200 megawatts of storage capacity over the years.
The utility is still hedging its bets with the possibility of installing a combined cycle Natural Gas plant in 2032 and Frame combustion natural gas turbines for peak load needs in 2040 and 2049.
The reality of continuing decreases in solar costs and increases in efficiency should make it clear that any future planned natural gas plants will likely be unneeded and not at all economically or compatible with climate goals. Investor-owned utilities left to their own devices will not save us, but they can and will be guided by market realities and climate mandates.
Their plans have fundamentally diverged from continued reliance on a new generation of billion-dollar base-load plants. Economically, base-load fossil fuel and nuclear plants are stranded assets waiting to happen. Costly base load plants with high fuel and operational and maintenance expenses are meant to operate as close to 24-7-365 as possible to be economical.
Such economic calculations make no sense in a world that, day by day, is increasingly characterized by millions of points of zero-fuel cost solar and wind generation and storage that will soon include the batteries of millions of grid-connected electric vehicles. Few investors will risk billions on nuclear and fossil fuel plants that are increasingly noncompetitive with zero-fuel cost renewables and storage. Yes, the traditional hard-wired telephone has its virtues but cannot begin to compete with the global smartphone revolution any more than traditional base load plants will be able to market expensive power in a low-cost renewable energy world.
The New York State Climate Action Plan lays out the path for 70% renewable energy by 2030 with a 40% greenhouse gas reduction, followed by 100% zero emissions energy by 2040 with a 70% total greenhouse reduction, and finally, net zero emissions by 2050 with 85% greenhouse reductions with detailed regulations in 2024. New York is also developing comprehensive plans for the reduction and fossil fuel natural gas to be replaced by lesser quantities of hydrogen and green natural gas. Crucial will also be the adoption of Negative Emission (NE) technology; for example, farm and food wastes transformed into negative emissions energy resources to go beyond net zero to eventually return carbon dioxide to preindustrial levels.
The potential and necessity for agriculture, forestry, and aquaculture to sequester carbon in soil and in oceans and as NE energy resources are enormous, not just in terms of energy resources but the mitigation of other paths for greenhouse gas emissions. Broadly this is a path toward the creation of value and monetizing sustainability.
On May 25, 2023, California Governor Newsom updated the Roadmap for California’s Clean Energy Future with 100% Clean Energy by 2045. This will rely on building 148,000 megawatts of clean power by 2045. 35,000 MW have already been built. His executive order streamlines permitting to accelerate the development of solar wind and battery storage.
The latest May 2023 message from the G-7 is also clear, “we call on all Parties to commit at UNFCCC-COP28 to peak global GHG emissions immediately ... step up efforts to collectively reduce global anthropogenic methane emissions by at least 30 percent below 2020 levels by 2030... These should reflect significantly enhanced ambition aligned with a 1.5°C pathway and should also include their revisited and strengthened 2030 targets.”
The International Energy Agency (IEA) just updated its latest estimates of the renewable transition after just a few months. Clean-tech manufacturing is now expanding so fast that solar and battery manufacturing will meet 2030 milestones for net zero emissions by 2050. The conservative IEA now notes that solar capacity “would comfortably exceed the deployment needs” of the IEA’s 2030 model. Battery-making is rapidly expanding, already growing from 6% to 97% of net zero, and electrolyzers from 4% to nearly 60%.
What’s important to understand is that the costs and efficiency of solar panels continue a many decades-long decline in price and increases in efficiency. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) reports in 2022, solar prices for commercial and industrial solar, from 500 kW to 5 megawatts, decreased by 3% to $1.77/Watt DC. The United States installed approximately 11.1 gigawatt hours of energy storage onto the electric grid in Q1–Q3 2022, increased by 88%, year over year, reflecting high levels of new residential and utility-scale PV.
My experience as a solar developer in 2023 is typical for my latest 200-kilowatt project, building dual-use agricultural solar above a farmer’s sheep pasture. The original 2022 design was for 497 dual-facing 400-watt panels that can capture direct as well as reflected sunlight. In 2021 dual-facing panels were a novelty. By May 2023, I could use the latest 445-watt dual-facing panel, which is more efficient and has the same dimensions as the 400-watt model, which produces 200 kW with only 435 panels and also increases solar output by 10% according to gold standard PVSYS analysis of solar production.
Similarly, battery technology and production are exploding. Sodium-ion batteries have been developed by CATL in China, the world’s largest battery company. Sodium ion is much cheaper than lithium, safer, and longer lasting. It’s less energy-dense than lithium and, therefore, heavier, which matters if you want elite performance, but works fine in your EV. Sodium-ion batteries are being installed in 2023 EVs. More energy-dense version 2 will hit the market shortly.
Iron-air flow batteries using just iron, air, and water from Form Energy from Somerville, MA, developed by MIT scientists, are for stationary storage. Weight is of little concern for storage at solar and wind farms. The Form innovation is reversible rusting. Discharging the battery takes oxygen from the air and converts iron metal to rust. Charging with an electric current turns rust back to iron and releases oxygen.
Each individual battery module is about the size of a washer/dryer and contains 50 one-meter-tall cells. The cells include iron and air electrodes that allow the electrochemical reactions to store and discharge electricity. The cells are filled with water-based, non-flammable electrolytes, similar to ordinary AA batteries. The iron-air battery system is highly durable, able to be fully discharged, and capable of many more charge-discharge cycles than lithium and is one-tenth the cost of lithium systems. One acre of storage could serve a 3-megawatt 12-acre solar array. The battery is also optimized for 100-hour storage. Form is building a $750 million dollar production plant in West Virginia to begin large-scale commercialization in 2024.
The development of distributed solar with storage is leading to the development of Virtual Power Plants (VPPs), where large numbers of rooftop solar systems with battery storage are electronically linked to be dispatched by utilities to help meet peak demand. CPower is the 2023 national VPP leader, with 6.3 gigawatts available from 17,000 sites. The VPPs are the basis for another income stream for residential rooftop solar with storage and for commercial system owners who receive a portion of VPP revenue.
The millions of EVs with batteries, when designed with two-way charging and discharge, will provide an enormous potential amount to energy storage. A small percentage of EVs plugged in at any time can be a game-changing storage resource to flatten peak load spikes. California is debating a law that will require automakers to make sure EVs are able to feed battery power into the grid.
The IRP of Pacific Gas and Electric in California is illustrative. Their plans are to close the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant to be replaced by renewables and storage. IRP Page 30 Table 4 outlines the gross capacity of resources by technology from 2024 to 2035.
What's clearly disappointing is plans to respond to increased electrification by using natural gas to respond to increased load and ignore the rapid progress of energy storage and solar. This is a familiar pattern of investor-owned utilities to pencil in natural gas combustion turbines as the solution to increasing electrification and suggest that they will continue to use natural gas for 40% of energy needs.
Using 2026 as an example:
Solar 5,200 MW
Large Hydro 2,403 MW
Wind 845 MW
Out-of-state wind 450 MW
Battery Storage 4,268 MW
Pump storage 1,212 MW
Small Hydro 435 MW
Biomass 269 MW
Natural Gas 10,370 MW*
25,396 MW Total
*NG plans to Increase from 4,204 MW in 2024, where PGE plans to meet the anticipated increased load by decentralized independent natural gas producers.
This NG plan, of course, is a non-starter in light of Governor Newsom's May 2023 executive order on climate change and facilitating rapid development of 100% renewables and zero emissions. The practical question is the economics of achieving the last 5 or 10% of the renewable energy transformation if focused on large utility-scale solar and wind systems. But the reality of a plethora of small wind and storage devices makes 100% renewables practical and cost-effective.
The rapid large-scale global development of solar, wind, and energy storage production facilities combined with the ongoing decline in capital costs and increases in energy efficiency has established a realistic and practical basis for a 100% renewable energy transformation.
Swanson’s Law finds that the price of PV modules decreases by 20% for every doubling in global solar capacity as both manufacturers and solar technology become more efficient. The law is named after Richard Swanson, founder of SunPower, a leading high-efficiency PV producer.
It is clearly within our power to work to mitigate the worse consequences of climate change and to do so through massive productive investment.
The economic, technical, and climate change realities mean that an era of rapid transformation to 100% renewables is possible. It is up to all of us to seize this opportunity.
I just spoke to the farmer, Gerald Randall of Mattapoisett, MA, for whom I am working on building dual-use solar above his sheep pasture, updating him on progress. His farm has been in the family since they moved here from Maine in 1853. Gerald told me he just spent a 90-degree day haying and will continue this weekend to finish before the rain forecast for Monday. Make hay while the sun shines.
That’s a farmer’s prudent wisdom for all of us to heed.
Dominion Energy 2023-2025 Integrated Resource Plan, Dominion Energy South Carolina, Inc., 2023. 2023 Integrated Resource Plan.
NY State Climate Action Plan, NY State Climate Action Council, 2022. Scoping Plan. December 2022.
California Road Map for Clean Energy Future, Gov. Gavin Newsom, 2023. Building The Electricity Grid Of The Future: California’s Clean Energy Transition Plan. May 2023.
G7 Hiroshima Communiqué. The White House, 2023. G7 Hiroshima Leaders’ Communiqué. May 20, 2023.
IEA Net Zero in Closer Reach, Nathaniel Bullard, 2023. “Multiplying Solar and Battery Factories Put Net Zero in Closer Reach.”. Bloomberg. May 25, 2023.
NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) Winter 2023 Solar Update. David Feldman, Krysta Dummit, Jarett Zuboy, Robert Margolis, 2023. Winter 2023 Solar Industry Update. January 26, 2023.
PG&E Integrated Resource Plan. Pacific Gas and Electric Company,2022. Integrated Resource Plan. November 1, 2022.
Swanson’s Law, SunPower, 2022. “As Solar Efficiencies Improve, The Cost Continues To Decline.”