In 2012, for the first time, more new wind generation was installed than new natural gas- or coal-fired generation as developers rushed to take advantage of expiring tax credits.
Many in the wind industry don’t expect as big of a year in 2013. But if utilities and policymakers heed the findings of two recent reports from grid managers and planners, the next two decades will look a lot more like 2012 — with wind and other renewables continuing to outpace new fossil-fuel generation.
In late December, a Department of Energy-funded planning group released a landmark report indicating that building out wind generation and associated transmission is more affordable over the long haul than continuing to rely mostly on coal and gas for supplying the eastern United States with electricity between now and 2030.
Also in December, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) released a report with a detailed long-term assessment of generation and transmission needs for the Texas interconnection. Using recent real-world data on wind and solar installation, prices and generation potential, they found that new wind and solar installations would outpace natural gas plants between now and 2032.
Renewable energy advocates say the results mean that wind and solar can cost-effectively provide most of our energy, and perhaps sooner than we realize. Other energy analysts, however, caution that which generation sources get built still depends very much on policy.
Renewables in the East
To sketch out a vision of future generation and transmission options for the eastern United States, in 2009 the Department of Energy offered funding for grid managers, utilities, regulators, environmentalists, and other energy-industry players to create the first long-term, region-wide report on the topic.
PJM Interconnection, which operates the grid from the mid-Atlantic region west to Ohio and parts of Indiana, Michigan and Illinois, led the project. For the first phase of the planning exercise, participants developed a detailed computer model representing generation and transmission for the entire eastern United States. They analyzed eight different scenarios with various combinations of generation sources and national and regional climate and energy policies. The Phase I report was released in late 2011.
For Phase II, the group focused on three scenarios:
• A national carbon policy would aim to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from 2005 levels by 42 percent by 2030 and by 80 percent by 2050—emission cuts that climate scientists say are needed to stave off the worst effects of climate change.
• A national renewable energy standard that would require 30 percent of the nation’s energy come from local renewable sources by 2030;
• Business as usual, with current policies.
The model found that over the next two decades, the national carbon policy scenario was the most affordable way to provide electricity to the eastern United States, but that it required a much larger build-out of new transmission. In the business-as-usual scenario, $206 billion would be needed for new transmission infrastructure. In the carbon-policy scenario, $978 billion would be needed.
Nevertheless, the lower annual operating costs of wind made it, with a large transmission build-out, more affordable long-term than natural gas and coal. Wind and transmission saved $42 billion each year in operating costs across the region compared with a renewable electricity standard, and $50 billion compared with business as usual. As a result, wind and transmission will have more than paid for itself before two decades are up.
The EIPC’s wind-friendly findings came despite overestimating wind’s capital costs by 50 percent, said Michael Goggin, manager of transmission policy at the American Wind Energy Association. And the analysis did not take into account the large health and societal costs of climate change, which is caused primarily by greenhouse gas emissions from burning coal, gas and oil.
“Even under these very conservative assumptions, wind looks like a very good investment,” Goggin said.