Menus Subscribe Search
wind-farm-photo

(PHOTO: BRIGHT/SHUTTERSTOCK)

If Only Renewable Energy Had a Smaller ‘But’

• August 07, 2013 • 2:36 PM

(PHOTO: BRIGHT/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Wind and solar remain small components of the U.S. energy portfolio, but two new data points out this week suggest they’re starting to to hit their stride.

Renewable energy always seems to get a “but” whenever it comes up in discussion about American energy sources. As in, “It would be nice, but…” it’s impractical, unreliable, or just too small a piece of the puzzle to really matter. As nuclear safety engineer Homer Simpson prayed one Thanksgiving: “And Lord, we are especially thankful for nuclear power, the cleanest, safest energy source there is. Except for solar, which is just a pipe dream.”

It’s not just the two-dimensional who feel that way. Even doughty eco-warriors like Jim Hansen have made the case for nuclear, terming belief that renewables by themselves will supply all our needs as comparable to believing in the Tooth Fairy or Easter Bunny. “The hope that the wind and the sun and geothermal can provide all of our energy is a nice idea but I find it unlikely that that’s possible.”

Two data points out this week, though, suggest that in the future, renewables will have a, well, smaller but.

From the feds comes news that wind power had its best-ever year last year, while from The University of California-Berkeley, an analysis suggests solar energy could supply up to a third of the electrical energy used in the Western U.S. Neither comes close to meaning that fossil- or radioactive-powered sources are going away—the solar energy proposal puts the effective date at 2050—but then they aren’t pipe dreams, either. Plus, an increasing amount of the hardware used is being made in the U.S., regaining the lead in renewable technology the nation had squandered.

All told, nine states get at least 12 percent of their juice from wind, led by Iowa (25 percent), South Dakota (24 percent), and Kansas (20 percent).

According to the authors of the 2012 Wind Technologies Market Report (PDF), Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientists Ryan Wiser and Mark Bolinger, wind’s installed capacity in the U.S. grew by more than 13 gigawatts last year, double the amount from the year before and the largest new source of power that went up last year.

This tremendous growth helped America’s total wind power capacity surpass 60 GW at the end of 2012—representing enough capacity to power more than 15 million homes each year, or as many homes as are in California and Washington state combined. The country’s cumulative installed wind energy capacity has increased more than 22-fold since 2000.

Looking forward, this means the U.S. is on an “early trajectory” to meet a goal of producing 20 percent of the nation’s electrical needs by 2030.

Except that, well, 2012 was indeed an exceptional year for wind, and straight-line analysis that factors in that experience ignores some, um, headwinds. One is the continued cheapness of natural gas, the resul of federal tax incentives that will likely soon expire. In fact, the authors suggest that fear of those incentives going away helped make 2012 so stellar, and their 11th-hour extension for another year doesn’t provide the certainty that wind’s business case needs, even as wind-power technology improves and gets cheaper. Also hurting is a downturn in individual states increasing how much renewable power must be part of their energy portfolio.

And while renewable energy has joined just about everything else in America as a part of the red/blue political divide, with renewable energy seen as somehow uniquely Obama-esque, some of the reddest states are also some of the most plugged into wind. Like Texas, whose 12.2 gigawatts of installed capacity is twice as much as the bluer (and presumed greener) California with 5.5. Texas actually has more wind capacity that all but five nations. But as a portion of total energy use, big states have a ways to go to catch up with windy and less populated venues. All told, nine states get at least 12 percent of their juice from wind, led by Iowa (25 percent), South Dakota (24 percent), and Kansas (20 percent).

This is all from outfits that run wind turbines and then deliver electricity via the grid. But for the first time, DOE has put out a second report, on so-called “distributed wind” (PDF), in which your windmill produces power for you (or to a locals-only grid). While a much smaller market in the already smallish renewable sector, there’s been growth here, too, with 69,000 individual units approaching a full gigawatt of installed capacity across the nation. Ironically, solar power from photovoltaic cells has been one of the prime competitors in this space.

The falling price of the solar installations led Dan Kammen and his students at Berkeley’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory to suggest that solar—currently a two-gigawatt speck in the nation’s 1,152-gigawatt capacity—could finally reach that place in the sun that backers have so often rhapsodized.

Using a “high-resolution electricity system planning model” of the DOE’s two-year-old SunShot Initiative (meant to knock down the cost of solar electricity to market prices by 2020) alongside likely carbon-limitation policies, Kammen and company found that it’s not unrealistic for solar to capture a third of the Western U.S. electricity market within 40 years, displacing currently more-attractive technologies like nuclear and natural gas.

Gigawatt-size electrical storage plays a role in their assumptions, so there is some technological prestidigitation necessary before this could come about, as would the inevitable need for some taxpayer assistance on the front-end. But the driver—especially since at some point we’re going to have to pay for reducing greenhouse gas emissions—would be lower consumer power bills.

As Kammen was quoted in a release from Berkeley: “Given strategic long-term planning and research and policy support, the increase in electricity costs can be contained as we reduce emissions. Saving the planet may be possible at only a modest cost.”

All Mother Earth needs is a smaller but.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 23 • 10:00 AM

Outing the Death-Drug Distributors

Calling all hackers: It’s time to go Assange on capital punishment.


July 23 • 8:00 AM

The Surprising Appeal of Products That Require Effort to Use

New research finds they enable consumers to re-establish a feeling that they’re in control of their lives.



July 23 • 6:00 AM

How the Other Half Lifts: What Your Workout Says About Your Social Class

Why can’t triathletes and weightlifters get along?


July 23 • 5:02 AM

Battle of the Public Intellectuals: Edward Glaeser vs. Richard Florida

On gentrification and housing costs.


July 23 • 4:00 AM

Our Fear of Immigrants

Why did a group of fourth graders rally in support of an undocumented classmate while the citizens of Murrieta, California, tried to stop immigrant children from entering their town?


July 22 • 4:00 PM

Can Meditation Really Slow Aging?

Is there real science in the spiritualism of meditation? Jo Marchant meets a Nobel Prize-winner who thinks so.



July 22 • 2:00 PM

The Alabama Judge Who Refuses to Let Desegregation Orders Go Ignored

A federal judge in Alabama says a local school board has failed to meet legal mandate to integrate.


July 22 • 12:00 PM

On the Destinations of Species

It’s almost always easier to cross international borders if you’re something other than human.


July 22 • 10:51 AM

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.


July 22 • 10:47 AM

Irrational Choice Theory: The LeBron James Migration From Miami to Cleveland

Return migrants to Cleveland have been coming home in large numbers for quite some time. It makes perfect sense.


July 22 • 9:32 AM

This Time, Scalia Was Right

President Obama’s recess appointments were wrong and, worse, dangerous.


July 22 • 8:00 AM

On Vegas Strip, Blackjack Rule Change Is Sleight of Hand

Casino operators are changing blackjack payouts to give the house an even greater advantage. Is this a sign that Vegas is on its way back from the recession, or that the Strip’s biggest players are trying to squeeze some more cash out of visitors before the well runs dry?


July 22 • 6:00 AM

Label Me Confused

How the words on a bag of food create more questions than answers.


July 22 • 5:07 AM

Doubly Victimized: The Shocking Prevalence of Violence Against Homeless Women

An especially vulnerable population is surveyed by researchers.


July 22 • 4:00 AM

New Evidence That Blacks Are Aging Faster Than Whites

A large study finds American blacks are, biologically, three years older than their white chronological counterparts.



July 21 • 4:00 PM

Do You Have to Learn How to Get High?

All drugs are socially constructed.


July 21 • 2:14 PM

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.


July 21 • 2:00 PM

Why Are Obstetricians Among the Top Billers for Group Psychotherapy in Illinois?

Illinois leads the country in group psychotherapy sessions in Medicare, and some top billers aren’t mental health specialists. The state’s Medicaid program has cracked down, but federal officials have not.



July 21 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, MacArthur Genius?

Noah Davis talks to Yoky Matsuoka about youth tennis, wanting to be an airhead, and what it’s like to win a Genius Grant.


July 21 • 11:23 AM

People Are Clueless About Placebos

Doctors know that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all. But how do patients feel about getting duped into recovery?


July 21 • 10:00 AM

How Small-D Democratic Should Our Political Parties Be?

We need to decide how primaries should work in this country before they get completely out of hand and the voters are left out entirely.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.

People Are Clueless About Placebos

Doctors know that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all. But how do patients feel about getting duped into recovery?

No, Walking on All 4 Limbs Is Not a Sign of Human ‘Devolution’

New quantitative analysis reveals that people with Uner Tan Syndrome don't actually walk like primates at all.

Why Didn’t California’s Handheld Phone Ban Reduce Motor Accidents?

Are handheld cell phones as dangerous as they have been made out to be?

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.