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 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


July 29 • 6:00 AM

What Are the Benefits of Locking Yourself in a Tank and Floating in Room-Temperature Saltwater?

After three sessions in an isolation tank, the answer’s still not quite clear.


July 29 • 4:00 AM

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays.


July 29 • 2:00 AM

Geographic Scale and Talent Migration: Washington, D.C.’s New Silver Line

Around the country, suburbs are fighting with the urban core over jobs and employees.


July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?


July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


July 28 • 11:11 AM

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.


July 28 • 10:00 AM

Hell Isn’t for Real

You may have seen pictures of the massive crater in Siberia. It unfortunately—or fortunately—does not lead to the netherworld.


July 28 • 8:00 AM

Why Isn’t Obama More Popular?

It takes a while for people to notice that things are going well, particularly when they’ve been bad for so long.


July 28 • 7:45 AM

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.


July 28 • 6:00 AM

Hams Without Ends and Cats Tied to Trees: How We Create Traditions With Dubious Origins

Does it really matter if the reason for why you give money to newlyweds is based on a skewed version of a story your parents once told you?


July 28 • 4:00 AM

A Belief in ‘Oneness’ Is Equated With Pro-Environment Behavior

New research finds a link between concern for the environment and belief in the concept of universal interconnectedness.


July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

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