Ultimately, every bit of energy on Earth comes from the sun. It is what made the plants and animals that became fossil fuels grow. Solar energy is the source of all our food, our energy for transportation systems, and the power needed for industries to operate. While we think of water and wind as sources of renewable energy, ultimately they also depend on the sun.
If the world has a desire to be completely self-sustaining, maximizing the energy we harvest directly from the sun is the ideal way to do it. According to the latest Power Transition Trends (paywall) report of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, 182 GW of new solar was added worldwide last year – about half of all new capacity. Wind accounted for another quarter of new capacity. “Wind and solar are now the cheapest sources of new bulk power generation in countries that account for two-thirds of the world’s population and three-quarters of global GDP,” BNEF said.
But there is a cloud among what would otherwise be good news. Fossil fuels accounted for 14% of new emissions last year, led by coal, which rose an unprecedented 8.5% from the previous year to a record 9,600 TWh. This boosted CO2 emissions from the energy sector by 7% compared to the previous year.
Nevertheless, the 14% figure for new capacity from fossil fuels is an all-time low, according to BNEF. About 13 GW of coal-fired capacity was added last year, down from 52 GW in 2019 and 82 GW in 2012.
“It was a year of highs and lows, for the best and worst reasons,” Ethan Zindler, head of Americas at BNEFsaid in a statement reported by Utility Dive. “Renewable energy grew very quickly, but the comeback of coal and the fact that countries – including those that have pledged to achieve net zero emissions – continue to build coal is really worrying.”
BNEF said three factors contributed to the increase in coal-fired generation last year: a 5.6% increase in global electricity generation driven by a recovering economy, lower hydropower generation due to drought and higher natural gas prices. In terms of increased coal capacity, China increased by 9%, India increased by 16%, and the United States increased by 14% compared to the previous year. China’s power plant fleet accounted for 36% of the global energy sector’s carbon emissions from energy production last year, followed by the US at 12% and India at 8%.
Coal-fired generation may rise again this year as European nations seek to offset droughts and high natural gas prices by bringing mothball plants back into service or delaying planned coal plant shutdowns, BNEF said. Half of the countries that pledged to phase out coal at the UN climate conference in 2021 recorded increases in coal-fired generation last year.
The United States and solar energy
The annual solar report from Berkeley Lab is also out this week. It says the U.S. added over 12.5 gigawatts of new capacity last year, bringing total installed capacity to over 50 gigawatts, with Texas responsible for about a third of that increase. Combined with residential and other distributed solar installations, solar alone accounted for 45% of new generation capacity added to the grid last year.
According to ArsTechnica, the average cost of building solar in the US today is $1.35 per watts. The levelized cost of solar is falling faster than construction costs. In the US it is now $33 per MWh, with some power purchase agreements coming in at $20 per MWh. The Inflation Reduction Act could reduce that figure to about $27 per MWh or less.
The IRA can buck a trend in the industry. Previously, the only way to claim tax credits for battery storage was to pair it with a renewable energy installation. Now stand-alone battery systems are eligible, which could lead to more of them being built.
The Department of Energy reports that the cost of solar power is now competitive with “the cost of burning fuel in existing gas-fired generators.” In other words, ArsTechnica says, it can potentially be more economical to does not run an existing gas generator and use the money spent on fuel to install a solar farm instead.
Prior to the passage of the IRA, the DOE said it expected the amount of new solar to triple by 2030 and rise rapidly from there. But now it says the new incentives in the IRA are “likely to stimulate significant additional deployment.”
All that extra solar power will change “business as usual” for grid operators. Increasingly, non-solar generation capacity will be forced off the grid at midday on sunny days, Years say. This means that the value of solar energy will decline in some areas as production regularly begins to exceed demand. That, in turn, will make batteries – both personal and grid-scale – that are charged during these periods of excess more valuable, while the value of rooftop solar decreases. And these changes will likely be felt before the decade is out.
The forest for the trees
All of these sunny predictions from the DOE are subject to finding a place to put all the new solar farms. One of the biggest costs of any new energy plant is connecting it to the grid. Solar developers can save a lot of money by placing a new solar park where there is already a grid connection.
Charlotte County in south central Virginia happens to have several long distance transmission lines crossing it. There are plans to utilize these resources to accommodate the Randolph Solar Project, a 4,500-acre installation that will require the removal of about 3,500 acres of forest during construction. At least 5 other solar installations are also planned for the area. When completed, they will be one of the largest solar arrays east of the Rockies.
Recently, local resident PK Pettus spoke New York Times about the solar projects. After Virginia passed a law in 2020 requiring the elimination of fossil fuels from its electricity sector by 2050, Pettus says, “I was so excited and hoping to see solar panels over parking lots, solar panels on rooftops, solar panels on big box stores. I never had dreamed it would involve so much clearing and grading in a place I love so much.”
Conservationists and farmland advocates argue that solar development is displacing valuable forests and farms. They believe that solar farms should be built on land that has already been developed or on degraded land such as abandoned industrial sites and landfills. Some warn that a plan to protect the Chesapeake Bay, decades in the making, could be compromised by the loss of so much forested land.
Pettus fears the Randolph project and the other large solar farms in the area will send soil and stormwater flowing into Roanoke Creek, which includes several pristine wetlands and eventually drains to the Roanoke River. Runoff from deforested slopes can harm water quality and aquatic life, she says.
“It’s very disturbing on our part to see the hardening of sides of the issue,” said Judy Dunscomb, a senior conservation scientist at the Nature Conservancy, which supports both renewable energy and forest conservation. “On the one hand, people are trying to push through these really big projects, and localities are getting more and more concerned about the potential impacts of these projects.”
The US Department of Energy says that installing solar panels on roofs and carports can meet nearly 80% of the nation’s electricity needs. And while that may be true, there are far fewer incentives for such installations, and the cost of these systems per watts are significantly higher than they are for grid-scale solar systems. They also have no grid interconnection, but offer a promise to support more resilient, more diversified microgrids.
Dominion Energy plans to develop a solar farm in southwest Virginia on a flattened mountaintop that was blasted away for coal. Such projects hit a sweet spot NY Times say. They are large enough to realize economies of scale, located on land that is already degraded, and can boost the economy of a region in dire need of financial assistance.
Several such former industrial facilities are available on top of landfills, for example, but they are often far from transmission lines. And the surfaces in such places can be unstable, making construction complicated and expensive. Just about the worst thing that could happen to the climate is for one of its best allies—solar power—to be seen as such a bad neighbor that no one wants it around.
The Inflation Reduction Act will turbocharge solar power plants across America. The hard work is not in building them. The hard work is figuring out how to put them in places that will have community support and lend themselves to grid connections.
States will also need to balance their interests in luring large employers. In Virginia, Amazon, Google and Microsoft have committed to renewable energy, but together they use up to two gigawatts of power, nearly one-sixth of the state’s total electricity use. If Virginia wants the benefits these employers can bring, they will have to figure out how to meet their demand for renewable energy or watch them go elsewhere.
It is a delicate dance and in the end it becomes impossible to make everyone happy. The key will be deciding how big a role the need to lower CO2 emissions should play. Because unless the Earth stops overheating, as many as three-quarters of people could perish from the Earth’s surface by the end of this century. It’s a matter of priorities, but that doesn’t mean the process won’t get messy.
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