Energy Independence Through Solar
June 14, 2018
The role of renewable (green) energy is increasing in the United States. Early U.S. energy consumers replaced the use of wood with coal, petroleum and natural gas in the generation of electricity. Today, because the use of renewable energy sources such as solar power, wind power, and biofuel is increasing, consumption of old, non-renewable energy sources is gradually declining.
Of all U.S. energy consumption, a total of around 15% was from renewable sources in 2016—roughly a 33% increase over the 10% renewable energy consumption of the previous decade. So at least things are moving in the right direction. In an unexpected turn, around 55% of the renewable energy used in the U.S. in 2016 was consumed by the electricity production industry itself, to generate electricity for its customers. Approximately 15% of all electricity produced in the country in 2016 was from renewable sources.
NON-RENEWABLE VS. RENEWABLE ENERGY
Non-biomass renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, hydro and geothermal energy are desirable because they do not emit greenhouse gases directly, whereas fossil fuels do. Renewables are also unlimited, infinitely available resources (solar and wind, in particular). They improve local air quality and, therefore, public health. Most renewable production does not damage the land as fossil-fuel extraction does. In many cases (especially solar and wind) renewable energy production uses little to no water.
Further, the higher upfront costs of switching to renewable energy are offset by lower costs in future years. The renewable energy industry also creates many more jobs than the fossil fuels industry does. And, renewables make the grid more resilient by diversifying energy sources.
For now, renewable energy remains more expensive to generate and utilize than energy produced from fossil fuels. In an effort to reduce these higher costs, state and federal requirements and incentives have helped to promote increased renewable energy production, and the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts continuing growth in U.S. renewable energy use through 2040.
Causes of the higher expense associated with renewable energy are often due to simple location issues. Many of the most ideal locations for renewable energy generation are found in relatively remote areas (like wind turbines in the deserts of Texas and California), making it comparatively expensive to construct lines to transport that electricity from rural sources to the areas where most people live. Additionally, renewable energy sources are not continuously available. Clouds reduce production from solar energy electrical power plants, wind tends to be stronger during certain times of the day than others which can reduce production of electricity from wind farms during peak usage, and extended periods of drought can reduce production of hydropower.
So, all of our available energy sources, even renewables, have their various advantages and disadvantages. Current priorities emphasize combining the multiple sources in order to transition to a sustainable future for energy consumers—an energy industry model known as energy mix.
KINDS OF ENERGY SOURCES
Known renewable energy sources include:
- Landfill gas and biogas
- Solid waste from municipalities
- Biomass (wood and wood debris)
- Marine (harnessed tidal and wave power)
Of the total U.S. energy consumption in 2016, which was 97.4 quadrillion BTU, the percentages of use from various sources included Petroleum 37%, Natural Gas 29%, Coal 15%, Nuclear 9%. Renewable sources accounted for a total of 10%, including Hydropower 24%, Biofuels 22%, Wind 21%, Wood 19%, Solar 6%, Biomass Waste 5%, and Geothermal 2%. NOTE: The sum of these may not equal 100% due to rounding of individual percentages. (Source: EIA, April 2018 Monthly Energy Review.)
NON-RENEWABLE ENERGY SOURCES
The majority of U.S. electrical power continues to be from petroleum (37%), natural gas (29%) and coal (4%) for a combined total of 80%, with all renewables combined accounting for only about 20%. Still, from another perspective, 20% is far from the 0% of not so long ago. Having a full 20% of our power now coming from renewable sources is enormous progress, and it speaks very encouragingly of the direction we’re heading as a country. However, we’re moving too slowly, by some estimations.
Building new generating capacities secures a stable energy supply for the future. Plans to ensure a stable energy future for the U.S. improve energy efficiency in homes, expand development of sustainable resources and decrease reliance on non-renewable resources.
The vast and highly complex challenges of energy provisioning include:
- Resource Quantity
- Supply Sustainability
- Climate Change Impacts
- Energy Security
- Comparative Cost-Efficiency
Finding sustainable solutions to these major issues requires a joint commitment between all concerned. Governments, communities, and energy providers all need to be working together toward the common goal of energy stability.
GREEN ENERGY BENEFITS
The use of green energy resources leads everyone toward energy independence, on both an individual and national level.
Businesses and homeowners who undertake their own distributed energy generation, becoming their own electrical power providers, can reduce their energy costs over time, and they can ensure energy security for their homes and businesses. They also contribute to a greener environment around them.
For the Country
As the U.S. increases our use of domestic solar and other renewable energy sources, we become less and less dependent upon foreign sources of fossil fuels. The continuing move toward energy independence cultivates improved economic and environmental stability for the U.S. and every other country striving to make the change. It also allows a country to be more flexible in international political interactions.
For the World
With the adoption of clean energy usage around the globe, renewable energy frees the world’s inhabitants from reliance on greenhouse-gas-emitting fossil fuels, which improves economic conditions as well as the quality of life for everyone.
TEXAS ENERGY GENERATION MIX VS. THE U.S.
In Texas, as in most other states (except Oregon and Washington), nonrenewable energy sources continue to supply more energy than renewable sources. However, there are positive developments in Texas. Scientific American reports that in early 2017, wind energy, which currently accounts for most of Texas’s renewable energy use, totaled nearly 23% of all power produced in the state. That total is 230% of the 2010 total of only 10%, and it’s a spectacular increase from a mere 3% renewable sourcing in 2006. So, Texan power generation has made a significant shift toward renewables over the past 20 years.
High economic growth generally leads to poorer air quality where traditional electricity generation sources are used. However, using renewables creates economic growth at the same time that improves air quality. In the information sections that follow, this connection between a healthy, thriving economy and local air quality (which is heavily impacted by electricity generation sources including coal, natural gas, nuclear, wind, and solar) becomes increasingly apparent. Based on current, historical and projected future trends, the increasing energy generation mix in Texas, compared with the rest of the U.S., is on a good trajectory.
TEXAS’S RENEWABLE ENERGY FUTURE
Although some of the U.S. federal government’s policies have now returned to increasing the use of fossil fuels, Texas and other states are speeding ahead on their own to develop renewable energy anyway. And they’re making significant strides. The largest percentages of power produced and used by states from renewable sources are in Oklahoma, Iowa, Kansas, and North and South Dakota. But, Texas produces the largest quantity of power from renewable sources.
Texas has far surpassed its renewable energy production goals set in 1999, and its reset goals of 2005. In fact, the state currently produces more wind-sourced electrical energy than the majority of countries. Outside of Austin, TX, a town called Georgetown, TX has a population of 50,000 and is now powered entirely by renewable energy. The town made the transition in 2012, due to long-term cost considerations, including the fact that wind can offer greater price stability than oil and gas over time.
Georgetown stands as a possible forerunner of the future of renewable use by towns throughout Texas. And, though the town’s transformation was to all-wind power, it serves as an exceptional indicator of what is possible in terms of more a mixed profile of renewables use across the entire U.S. and the world.
Progress on other fronts measured in the 2016 report includes:
- Wind power provided 50% of the electricity used in multiple Great Plains states of the U.S., a record high. Their high rate of renewable energy usage in these states that are leading in renewable usage is due to their strong understanding of both the environmental and economic benefits of using renewable sources.
- Iowa, another leader in both wind and solar has vast resources, which it sells to its neighbors in Wisconsin and Illinois. Both of the latter states have policies prioritizing the use of renewable energy sources, which have created a strong regional market for clean energy.
The incomparable scalability of renewables drives energy costs down over time after the initial capital investment has been made. More than 90% of the cost of renewable energy production is in the build and launch of operations to produce energy from renewables. After startup, the fuel is free. As more capacity is developed, the per-unit cost of energy production drops, as with any other scalable product. Solar and wind costs are already dropping, and solar is positioned to become the world’s cheapest power source within just a few more years, even lower than coal, per a recent Bloomberg News report.
The total amount of solar energy currently being produced can meet all electrical energy needs for five million homes. To put that in perspective, consider that around 29 states have population totals below five million people. So, enough solar power is now produced in the country to provide for all electrical energy needs of all homes in 29 of the 50 states. That fact marks good progress of solar energy recognition and adoption across the country.
Compensating for Renewable Energy Inconsistency
As mentioned, one complaint against renewable energy sources is that they can be inconsistent in delivery. Depending entirely on solar or wind sourcing places people at risk of insufficient electricity when they need it due to weather conditions. Fortunately, storage technologies have advanced quickly in the past 10 years.
Some states, such as Ohio, Illinois, and Pennsylvania have increased their renewable energy storage capacities with batteries that enable power to be used at night or on rainy days. (Higher capacity batteries also make electric cars and other items more efficient to use, extending their usability for greater periods of time between charges.)
Texas is the only state with its own electricity grid, which is operated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). So, enhancing utility grid resilience is of special interest to the state. There are several preferred ways to protect a power grid from extreme weather, such as floods, storms, and droughts, which have been increasingly intense and frequent.
The U.S. electrical grid consists of more than $1 trillion in physical equipment and other property required for its functioning. Protecting such a vast system from threats to services, property, economic health, and even to human life can be very expensive. There are several key areas of needed improvement in the resilience of the U.S. power grid.
Hardening the grid
High winds, floods, high heat and other conditions can put grid integrity at risk. Solutions include restoring natural protections along coastlines, relocating essential assets, raising seawalls in some areas, installing power lines underground, and upgrading above-ground lines, among other measures.
Securing Distribution Channels
Extreme weather conditions can cause major power outages by increasing demand beyond limits of available resources. Distribution system damage can also impede countless dependent restoration efforts. California, New York, and other states are increasing the numbers of their distributed generation (DG) sources, and they’re diversifying renewable fuel types to increase the availability of resources in various conditions severe conditions.
Making the Grid Smarter
Smart technologies for rapidly detecting outages and restoring services is essential for greater manageability of energy production operations and costs in the future. It is as important to protect the energy grid’s software as its hardware, perhaps even more so. Smart grid technologies can engage with consumer devices, such as such as internet-controllable appliances and thermostats, to improve system reliability and help control customer bills.
DISTRIBUTED SOLAR GENERATION
Distributed Generation (DG) can involve a range of approaches, including peak power generation by electricity providers, customer-owned generators, systems of combined heat and power (CHP), and micro grids that serve collections of buildings (for universities, or large company campuses, for example). Micro-grid and CHP systems can be integrated with the grid as parts of its resource mix. Other distributed energy resources (DERs) include small wind turbines, solar photovoltaic (PV), and fuel cells.
A distributed generation system can also include solar battery storage and even plug-in electric vehicles, which can significantly affect peak demand curves. DG also involves wholesale and retail provisions of electricity for both regulated and deregulated markets, of which Texas, for example, has both.
Additionally, shifting from traditional electric power systems, utilities and their customers are increasingly installing solar DG facilities that use small-scale technologies to generate electricity closer to the consumer. Driving this rapid growth is the reduction in solar panel prices, along with state, federal, and utility company incentives offered to residential consumers and businesses for solar panel installations, per state renewable portfolio standards (RPS).
Increasing use of these various DG resources can reduce the need for new utility generation assets and services, permit utilities to avoid higher delivery costs by cutting demand during peak periods, reduce fossil fuel production pollutants and help reduce power outages.
Using a very large amount of DG may present operational challenges for electric companies and customers, such as:
- Excess demand at substations, causing high voltage swings and other stresses on electric equipment.
- Line worker safety issues
- Difficulty with monitoring, and potential impact to accuracy of load forecasts.
Additional operational complexities for transmission, distribution, and generation systems, (potentially necessitating capital investments).
How to Implement DG
DG requires utility companies to meet the challenges of integrating solutions, such as adding combustion turbines to supplement peak power, and customer-owned micro-grid and CHP systems, among other elements.
Increased DG may also cause certain broader economic challenges. Under net-metering programs to compensate customers for power generation, customers are typically compensated for their kilowatt-hour (kWh) contributions to the power grid, and they’re charged for periods when their consumption from the grid is in excess of their generation, or for the net difference between their generation and consumption. But, some companies have not yet implemented proper compensation systems to appropriately account for some fixed charges, which problem may result in financial issues for both customers and providers.
Benefits of DG
Use of DG resources may offer numerous benefits, including avoiding generation capacity costs. For example, DG can reduce development costs for new systems, transmission costs, the need for additional backup power, and unwanted emissions.
DG does present its own operational and economic challenges to electric utilities and their customers. Solar DG, for example, can only play an important role in helping meet energy needs and achieving environmental goals, if solar DG customers pay their share of the costs of safe and reliable grid operation.
Ultimately, DG overall can play a very useful role in increasing the contribution of renewable energy to public power provisioning. However, again, rate structures must accurately apportion costs to users of the grid to ensure its long-term success.
Solar energy brings independence to individual users. Seasonal demands increase electricity supplies and costs of delivery, as the infrastructure is being more heavily utilized, making power more valuable to the market. Unpredictable seasonal energy rate increases can make it nearly impossible for consumers and businesses to budget accurately for energy costs from quarter to quarter.
Businesses and property owners can save themselves from unexpected rate hikes by investing in their own on-site distributed energy generation systems. For example, a solar energy system can allow property owners to reach partial, or even complete energy independence. That increases price stability, lowers overall annual energy costs and contributes to a healthier environment. Further, cutting demand on the grid during peak times can bring energy prices down for all consumers.
The United States is among the largest and fastest-growing wind markets in the world. The U.S. Department of Energy invests in research and development of on- and off-shore wind energy production. These projects are intended to create job opportunities, advance technological innovations, spur economic growth, cut pollution from carbon fuels and serve other environmental and economic objectives.
Wind energy is among the least expensive of energy supply sources, and costs are still decreasing. The most recent annual U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Wind Technologies Market Report(Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory) projects that U.S. wind energy technologies will remain one of the least expensive for generating electricity. Currently, wind energy production costs around 50% of the operating cost of a natural gas power plant.
The price of wind energy has dropped over recent years to below $20 per megawatt-hour or about $0.02 per kilowatt-hour. Even calculating the economics of wind energy without factoring the federal wind production tax credits, wind energy is extremely competitive with average wholesale electrical energy prices. And, wind turbines are becoming cheaper, larger, and generally more cost efficient.
GROWTH OF THE WIND INDUSTRY
The wind industry continues to compete well against the generation of electricity from fossil fuels, and wind energy producers have been motivated by that competition to further increase performance and frequency of wind turbine usability. The result is that the production capacity of new wind turbines in the U.S. in 2016 was an average of 2.15 megawatts (MW), an impressive increase of 11% from the previous 5-year average.
Integrating Wind With the Grid — Managing costs of integrating a highly variable electricity source like wind involves resolving storage issues and other concerns. Fortunately, market penetration of wind energy has significantly increased, and curtailment of integration into the grid by operators has decreased.
The decrease in curtailment has been due to investment in transition and operational modifications to more sufficiently accommodate wind energy inclusion, per the Berkeley Labs Report In the region of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), for example, electrical utilities have invested $7 billion to link transmission lines between West Texas (a windy region) to central and eastern Texas cities.
Electric vehicles provide a very compelling path to energy independence. For perspective, consider that most of the country’s natural gas used to make electricity is domestically produced, compared to what we put in our gas tanks that is directly tied to global oil and gas production.
The electric vehicle (EV) market is among the global economy’s fastest growing and most dynamic high-tech sectors, and it is directly useful for serving intelligent, interactive electricity demand. Around 160,000 plug-in electric cars were sold last year. That’s enough to supply an entire population of an average-sized U.S. American town with an electric car.
Some utility companies are anticipating what will be required to absorb the electricity load of charging EVs. The most proactive industry planners will be able to capture a wide array of financial and service benefits for their customers and for the grid. EV charging can be integrated to benefit vehicle owners, utility customers, shareholders, and the whole society. If utility providers plan for the load of charging EVs, they can both absorb the load at low cost and yield a range of important benefits across the entire system.
The benefits include positive economic impacts of using renewable energy and provisioning of additional services to the grid, including from power factor correction, in the case of EVs. Waiting to act on this front will result in continuing emissions from the power grid and an increasingly less reliable and stable grid. In terms of Distributed Energy Resources (DERs), the vehicle-to-building (V2B) is especially promising, as it provides the capacity to exploit energy stored in the EV batteries to supplement the power grid during outages and extreme system loading, helping the system to meet reliability requirements.
Technological advancements are continuing while, overall, Americans are actually using less energy. The total amount of energy use across the U.S. has been reduced by 3.6%, despite the fact that the population and economy have been growing. The reduction is due in part to increasingly efficient modern consumer technologies for energy use. Light bulbs, appliances, gadgets, buildings, vehicles, and many other energy consuming items are being designed for increased functionality while utilizing no additional energy.
The expansive benefits of reducing energy waste include substantial cost savings for consumers and industrial users, which is very appealing. Energy conservation also serves the increasingly popular commitment to environmental interests. Industry watchers predict that the trend in conservation will continue, despite the deregulation mode in which top authorities in Washington are currently operating, according to LaSalle Investment Management research firm’s March 2018 report. However, there is concern among environmentalists that progress may be slowed by the reversal in government direction away from energy conservation.
THE ROLE OF GREEN JOBS
The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) recently reported that the green employment sector is performing exceptionally well (contrary to some reports).
California, New York, Texas, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Ohio have the highest number of green jobs, in that order. (The oil and gas sector has a strong presence in most of those states.) Further, a rapidly growing number of companies either produce green products or provide green services. Highlights of the BLS Study include:
- There are 3.1 million jobs in the U.S. green economy. This is an increase from the 2010 Department of Commerce study that found between 1.8 million – 2.4 million green jobs. In contrast, gas and oil sector jobs are currently around 2.2. million, per the API. This reflects the fact that the green economy provides 30% more jobs than the gas and oil industry.
- Green manufacturing provides the largest number of jobs of any private sector industry, at almost 500,000 jobs, according to the BLS report.
- The growth rate of the green energy sector was 8.3% annually during the period of the study, which is nearly twice the growth rate of the entire U.S. economy (2010).
- Median wages for green energy jobs are 13% higher than the national average, and almost 50% of green jobs do not require a four-year college degree.
- For every million dollars, 16.7 green jobs are created, which is more than triple the 5.3 jobs created per million dollars in the fossil fuel industries.
- The majority of retrofitting products made for clean energy efficiency are over 90% made in the U.S., making green products an especially supportive industry for the U.S. American worker and economy.
- The U.S. currently enjoys a $1.9 billion positive trade balance with China in solar power, and in heating and cooling components. The U.S. solar industry exports components to China. By contrast, the oil industry imported more than $250 billion in petroleum-related products in 2010 alone.
- 91% of U.S. American companies involved in clean energy retrofits are small businesses with fewer than 20 employees, making the green jobs market especially compatible with small business interests.
- 41% of U.S. clean energy jobs provide training and career-building opportunities. Further, 26% of green jobs are in manufacturing, in contrast to only 9% of jobs across the traditional U.S. employment market.
Green jobs are among the important benefits of strong investments in the U.S. energy infrastructure. Those investments have been increasing career opportunities while reducing air and water pollution, providing an alternative to dependence on foreign oil, and allowing greater amounts of international export of U.S. American-made products.
FREEDOM SOLAR POWER
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FOR MORE INFORMATION
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