Despite Trump’s repeated claims that he’s ending “the war on beautiful, clean coal,” the dirty industry is dying. And from the ashes cheaper, greener forms of energy are rising. Over the past 10 years, while the share of coal-produced-electricity fell from about 50% to 30% in the United States, renewable-energy-electricity (wind, solar, hydro, and biofuel) almost doubled, from about 8% of total electricity demand a decade ago to about 15% today. Now a study published today shines a light on the potential that solar and wind energy could achieve in the U.S.: 80% of our electricity needs, if we only invested wisely.
“The fact that we could get 80% of our power from wind and solar alone is really encouraging,” said the study’s co-author, Steve Davis, an associate professor of Earth sciences at University of California, Irvine. “Five years ago, many people doubted that these resources could account for more than 20 or 30%.”
The study, which was published in Energy & Environmental Science, analyzed 36 years of hourly U.S. weather data (1980 to 2015) to understand whether there was enough wind and sunlight in the U.S. for these renewable energy sources to actually power the entire nation. The findings were encouraging, indicating that there aren’t massive geophysical barriers to wind and solar achieving significant gains in the coming years.
“We looked at the variability of solar and wind energy over both time and space and compared that to U.S. electricity demand,” explained Davis. “What we found is that we could reliably get around 80 percent of our electricity from these sources by building either a continental-scale transmission network or facilities that could store 12 hours’ worth of the nation’s electricity demand.”
It would take some serious investment to construct the infrastructure needed for this wind and solar revolution, somewhere in the hundreds of billions. Robert Pollin, a University of Massachusetts Amherst environmental economist who was not involved in the study, estimates the cost of a successful transition to renewable energy at about $200 billion annually, for the next 20 or so years. He found that if this money flowed towards raising energy-efficiency standards and expanding clean renewable production, the U.S. could reduce their carbon emissions by 40% within 20 years.
$200 billion per year is a sizable chunk of money (roughly 1.5% of U.S. GDP), and yet economists like Pollin argue that investing in renewable energy would have a similar impact as investing in any other large infrastructure project: opening up economic opportunities and creating millions of jobs. “It’s not true that there must be large, painful trade-offs between stabilizing the climate on the one hand and supporting jobs and economic growth on the other,” Pollin explained. “A global green-energy project is the one climate-stabilization strategy that can realistically succeed, is available to us right now and requires far fewer trade-offs than most people think.”
The new study reaffirms what many in the environmental community had hoped: wind and solar can take charge of a huge portion (80%) of U.S. energy in the 21st century. But what about that last 20%? Because there would invariable be periods with limited wind and sunlight, the only way to get solar and wind to that magic 100% figure would be to invest heavily in batteries to store extra energy during high performance periods. This is where things get seriously expensive, into the trillions of dollars figures.
The author’s of the study argue that it likely wouldn’t be worth it to build out this storage capacity. Instead, it would make more economic sense for this last 20% of energy to come from other sources, likely a combination of nuclear, hydropower and biofuels. And what about clean clean? Despite Trump’s continued rhetoric, there are several technological barriers to making coal clean that will hopefully keep it from making a comeback.
“We have to keep working towards a renewable energy economy because there’s no other choice,” said Pollin. “And really it comes down to young people; they’re the are the ones that are going to create the energy and the pressure, to oppose these kinds of pronouncements by our President that climate change is a hoax.”