Joe Biden's $2 trillion infrastructure and clean energy plan announced yesterday may have caught the crest of fast-moving trends that are already carrying the U.S. electric power grid toward a zero-carbon future.
Or, rather than leading that charge, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee may be pushing the industry toward a summit that still is forbiddingly high.
Both possibilities are apparent in what's happening in the U.S. electric power sector today.
Biden's goal is to eliminate carbon emissions by 2035 from the nation's natural gas and coal power plants, which currently provide nearly two-thirds of U.S. electricity (Greenwire, July 14). To get there, wind, solar, hydropower, nuclear power, battery storage, carbon capture technology and energy efficiency programs would have to fill the gap.
"It is extremely ambitious but not impossible," said Peter Fox-Penner, director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy at Boston University.
"There is a clear and strong movement to decarbonize the power sector that is already underway," Fox-Penner added.
Jim Hempstead, managing director of Moody's Global Project and Infrastructure Finance Group, told a webinar conference this week, "We think getting to that 80% to 90% clean power grid is something that is able to be achieved relatively easily from a desire perspective.
"It's that last chunk that's extraordinarily expensive," he added.
The missing piece hinges on how to combine federal policy and regional grid strategies to back up increasingly cheap wind and solar power when those resources aren't there, and expedite innovation for technology with the potential to produce carbon-free power, experts say. Some support more federal spending, while others say the private sector should play a larger role in funding research (Energywire, May 28).
Also, many of the nation's big electric utility companies that have pledged zero emissions are targeting dates later than Biden's plan, typically 2045 or 2050.
When asked about Biden's electricity plan and carbon-cutting goals of its members, the Edison Electric Institute cited a midcentury date, not 2035.
"EEI's member companies are committed to getting the energy they provide as clean as they can as fast as they can, while keeping electricity reliable and affordable for customers," Brian Wolff, EEI's executive vice president for public policy and external affairs, said in a statement. "EEI's members collectively are on a path to reduce their carbon emissions at least 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050. Research and development of clean energy technology will be critical to helping us achieve our goals, and investments in new technologies will create future innovations to accelerate the clean energy transition."
Nat Kreamer, chief executive of Advanced Energy Economy, an association of clean energy companies, said the costs of new wind and solar installations have dropped so low that utilities can supply their customers more cheaply with new renewable installations than they can by taking power from existing natural gas generation.
"There is going to be a shift," Kreamer said. Electric utilities "aren't going to fossil fuels, they are going to go to renewables. ... They will go to promote clean, flexible energy assets."
Kreamer cited actions by Northern Indiana Public Service Co., the state's second largest electric distribution company, which has turned its back on Indiana's long history of coal-fired power plants to switch to renewables.
The Merrillville, Ind.-based utility, serving the top part of the state, says it will retire all of its remaining coal-fired electric generation by 2028, replacing it with lower-cost clean energy alternatives that it says can save customers more than $4 billion over 30 years.
Several states, including U.S. wind leader Texas, offer cautionary examples for Biden.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state's main grid operator, saw wind account for about 25% of the energy provided during the first six months of 2020. Added together, wind, nuclear and solar grabbed almost a 39% share. The trio still trailed natural gas, which accounted for roughly 44% of the energy that flowed on the ERCOT grid.
"We're not at 100% carbon-free, but we're four-tenths of the way there through the first six months of the year," said Cyrus Reed, conservation director at the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. The state is planning for more renewable power and energy storage.
ERCOT said in a document on its website this month that the "changing resource mix in the ERCOT region has presented unique challenges for grid operators."
"In response, ERCOT has evolved its technical requirements and market rules, as well as developed new analytical and monitoring tools, to manage a diverse resource mix while maintaining system reliability and market efficiency," it said.
One factor often cited in Texas' wind growth is a roughly $7 billion program known as CREZ, or competitive renewable energy zones, that previously helped to build out transmission infrastructure in the state.
But Reed said transmission constraints are a problem these days in the ERCOT region. That means that sometimes there isn't enough capacity to move all the renewable energy, he said. Until more transmission is built or other ways are used to free up the system, Reed said, it will be difficult to get to "big, big goals."
"We can continue to grow for a while, but we're going to be constrained by transmission," he said. "And so we're going to need to do something about that at some point."
Other states like New Mexico also are grappling with how to reach a carbon-free standard (Energywire, June 12).
A think tank led by former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz analyzed the challenges California faces in hitting its bold clean energy goals, concluding that the state could meet a goal of supplying 60% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030 by continued expansion of solar and onshore and offshore wind generation.
"California will, however, have to manage the significant operational issues that arise from high penetration of intermittent renewables to ensure reliability, manage costs, and minimize system emissions," the study last year by the Energy Futures Initiative said.
Rob Gramlich, president of the Grid Strategies LLC consulting firm, said that replacing existing fossil generation with zero-carbon sources is just a start. If the U.S. fulfills a complete zero-carbon agenda, that means electrifying many of today's motor vehicles and trains running on gasoline and diesel fuels, and buildings that now heat with gas.
"We need to look at the grid completely differently if we want to support electrification of transportation and buildings. We could be looking at a 50% increase in demand for electricity, and we will need a much more robust grid" to do that, he said. In Gramlich's view, that means a much bigger commitment to strategic transmission development, and Congress has balked at that.
'Not the direction we want to go'
Biden's plan now becomes a challenge to President Trump, whose campaign has dismissed the initiative as a gift to the "far left" and predicted it would hobble U.S. energy efforts, cost consumers and eliminate jobs.
"We know what that kind of radical energy policy looks like, and the studies show clearly it would be devastating to jobs in America, but more importantly it would potentially double or triple the household electricity cost for hardworking families in America," House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) told reporters on a Trump campaign call yesterday. "That's not the direction we want to go."
Biden's campaign in an email didn't break down the price tag of its renewable objectives but said his strategy would reduce energy costs through upgrades, retrofits and weatherization that would save families about $500 per year.
The plan calls for direct consumer rebates and low-cost financing to replace old appliances to improve energy efficiency, saving money over the long term, the campaign said in an email. It would also set regulations aimed at reducing the excess amount of electricity generation now in the market and would leverage existing assets on the grid and increase their utilization by adding "smart" grid technology.
And the campaign said Biden's plan will be paid for by reversing the Trump tax cuts for corporations; reducing incentives for tax havens, evasion and outsourcing, "ensuring corporations pay their fair share"; closing tax code loopholes; and ending subsidies for fossil fuels.
Whether the plan would get any traction in Congress depends on the results of the November elections. Democrats need to win at least three Republican-held seats to take control of the Senate. Even if that occurred, it's not clear how much of Biden's $2 trillion would be on the table, considering the push from other sectors like health care for a piece of the money pie.
Biden argued during a fundraiser Monday night with renewable energy executives that current conditions could make it "easier" to enact clean energy initiatives.
"We're facing a historic set of crises, a pandemic, an economic crisis and systemic racism," he said, adding that climate change, "the most sweeping crisis of all, touches each one."
Reporter Jeffrey Tomich contributed.