In this week’s solar news: Getting power to customers is the next challenge, and going green could save trillions of dollars

The electric grid needs to upgrade

First, Bob Dylan went electric and changed rock and roll. Now cars are going electric and changing how we get around. Next, your house will go electric and make everything more efficient.

A big part of the path to net zero is through eliminating fossil fuel use for consumers.

Today, that transition is most evident in the automotive field. In August, California announced a mandate prohibiting the sale of internal combustion engines by 2035. Other states have followed. New York followed suit at the end of September, signaling that internal combustion vehicles will have limited markets available by the time we reach that signal year.

For the next step in that goal, environmentalists are pushing to switch home appliances and HVAC systems from gas to electricity. The change is more subtle in the appliance market than for the car market, but the Inflation Reduction Act incentives are likely to make it move more quickly in the coming years.

Climate advocates hope there’s a day in the not-too-distant future when our cars, stoves and home heating all run on electricity. The question is, “Where will all that electricity come from?” The pinch between growing demand and constrained supply is real, with California at the forefront.

view of solar panel farm from above

Renewables fill the gap

At the end of 2021, the United States electricity generation capacity was 1.14 terawatts. According to Lawrence Berkeley Labs, over one terawatt of energy projects are queued up for interconnection approval, with utility-scale solar making up nearly half of that list. Wind is good for another 16%.

The report is quick to caution that not every project will move forward. Investment dollars, developer priorities, environmental permitting, and interconnectivity challenges are just a few problems that might stop a project from moving forward. But each application represents a developer’s investment of time, money and resources in a project they view as viable.

In the short term,utility-scale solar developers must navigate supply chain constraints over the next eighteen months. In addition, finding enough skilled and qualified workers is an ongoing problem. But the long-term prospects for renewable energy generation in the U.S. are promising.

powerlines with city skyline in the background

Bringing the grid up to speed

Getting electricity where it’s needed may be the greatest challenge to U.S. energy policy today. The current U.S. electrical grid was not built with 21st-century power generation demands in mind. Renewable energy sources such as solar and wind tend to be much more remote than gas and coal-fired plants. Running costly high-powered transmission lines requires money and time. It also involves navigating local, state and federal regulations and public utility authorities.

That swamp of governmental processing has caused permitting in some places to grind to a halt. Utility Dive reports that some viable projects submitted as long ago as 2005 are still waiting for approval.

homes with solar panels installed on clay tile roofs

Rooftop solar panels are part of the solution

Rooftop solar, it turns out, may be vital to modernizing the grid, particularly when paired with whole-home batteries. Canary Media reports on two key reasons. The first, obviously, is when more energy is produced and used locally, less has to be transmitted.

The other is that rooftop solar, paired with a backup battery, helps smooth out demand. In other words, homes draw less power when energy is most difficult and expensive to supply.

A lot of generators only run at full capacity during those peak times, but cost a lot of money to maintain even when they’re not being used. In some places, as much as 35% of energy infrastructure is only used at peak times.

If solar and home energy storage systems are powering a lot of homes locally, the peak demand goes down. With rooftop solar and whole-home storage, homeowners have the means and financial incentives to avoid drawing power from the grid during those peak times, lowering the overall need for capacity. That reduces strain on the grid.

The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 triggered a transformation in how America will be powered moving into the future. But, like Bob Dylan plugging at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, the transition is set to cause some turbulence.

windmill farm

Renewable energy will save trillions

The impending cost of converting to renewable energy is considered one of the biggest challenges of decarbonizing the planet’s energy chain. Woods Mackenzie, one of the leading energy research firms, predicts that just converting the U.S. to a fully renewable energy model would cost $4.5 trillion.

Except that may be wrong. According to a quartet of eminent scholars from Oxford University, a rapid energy transition will save trillions in generation costs, even without consideration of environmental benefits. Their probabilistic forecast, based on how fifty other technologies such as fiber optics and transistors have been deployed in the past, contradicts most other estimates.

At the heart of their model is the idea that the more widespread a technology is, the cheaper it gets. Innovation, experience and economies of scale all work together to lower the cost of technology while increasing its efficiency.

The team of economists and scientists predict that wind, solar and battery storage are all on that same trajectory. They project that as these technologies are used more, they will improve and become cheaper. That will make power generation cheaper as well. Utility-scale solar energy costs one-third less than natural gas energy, while onshore wind has reached nearly fifty percent. In contrast, the inflation-adjusted cost of fossil fuels such as oil and coal is very close to what it was 140 years ago.

The paper has history on its side. The scientists look at the projections from 2010 using the currently accepted model and find that the average expected drop in cost was 2.6% when the real cost reduction was close to 15%.

The model also shows that the faster the transition happens, the greater the amount saved.

The Weekly Sunsong

This week, the sunsong goes electric with one of the most pivotal moments in rock and roll history, Bob Dylan going electric back in 1965.