Federal Energy Regulatory Commission director Jon Wellinghoff recently stated that the U.S. may not need any new coal or nuclear power plants. Due to our tremendous renewable energy potential, the rising challenge of global warming, and the high cost of new conventional plants, I think he's right.
The U.S. can meet future electricity demand by deploying efficiency and renewable energy.
The potential for renewable energy is great. The U.S. has more wind and solar potential than all its oil, gas and coal reserves. Our current total electrical generating capacity of 1,000 GW is dwarfed by the combination of onshore and offshore wind potential of ~3,000 GW cited by Interior Secretary Salazar. And solar power's potential is many times greater than that if we deploy panels on less than 1 percent of our land. Add to that the potential of geothermal, hydropower, and biomass — and fossil fuels begin to look like a dinosaur of the 20th century that will soon be replaced.
The price of new renewable energy is decreasing dramatically and may soon be lower than new fossil fuel power supply. For instance, solar photovoltaic modules have fallen from $20 per watt in the early 1980s to below $3 per watt today. Between 2004 and 2008, white-hot demand growth that outpaced solar supply growth prevented prices from falling. But now that supply has caught up with demand, 2009 prices continue downward.
Fossil fuels have powered our rising standard of living since the late 1800s. But now that we recognize large current and future costs from greenhouse gas pollution, we must cap such pollution and lower our emissions. We successfully lowered lead emissions from gasoline in the 1980s and sulfur dioxide from coal smokestacks in the 1990s. A similar cap (with emissions trading) to lower carbon emissions is now being considered in Congress. Such a framework gives renewable energy the opportunity to grow in electrical market share from 10 percent today to over 20 percent by 2020.
The renewables market is poised to meet all new electricity demand. Of renewables' 10 percent share of electricity, hydro contributes the most — followed by wind, biomass, geothermal, and solar. Renewable capacity represented over half of new capacity in 2008 (with wind power growing a record 8.5 GW and solar .36 GW). By 2011, renewable capacity growth can provide the ~15 GW per year our grid needs without adding expensive new coal or nuclear power plants. By the mid-2010s, renewable electricity can replace retiring old coal power plants, especially in the wind-rich Midwest and the solar-rich Southwest.
U.S. electricity demand growth is slowing and may soon stagnate even as population continues to climb. From 9 percent per year in the 1950s, demand growth has fallen each decade to ~7 percent, 4.2 percent, 2.6 percent, 2.3 percent, and then ~1 percent so far in the 2000s. Today's recession erased the need for new electric capacity recently as electricity use fell almost 1 percent in 2008 and is projected to fall much further in 2009. Electricity demand is not expected to recover to 2007 levels until 2011.
This tough economic period is an opportunity to build a more secure economy by spurring our recovery through efficiency and renewables. As long as the recent stimulus bill is executed well, we can hold demand constant through living more efficiently and implementing smarter grid design.
Deploying efficiency and renewables can support millions of green jobs in our country and strengthen our economy as we free ourselves from huge foreign oil bills. Becoming the global leader in low-carbon energy and efficiency is a path to prosperity in a world focused on reducing emissions in the decades ahead.
We maintained economic health in the past by leading innovations of the 20th century. A domestic market was always crucial for success, such as U.S. computer demand driving Silicon Valley's advances. Now, a domestic market for efficiency and renewable energy will help us regain our economic footing.
Jon Wellinghoff is right. Our country has the renewable resources to take advantage of falling costs for wind and solar power. The time is ripe to aggressively match this deployment with efficient usage, simultaneously saving ratepayers thousands and helping preserve a stable global climate.
Markatos-Soriano is the director of Sustainable Energy Transition (www.setenergy.org), a nonprofit dedicated to helping campuses and communities throughout the country move to a climate-friendly energy future based on efficiency and renewables.