An all-renewable electricity system is “both physically possible and economically affordable by 2030,” according to a new report from the RethinkX think tank, write co-founder Tony Seba and research fellow Adam Dorr in an early November post for Utility Dive.
“We are on the cusp of the most profound disruption of the energy sector since the advent of electricity itself over a century ago,” Seba and Dorr state. “The costs of solar photovoltaic power, onshore wind, and lithium-ion battery energy storage (SWB) have plummeted over the last two decades, and they will fall another 70%, 40%, and 80% respectively during the 2020s as their adoption continues to grow exponentially worldwide. The convergence of SWB now offers an electricity solution that coal, gas, nuclear, and other conventional energy technologies can no longer compete with.”
The new report, using a tool RethinkX calls a “clean energy U-curve”, looks for the best cost trade-offs between solar and wind generation, on one hand, and storage batteries, on the other, across different U.S. regions. “When we optimize the balance between the two, we find that the least expensive 100% SWB system will have three to five times more total generating capacity than today’s grid but require only 35 to 90 hours’ worth of batteries, depending on geography,” the two authors state.
In California, for example, it would cost US$11.5 billion over 10 years—0.35% of the GDP of the state that likes to style itself the world’s fifth-largest economy—to deliver a 100% SWB grid, delivering 3.8 times the grid’s current generating capacity and requiring only 37 hours of battery backup to ensure a reliable power supply. “The cost of electricity from this system would be less than 3 cents per kilowatt-hour, which would not only be the cheapest available option for new power generation, but would be less expensive than continuing to operate most conventional power plants in the state, as well.”
Seba and Dorr don’t say whether a SWB system would either overhaul or replace the antiquated grid system that has been tied to some of the horrific wildfires sweeping the state in recent years.
But either way, the basic economics mean that “the disruption of coal, gas, and nuclear power is now inevitable,” they write. “No new investment in these technologies is rational going forward, and their existing assets will become stranded during the 2020s.”
And “that’s just the beginning,” they add. The new system—like the fossil-based one it replaces—would be capable of producing far more electricity than customers normally need, to ensure enough supply to meet peak requirements. But unlike fossil fuel and nuclear plants, solar and wind “can utilize their full latent capability at virtually no additional cost,” so “all of that electricity is effectively free.”
That means the new grid “could replace a large fraction of all fossil fuel use by electrifying road transportation, residential and commercial heating, water desalination and treatment, waste processing and recycling, metal smelting and refining, chemical processing and manufacturing, or carbon removal—to name just a few applications.”