Is Oversizing Renewable Energy the Key to Net Zero?

Aug. 13, 2021
Often policymakers and planners assume that renewables plus storage are too expensive to oversize, but a new report challenges that view, and in fact calls for oversizing renewables in projects.

Often policymakers and planners assume that renewables plus storage are too expensive to bring online in large quantities, but a new report from the independent think tank RethinkX challenges that view.

Rethinking Climate Change finds that it’s important to add these technologies, both in front and behind the meter, and to oversize the renewables portion, installing three to five times more generating capacity than is now on the grid — then add storage. This will allow nations globally to achieve net zero in the 2030s in a cost-effective manner, said the report.

In fact, RethinkX predicts that incumbent carbon-intensive industries in energy and transportation worldwide will collapse and be replaced by disruptive technologies such as solar, wind and storage by 2035 in a textbook case study of disruption.

“The exciting disruption ahead of us in the energy sector is being driven by solar PV, wind power and batteries,” said Adam Dorr, research fellow at RethinkX. “It’s the convergence of those three improving in cost that’s driving the disruption.”

The RethinkX report argues that solar, wind and storage will be cost-effective if the renewables capacity is oversized, requiring less storage — which is more expensive. With the higher levels of renewables and the right amount of energy storage, moving to 100% solar, wind and battery is not only affordable, but will be the least expensive electric system that can be built by 2030, Dorr said.

Microgrids as disruptors

“Microgrids will have a key role to play in this disruption,” said Dorr. Their specific roles will depend on local or state factors. “We, as a society, have to find what works best under different circumstances.”

The researchers developed what they call the “Clean Energy U-Curve,” which illustrates what’s needed to balance renewable generating capacity with energy storage capacity to ensure that renewables plus storage can serve electricity users 24-7. This applies to centralized and distributed generation, including microgrids.

At some point, energy from distributed energy resources (DER) — including microgrids — will become cheaper than energy from the conventional grid, said Dorr. “We are likely to see a wide variety of DER and microgrid energy models tested worldwide in a wide variety of geographic, social, and geopolitical conditions during the 2020s, which is exactly what we need to do in order to discover winning strategies,” he said.

The think tank took a unique approach to determining the cost of the energy resources.

Clean Energy U Curve image courtesy RethinkX

RethinkX’s October 2020 report and February 2021 report examined the capital costs of solar PV, wind and batteries, and concluded that the traditional levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) model (expressed in kWh) is flawed. What’s more, the per-kWh figures from sources like the US Energy Information Administration are inaccurate, the reports said. A more reliable source, the organization concluded, is power purchase agreements (PPA).

Worldwide, PPAs and similar contracts for solar alone are now priced below 2 cents/kWh, said Dorr. For solar plus storage, the cost per kWh varies depending on how much battery capacity is included. In the U.S., four hours of battery capacity, paired with solar, is as low as 3.5 cents/kWh, he said.

“These costs are significantly lower than the actual per-kWh LCOE of conventional coal, gas, nuclear and hydropower plants. In some cases, these costs are even lower than just the operating costs of conventional power plants,” said Dorr.

With the costs of deploying renewable energy and storage dropping so quickly, these technologies will be accessible to people of all income levels.

“At a high level, these specific disruptions in energy and transportation and food, all of these are inherently democratizing technology. They have the potential to be an extraordinarily powerful force of democratization of access. For the first time in history, anyone is going to be able to access energy  clean energy — because you won’t need to build a $1 billion power plant with coal or nuclear power.”

In order to ensure the technological disruptions occur as quickly as possible, policy needs to change, said Dorr. That includes ending subsidies to the fossil fuel industry.

The report calls on policymakers to focus on moving the highest impact technologies forward, rather than implementing “whack-a-mole” approaches such as clean coal, behavior change and carbon taxes.

Disruption pressures policymakers

Throughout history, as disruptions have gathered steam, support from the public has grown, along with pressure on policymakers. As a result, the old technologies have eroded, he said.

“As these technologies ramp up, there will be an exponential growth curve and as they become more popular and affordable, society becomes more accepting of these technologies,” he said.

That leads to increased pressure on policymakers to support the disruptions.

One example is the demise of Kodak. It was the titan, but when the first digital camera became available, consumers began to adopt those cameras, and now Kodak is a memory, he said.

In spite of the organic disruption process, it’s important for consumers and members of the clean energy industry to push for policy that will accelerate the move to a zero carbon future as quickly as possible.

“We can speed it up or slow it down with our choices, especially with the clock ticking on climate change,” said Dorr.

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About the Author

Lisa Cohn | Contributing Editor

I focus on the West Coast and Midwest. Email me at [email protected]

I’ve been writing about energy for more than 20 years, and my stories have appeared in EnergyBiz, SNL Financial, Mother Earth News, Natural Home Magazine, Horizon Air Magazine, Oregon Business, Open Spaces, the Portland Tribune, The Oregonian, Renewable Energy World, Windpower Monthly and other publications. I’m also a former stringer for the Platts/McGraw-Hill energy publications. I began my career covering energy and environment for The Cape Cod Times, where Elisa Wood also was a reporter. I’ve received numerous writing awards from national, regional and local organizations, including Pacific Northwest Writers Association, Willamette Writers, Associated Oregon Industries, and the Voice of Youth Advocates. I first became interested in energy as a student at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, where I helped design and build a solar house.

Twitter: @LisaECohn

Linkedin: LisaEllenCohn

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