Carbon-free electricity by 2035? Virginia is ready.

(Photo by Dennis Schroeder / NREL)

Virginia’s General Assembly made history in 2020 by becoming the first state in the South to pass a law requiring the full decarbonization of its electric sector. The Virginia Clean Economy Act requires our two largest utilities, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, to close all Virginia carbon-emitting power plants by 2045. As of 2050, the state will not issue carbon allowances to any other power plants in the commonwealth, including those owned by electric cooperatives and independent generators.  

Less than a year later, President Joe Biden wants to move up the date for a carbon-free electric grid nationwide to 2035. Biden is also targeting a net-zero carbon economy by 2050. On that, Virginia is actually more ambitious, at least on paper, since the Commonwealth Energy Policy sets a goal for a net-zero economy by 2045. 

But the electric sector has to come first, mainly because it’s the linchpin for reductions in the rest of the economy.  Clean electricity allows for clean transportation when cars, trucks and buses are electrified, and for clean buildings when gas heating and gas appliances are replaced with electric. It’s harder to zero out emissions from industry and agriculture; we do need more time to develop cost-effective solutions for those. 

The good news is the U.S. is already halfway to zero, according to a new report from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that compared CO2 emissions from the power sector today to projections 15 years ago. But a lot of that achievement came from replacing coal with fracked gas, with energy efficiency and renewables making up the rest. From here on in, efficiency and carbon-free sources have to carry the whole load.

What would it take for Virginia to achieve a carbon-free grid just 14 years from now, half the time allowed by the VCEA? Questions fall roughly into three categories: cost, feasibility and reliability. All three will be easier to overcome if the whole country is working together towards a single goal, especially if the federal government does more than just point the way. But there’s a strong case for optimism regardless.  

Cost

Cost is the biggest concern in the minds of most people, but it shouldn’t be. It’s been three years since solar became the cheapest form of new power generation in Virginia, and prices continue to drop. The International Energy Administration declared last year that falling prices mean solar is “becoming the new king of the world’s electricity markets,” poised to become the primary source of new electricity generation worldwide by 2030. (Did you read about the solar project in Saudi Arabia that will deliver solar at barely over a penny per kilowatt-hour?)

Wind has been the cheapest form of generation for years in many states, and its price is still falling. Of course, for Virginia the big wind opportunity lies offshore. Offshore wind technology is still in its infancy in the U.S., making it relatively expensive, but its price trajectory is also steeply downward. Once the industry scales up and American manufacturing, supply chain and workforce replace European imports, prices will fall further — though it may never match solar on price. 

The only expensive part of an all-renewables scenario right now is the challenge of keeping supply in sync with demand. But as with wind and solar, the cost of battery storage technologies has been falling.

Meanwhile, what happens to our existing fossil fuel plants? Closing coal plants was already the right move for consumers. Virginia’s few remaining coal plants don’t run much and are money sinks. Dominion’s newest coal plant, for example, has a 10-year net present value of negative $472 million. Shuttering coal plants will save money today as well as speeding us along the path to zero carbon.

By contrast, we have a lot of gas plants that currently make money, so our utilities are even more loath to plan for their demise. Dominion spent most of the last decade building out a huge fleet of natural gas combined-cycle plants on the theory that fracking would make gas a cheap fuel forever. The theory ignored the growing competitiveness of wind and solar that was evident even early on in the building spree. This isn’t just hindsight talking; in 2013 I wrote that Dominion’s newly-approved 1,358-megawatt Brunswick County Power Station was destined to become a giant concrete paperweight as clean energy displaced fossil fuels. Yet a few years later Dominion added to its paperweight collection with the even larger Greensville County Power Station. 

In both cases the equally short-sighted State Corporation Commission approved these investments, so bad luck, ratepayers: we are stuck paying off the capital costs whether the plants run or not. That does not mean we have to operate them; projections show that by 2030 it will be cheaper to turn gas plants into solar panel factories while we run our grid on wind and sunlight. 

Feasibility

 A rapid transition to a carbon-free grid poses logistical challenges. We need enough suitable land to hold all that solar. (Agrivoltaics will help.) The federal government needs to identify new areas of the ocean for offshore wind turbines. We also need solutions to seasonal fluctuations in demand. We need new transmission lines. We need enough lithium for batteries, steel for turbines, silicon for solar and a trained workforce, stat!  

Federal coordination will be key to solving many of these challenges, but we can also reduce land acquisition and transmission barriers if we don’t insist on replacing large, utility-owned fossil fuel power plants only with large, utility-owned wind and solar farms. Virginians will benefit far more if we prioritize solar and storage on rooftops, parking lots, brownfields, closed landfills and rights-of-way. That’s not just about space, but about assigning value to benefits like storm resilience, emergency preparedness and local jobs. 

For the same reason, we should insist on building homes better. Houses that are well insulated need less heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer, reducing the problem of seasonal swings in energy demand. (They are also healthier and more comfortable.)

Reliability

A rapid transition to a carbon-free grid is a climate imperative, but it’s still a tall order for a utility or a regulator whose job it is to keep the lights on. Batteries, energy efficiency and demand response programs can do only so much. Planners will also have to factor in the likelihood that by 2035, many vehicles will be electric, and electricity will replace gas appliances in new buildings and retrofits. Balancing supply and demand 24/7 with just today’s tools would not be an easy job. 

And, fortunately, they will not be working with today’s tools. The pace of change in energy and computer technology over the past 14 years will be matched or exceeded by the pace of the next 14. Green hydrogen gets all the press, but hundreds of other innovations will also combine to make a zero-carbon energy supply feasible and reliable — and, not incidentally, far better for people and the planet than what we have now. 

In fact, we are witnessing the launch of a new era in energy, what Tony Seba’s RethinkX Project calls “the fastest, deepest, most profound disruption of the energy sector in over a century,” driven by low-cost solar, wind and battery storage (SWB).

The Project’s report Rethinking Energy 2020-2030 puts it this way: “The SWB disruption of energy will closely parallel the digital disruption of information technology. Just as computers and the Internet slashed the marginal cost of information and opened the door to hundreds of new business models that collectively have had a transformative impact upon the global economy, so too will SWB slash the marginal cost of electricity and create a plethora of opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship. What happened in the world of bits is now poised to happen in the world of electrons.” 

So, a carbon-free grid by 2035? Bring it on, President Biden. Virginia is ready.

A version of this article ran in the Virginia Mercury on April 16, 2021.

The “fuel” that’s helping America fight climate change isn’t natural gas

You’ve heard the good news on climate: after a century or more of continuous rise, U.S. CO2 emissions have finally begun to decline, due largely to changes in the energy sector. According to the Energy Information Agency (EIA), energy-related CO2 emissions in 2015 were 12% below their 2005 levels. The EIA says this is “because of the decreased use of coal and the increased use of natural gas for electricity generation.”

Is the EIA right in making natural gas the hero of the CO2 story? Hardly. Sure, coal-to-gas switching is real. But take a look at this graph showing the contributors to declining carbon emissions. Natural gas displacement of coal accounts for only about a third of the decrease in CO2 emissions.

Courtesy of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign, using data from the Energy Information Agency.

Courtesy of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign, using data from the Energy Information Agency.

By far the biggest driver of the declining emissions is energy efficiency. Americans are using less energy overall, even as our population grows and our economy expands

Energy efficiency is sometimes called the “first fuel” because cutting waste is a cheaper and faster way to meet energy demand than building new power plants. Improvements in energy performance cut across all sectors of the economy, from industrial machines to home electronics to innovations like LED bulbs replacing famously wasteful incandescent light bulbs.

Energy efficiency’s stunning success in lowering carbon emissions should get more attention, and not just because it is cheaper than building new natural gas-fired power plants. Efficiency has no downsides. Natural gas has plenty. Indeed, when methane leakage from drilling and infrastructure is factored in, natural gas doesn’t look much like a climate hero at all.

And that’s not the full story. A growing share of the credit for carbon reductions also goes to non-carbon-emitting sources, primarily wind, and solar. Both sources exhibit double-digit growth rates. Wind power in the U.S. has grown from a little over 9,000 megawatts (MW) in 2005 to more than 74,000 MW by the end of 2015. In 2005, the solar market scarcely existed. By early this year, we had 29,000 MW installed.

The solar trend is particularly exciting because we are just starting to see the big numbers that result from solar’s exponential growth. In the first quarter of 2016, more solar came online in the U.S. than all other power sources combined. Analysts like Bloomberg New Energy Finance see solar becoming the world’s dominant energy source over the next 25 years, driving out not just coal but also a lot of gas generation as solar becomes the cheapest way to make energy.

For an inspiring look at how this will happen, check out this presentation by author Tony Seba. As Seba argues, solar isn’t a commodity like fossil fuels; it is a technology like computers and cell phones. When technologies like these take off, they take over. Seba refers to solar technology, battery storage, electric vehicles and self-driving vehicles as “disruptive” technologies that are advancing together to upend our energy and transportation sectors.

Another graph shows us how critical these advancements will be. The U.S. is on track to achieve President Obama’s goal announced last year of lowering carbon emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, but we will need more aggressive measures to meet our Paris Agreement target of 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. After 2025, of course, we will have to cut greenhouse emissions even further and faster.

Slide4Given the urgency of the climate crisis, we don’t have the option of waiting around for the solar revolution to bankrupt the oil and gas industry and fossil-bound electric utilities. These companies will not go quietly; already they are maneuvering to lock customers into fossil fuels. Power producers are engaged in a mad rush to build natural gas plants, and wherever possible, to stick utility customers with the costs.

For Virginians who have felt especially under attack from fracked gas projects recently, this final graph shows it’s not your imagination: Virginia is second only to Texas in new gas plant development underway. And this graph captures only a fraction of the new gas that Virginia’s major utility, Dominion Virginia Power, wants to build. In presentations to state officials, it revealed plans for more than 9,000 megawatts of additional gas generating capacity.

Based on Energy Information Agency data. Chart excludes natural gas generating units already under construction as well as those scheduled to come online after 2020.

Based on Energy Information Agency data. Chart excludes natural gas generating units already under construction as well as those scheduled to come online after 2020.

Dominion and other gas-happy utilities are betting that once plants are built and consumers are on the hook, regulators won’t want to see them idled ten years from now just because renewable energy has made them obsolete.

Indeed, Dominion and other utilities, including Duke Energy, Southern Company, and NextEra in the Southeast and DTE Energy in the Midwest, even plan to use electricity customers to make money for the gas pipelines they are building, locking Americans further into gas.

This is madness. The only sound energy plan today is one that looks forward to an era of minimal fossil fuel use. It puts efficiency and renewables front and center, shifting natural gas and other fuels to supporting roles that will shrink over time.

The shift is inevitable. Delaying it means allowing the climate crisis to worsen, while sticking customers with higher bills for decades to come. That may suit some utilities just fine, but the cost is too high for the rest of us.