Renewables’ growing price advantage over fossil fuels paves way for industry dominance

Renewables’ growing price advantage over fossil fuels paves way for industry dominance

Correction: The Conservative Climate Foundation is convening Republican delegates at COP28. A previous version of this article contained incorrect information.

Renewables are reaching the point where they are outcompeting fossil fuels on price — setting the stage for their predicted dominance of the energy sector by midcentury.

When it comes to the surging demand for new electric generation, wind and solar prices are now the cheapest options almost everywhere, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Building new wind and solar projects is also cheaper than running existing coal plants, according to a report from Energy Innovation, a nonpartisan climate policy think tank.

The fall in price has led to a global rush to install new wind and solar — which the IEA noted expanded by nearly 25 percent in 2023, powered by record installations.

And the IEA added that prices are falling further — particularly in the U.S., where the tax credits from the Democrats’ 2022 clean energy stimulus will begin to take full effect in 2024.

In 2021 — before the passage of the sweeping subsidies for clean energy included in that stimulus — the U.S. government estimated that no matter what, solar power was likely to make up half of U.S. electric generation by midcentury.

The country is passing a “tipping point” beyond which renewables are the status quo option, said Timothy Lenton, chair of the climate department at the University of Exeter.

Lenton said that by midcentury, even if climate policies remain no more generous than they are now, renewables will make up three-quarters of U.S. electricity production.

Lenton is a coauthor of a recent report by the Bezos Earth Fund that found power generation from renewables was doubling on average every 3 1/2 years worldwide.

This level of renewable adoption, he argued, is becoming the floor of global ambition, not the ceiling. At the United Nations climate conference (COP28) in Dubai last week, the U.S. joined 110 other nations in agreeing to triple renewable energy production.

“And if you add more climate policies, it will only go faster,” Lenton said, noting this level of growth was becoming both exponential and “hard to stop.”

“There’s a self-propelling, ever stronger feedback loop behind the transformation,” he said. The question now, he said, isn’t whether the change is going to happen. “Now it’s more about how fast or slow to go, and how hard are the incumbents going to fight to hold the status quo.”

The incumbents are currently fighting hard. The global fossil fuel industry has sent more than 2,400 lobbyists to COP28, marking a rate of increase that outpaces the rising attendance of lobbyists and business groups at the conference as a whole.

At COP28 — where negotiators are currently wrangling over a potential agreement to reduce fossil fuel production levels — summit president Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, who also leads the United Arab Emirates’s national oil company, and Exxon CEO Darren Woods challenged the idea that renewables could support the global electric system.

Exxon, like fossil fuel companies and major national producers worldwide — including the United States — hopes to keep increasing production of oil and natural gas. Exxon just paid $60 billion to acquire gas giant Pioneer National Resources.

Fossil fuel executives like Woods and al-Jaber have argued that rapid advances in technology can capture virtually all of the planet-warming chemicals expelled when fossil fuels are burned — a goal that the IEA has called “an illusion.”

Woods argued the idea that a mass rollout of “carbon capture” technology is a fantasy could as easily be applied to renewables.

“There is no solution set out there today that is at the scale to solve the problem,” Woods told Reuters.

“So, you could say that about carbon capture today, you could say that about electric vehicles, about wind, about solar. I think that criticism is legitimate for anything that we’re trying to do, to start with,” he said.

And a dozen GOP members of the House Conservative Climate Caucus will head to Dubai next week, where they are set to argue for the role of fossil fuels as a climate solution.

The organization’s site argues that “with innovative technologies, fossil fuels can and should be a major part of the global solution.”

The caucus is also advocating for more nuclear power and domestic mining of the critical materials needed for battery technology.

At COP28, “Republicans are going to be talking more about how fossil fuels are not a transition field that should be phased out,” Heather Reams, president of Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions and co-chair of the Conservative Climate Foundation’s (CCF) board of directors. The CCF is convening Republican delegates at COP28.

Like Woods, Reams argued renewable technology was not yet prepared to support the grid and that overreliance on it risked leaving the U.S. “in the dark,” as well as that the “clean fossil fuels” represented a key element of the future of U.S. energy production.

Such a vision has substantial political and financial obstacles. The Biden administration estimates that capturing meaningful levels of the nation’s carbon dioxide will require 96,000 miles of new pipelines — a proposal that is politically contentious among U.S. farmers.

And installing technologies to capture greenhouse gasses on fossil fuel power plants would further raise prices for a sector already struggling to compete with renewables, as Gregory Nemet, a professor at the University of Wisconsin who studies the public policy of technology change, told The Hill.

As Reuters noted, 68 gas plants were canceled or put on hold in the first half of 2023 — thanks to a boom in new large-scale battery storage plants

“It’s just kind of incomprehensible that you would add 50 or 100 percent, to the cost of a fossil power plant that’s already more expensive than building renewables — even if you have to buy batteries too,” Nemet said.

Investment in carbon capture technology reflects this financial reality. According to the IEA, the fossil fuel industry has invested less than 0.1 percent of the funds in such technology that would be needed to meaningfully capture their waste streams. By comparison, the IEA has estimated that renewables investment needs to roughly triple by 2030 to meet global climate goals.

The declining financials of gas plants are a problem in one sense: They are still the only widespread form of “dispatchable” power, or that — like a backup generator in a home — which can produce power on demand.

That is a concern as rising electrification — driven by the embrace of heat pumps and electric vehicles (EVs) and the surging power demands of the push toward artificial intelligence — begins driving up U.S. electrical demand for the first time in decades.

Much of that demand can be met by new technologies that allow homes — and even individual devices and chargers — to “talk” to the grid, avoiding rolling blackouts.

In the current grid, the production of electricity has to exactly match its consumption to avoid dangerous spikes in power — particularly because there historically was no way to store electricity when it is plentiful and no way to reduce demand when it is not.

But new smart-grid technology allows homes and devices to communicate their specific electric demands to the collective grid — which in turn enables managers to reduce that demand by, say, turning smart thermostats in a given area down by a degree, or postponing EV charging until demand levels fall.

Such technologies also open the possibility for “virtual power plants” that buy back power from EVs and home-scale battery storage.

But they aren’t yet sufficient to close the gap between rising electricity demand and current renewable levels, said Arshad Mansoor, CEO of the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a public interest research and development firm.

In general, however, Mansoor argued that the obstacles to cleaning up the U.S. grid aren’t technological — they are political and regulatory.

The problems with renewables’ ability to produce power on demand are getting smaller and smaller, Nemet said — a “miracle” driven in large part by the new battery technology.

Utility-scale batteries help hold onto the spiking electric supply from transient renewable power for a few hours until it’s most needed.

They have also benefited from plummeting prices. The price per hour of battery storage fell by 85 percent in the past decade.

And that price fall appears to be accelerating: Investment bank Goldman Sachs estimated battery prices would fall from their current level of $139 per kilowatt to below $99 by 2025 — faster than researchers anticipated.

Amid the falling prices, the production of the batteries has rapidly expanded. Between June and September, the U.S. installed 3 gigawatts of new utility-scale battery storage.

That’s a large increase in absolute terms — enough to power 3 million households during the critical evening hours when solar production is decreasing and electricity demand is spiking as people come home from work.

But it is also a sign of staggering growth: A 30 percent hike in battery installations over levels seen earlier that year — nearly twice the capacity installed just the previous quarter, for a threefold increase in total capacity in just two years

The rise of that battery technology, for which Nelmet credited policy, “really opens up the possibility to have clean energy that’s affordable, and reliable, and actually address climate change in a way that people really didn’t think was possible 15 years ago.”

The expansion in batteries — in addition to the rise of smarter grids, “which means a smaller grid” — isn’t enough to entirely replace gas plants just yet, Nemet said.

“But it means that there are about seven things you can do” before it becomes necessary to turn on gas plants, he said — a list that ranges from demand management to connecting different power markets with new transmission lines to being sure that municipalities have overlapping coverage from both wind and solar, so that one can support the other when supply is low.

And the pace of battery installation is picking up exponentially. Financial analysts at S&P Global predict that U.S. battery storage will double three times by 2030 — from 10 gigawatts in 2023 to more than 80 gigawatts by 2030.

Some battery boosters argue that even this is an undercount — because investment in battery storage industry doesn’t yet fully reflect the 30 percent price break that the Biden stimulus program gives to clean energy projects.

According to researchers at Statista, Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act will lead to 2,300 utility-scale battery storage projects by the end of the decade — 230 times the number that existed in 2021.

While most current utility-scale batteries can only hold a few hours of power, the Department of Energy is experimenting with new batteries that can hold up to 24 hours — and new forms of battery on the horizon could hold electricity for up to 100 hours.

This is creating a scenario in which gas plants — whether or not their pollution is captured — may be increasingly irrelevant, Nemet told The Hill. Policymakers, he said, should ask, “Could we do better on a system focused on cheap wind, solar and batteries?”

Updated Dec. 11 at 11:37 a.m.

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