Logo

 

Dirt Cheap Clean Energy

The most exciting news is coming sooner than I expected. The moment where the biggest fights become where to put all of the wind and solar, rather than having to endlessly fight off plans for nuclear, coal, oil, or gas power plants, or biomass or waste incinerators.

The lines are already crossing. These are the economic lines where the cost of wind and solar actually becomes cheaper than the cheapest of dirty energy sources (which, at the moment, is natural gas). In the past handful of months, research has shown that -- even without subsidies -- land-based wind power is now cheaper to build than natural gas combined cycle power plants which, themselves, have been undercutting nuclear, coal, biomass and trash incinerators in recent years, causing some to close because they can't compete with the momentarily cheap gas.

Solar power is on a path to undercut fossil fuels within five years, leading to headlines about how solar power could slay the fossil fuel empire by 2030 and whether new super efficient affordable solar panels could trump fossil fuels. The Boston Globe recently reported on how renewable energy is starting to win on price.

The most amazing chart is this one published in Bloomberg in October, titled "Welcome to the Terrordome." It shows solar prices coming down from the sky like a lightning bolt in the last few years, shooting down to levels under Brent (oil) and liquefied natural gas (LNG) prices, and fast approaching U.S. bituminous coal and Henry Hub (natural gas) prices.

...and it's just in time, since we'll soon be running short on natural gas. As fracking for natural gas takes over in recent years, the myths about gas supply echo that of coal -- supposedly hundreds of years of supply left. However, coal production in the U.S. has peaked and U.S. gas production is likely to peak by 2017. When a resource peaks, we've used up the cheap half. This means costs will rise as production can't keep up with demand, and more extreme extraction methods become necessary.

Thankfully, nearly all of our energy needs can be met by a combination of conservation, efficiency, wind, solar and energy storage. Demand reduction must be prioritized, cutting use at least in half, which would put the U.S. on par with per capita energy use in Europe. A 2012 study out of the University of Delaware showed that wind, solar and energy storage can meet our electricity needs with 99.9% reliability by 2030, cost effectively, with no government subsidies. Stanford University researchers have shown that all energy (including transportation and heating sector use) can be provided by conservation, efficiency, wind, solar, geothermal and hydropower (including ocean power) by 2050, while saving money, improving health and creating jobs.

Of course, there is no free lunch. Normal wind turbines use about two tons of a rare earth metal, neodymium, which is mined in horribly destructive ways in China, yet neodymium-free turbines exist and could be something we demand. Solar has a toxic reputation, for good reason, yet solar technology keeps evolving. Some newer types (like nanotech varieties) could be highly toxic, while others reduce or eliminate use of toxic materials. Even energy efficiency can be wasteful where it involves having to replace materials in buildings, lighting, appliances and motors. Material shortages can limit the clean energy dream, and it's hard to say where this limit may be. However, the status quo is terribly worse. This transition must be done as soon as we can, and as just and as democratically as we can.

This clean energy revolution is freaking out the energy utilities, who are seeing the writing on the wall if wind and solar are produced in a decentralized way where their centralized business model isn't needed. Some are even organizing and getting states (like Arizona) to make it more expensive for people to put solar on their roof and are using race-baiting tactics such as encouraging the Congressional Black Caucus to see net metering as harming their constituents (a claim that NAACP and other environmental justice advocates are pushing back against).

Ultimately, we need our movement for energy justice to be a movement that not only stops dirty energy in its tracks, but builds solutions that are decentralized, publicly-owned, and democratically controlled. Public utilities must truly be public to have economic incentives to use less. We can do this. We must.