The Future of American Power Plants: Greener Than You Thought?

June 2014


Sunlight-reflecting mirrors at the Ivanpah solar plant in the Mojave Desert. Photography by Jamey Stillings.

Much of the news about climate change has a depressing ring to it; it seems like political action continually lags way behind what we should be doing, given the scientific knowledge about the pace of global warming. But a recent TIME article  by Michael Grunwald entitled “The Green Revolution” provided some reason for cautious optimism.

Grunwald argues that financial incentives for clean energy launched during President Obama’s first term in office, along with other factors, have actually brought about a major shift in the design of new power plants during the last five years. He also predicts a potentially even bigger shift in the utility industry due to the boom of rooftop solar panels: this boom is turning many homeowners from passive consumers into electricity producers who have much more information about, and control over, their part of the power equation.

Here are some of the numbers Grunwald presented to make his case:

  • While solar- and wind-powered plants currently produce less than 6% of U.S. electricity, compared to 39% for coal, they have an impressive growth trajectory, accounting for 90% of the new power capacity installed in the first quarter of 2014. Between 2002 and 2012, the number of renewable electric power plants has almost tripled. In contrast, 20% of the nation’s coal-fired power plants have been retired during the last five years, or are scheduled to retire in the near future. Grunwald gives at least partial credit for this “dirty energy” downsizing to mounting regulatory costs imposed by the federal government.

  • A first-of-its kind solar thermal plant called “Crescent Dunes” is being built in Nevada’s high desert area between Las Vegas and Reno. It is powered by several hundred thousand mirrors that direct the sun’s energy toward heating up some 70 million pounds of molten salt. Once the salt has reached extremely high temperatures, it is stored in a tank in which the excess heat generates electricity by spinning steam turbines. Since the hot salt can be stored for extended periods of time, electricity generation is not dependent on sunshine hours, which is usually a major drawback of renewable energy systems based upon sun or wind.
  • Grunwald believes that electricity storage challenges for wind-based power plants may be overcome by advances in wind-tracking technology, along with the ability of gas plants to be turned on and off pretty quickly. Thus far, natural gas has replaced most of the 20% of coal plants that have been, or will soon be, retired, thanks to the so-called fracking boom.
  • While much work has yet to be done to develop renewable systems that provide on-demand electricity the way coal, oil and natural gas do, the energy stored in these earth reserves can be matched by the energy from just 20 days of sunshine. And desert areas like Nevada’s exist in sufficient numbers worldwide that only 4% of them would have to be covered with photovoltaic panels to supply the equivalent of all of the world’s electricity. The number of jobs in the U.S. solar (150,000) and wind (50,000) industries together now matches that in the coal industry (200,000), and is likely to surpass it in the near future.
  • The same federal loan program, run by the Department of Energy, that provided much of the seed funding for “Crescent Dunes” is also funding the construction of the world’s largest solar thermal plant in California, and the world’s largest photovoltaic solar plant in Arizona. The governmental dollar push seems to have worked, as many private companies are now building solar plants without federal loans. However, federal incentives are rarely set in stone: the commercial developer of “Crescent Dunes” plans to build additional solar plants in Chile and South Africa because there is a chance that U.S. tax credits set to expire in 2016 may not be renewed, depending on who President Obama’s successor will be.
  • Since the cost of photovoltaic panels has dropped more than 80% in the past five years, several states have already realized that solar is the least expensive way of paying for electricity going forward. Georgia is currently the fastest-growing solar state; North Carolina, Idaho and Texas have all implemented a fairly drastic shift toward renewables in their recent utility planning decisions.
  • An even bigger change may be brought about by the boom of rooftop solar panel installations on private homes and commercial buildings: more panels were installed in the past 18 months than in the previous 30 years. Homeowners who are now electricity producers, instead of just consumers, are becoming something of a threat to traditional utility companies. New kinds of energy companies that help customers manage their electricity consumption and reduce their reliance on the utility grid are already starting to pop up. Grunwald predicts that the rooftop solar boom may have a similarly large effect on the power sector as the internet had on newspaper publishers.
  • Grunwald gives credit to several federal energy efficiency rules, as well as the Great Recession, for the fact that U.S. electricity demand is now virtually flat; this is a sharp contrast from the continuing growth of the demand curve during the past several decades.
  • The U.S., Australia and Western Europe are not the only countries that have started to embrace renewable energy. Large-scale initiatives are happening even in countries that are rich in oil reserves, such as Saudi Arabia, which has committed $100 billion to solar power. China, currently one of the worst coal-based polluters worldwide, plans to produce 250 gigawatts of wind and solar power by 2020, which would make it the world’s largest market for renewables.

Almost all of these numbers sound encouraging…so let’s hope that the “Green Revolution” will continue to build momentum!

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