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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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The Biggest Hurdle In The Race To 100% Renewable Energy

Despite the fact that United States president Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris climate agreement back in 2017, there are many, many companies, politicians, and constituents that have not given up on moving away from fossil fuels and toward meeting the carbon emissions cap set by the accord. In fact, polling shows that a majority of United States citizens still support the United States’ adherence to the Paris agreement, and a huge number of U.S. states have maintained their own official clean energy goals, with Washington and Hawaii even going so far as to pass legislature explicitly targeting 100 percent clean energy.

It therefore goes without saying that it has become an increasingly hot topic to determine how such a lofty goal can realistically be achieved. There is currently a debate between factions of clean energy experts as to whether the United States’ vast energy demand can be met purely through zero-emissions renewable energy, or if renewable energy will have to be augmented with other alternatives, such as nuclear power, natural gas, or biofuels. 

As Vox reports of this clean-energy divide, “at the heart of the debate is the simple fact that the two biggest sources of renewable energy — wind and solar power — are ‘variable.’ They come and go with the weather and time of day. They are not ‘dispatchable,’ which means they cannot be turned on and off, or up and down, according to the grid’s needs. They don’t adjust to the grid; the grid adjusts to them.”

The simplest and most realistic solution for creating the kind of flexibility that the grid would need in order to run smoothly off of renewable energy lies in energy storage. This is not a novel idea--in fact, the energy storage industry is already booming. According to Energy Storage News’ reporting based on an April Wood Mackenzie analysis, “grid-connected energy storage deployments have increased significantly around the world in the past five years, with an impressive compound annual growth rate of “74% worldwide in the years 2013 to 2018, with a ‘boom’ in deployment figures expected over the next five years.” Related: Will Shale Rise From The Dead?

Pushing the energy storage surge is a flurry of development in China. As OilPrice reported last month, “China is set to become the single biggest energy storage market in the Asia Pacific region by 2024, according to new reporting by British data analysis and consultancy group Wood Mackenzie. The company’s July 9th report states in no uncertain terms that the country is poised to take over the energy storage market, as its ‘cumulative energy storage capacity is projected to skyrocket from 489 megawatts (MW) or 843 megawatt-hours (MWh) in 2017 to 12.5 gigawatts (GW) or 32.1GWh in 2024,” an impressive increase ”in the installed base of 25 times.’”

Although the energy storage industry is already in full swing and expanding rapidly, however, the United States (or any other country, for that matter) will not be able to achieve an energy mix with 100 percent renewables unless energy storage becomes considerably less expensive. As of now, it is simply too cost-prohibitive to install enough energy storage to absorb all of the supply fluctuations a renewable-powered grid may have.

This has let an MIT research lab to look into the question: “How cheap is cheap enough?” The study, entitled “Storage Requirements and Costs of Shaping Renewable Energy Toward Grid Decarbonization“ determined that, in short, energy storage will have to cost $20 per kilowatt hour in energy capacity or cheaper in order for a 100 percent renewable future to be realistic in the United States. 

As Vox points out, “that’s around a 90 percent drop from today’s costs.” The article goes on to say that, “while that is entirely within the realm of the possible, there is wide disagreement over when it might happen; few expect it by 2030.” And, unfortunately, time is of the essence. Last year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that in order to keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial averages this century, the planet will have to cut carbon emissions by 45 percent by 2030 and down to zero by the middle of the century. 

While energy storage holds a lot of promise to help us meet this goal, it will have to become pretty cheap pretty soon in order to make the kind of dent in carbon emissions that we need. 

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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