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Why Is The U.S. So Far Behind In The Renewable Revolution?


America’s prowess in renewable energy capacity is unquestioned. According to the Renewable Energy Policy Network, by the end of 2015, the seven countries with the highest capacity of renewable energy (not including hydro power) are China (199GW), U.S.(122GW), and Germany (92GW) followed by Japan (43GW), India (36GW), Italy (33GW), and Spain (32W), Figure 1.

Figure 1

(Click to enlarge)

The same report states, “considering investments made in new renewable power and fuels relative to annual GDP, top countries include Mauritania, Honduras, Uruguay, Morocco and Jamaica. The leading countries for investment per inhabitant were Iceland, the United Kingdom, Uruguay, Japan and Ireland.”

America’s energy flow from the perspective of resources and consumption serve as an invaluable tool to visualize the U.S. energy mix and their interrelationships. The energy flow charts, Figures 2 and 3, from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are a single page reference that illustrates energy and material flows in a way that distinguishes between resources, transformations and demand sectors, and thereby, details the sources of energy production, how they are used and how much waste exists. The Figures model the U.S. Energy Flow for 2010 and 2015, respectively.

The size of each box and the thickness of each line is a relative measure of the amount of energy delivered, received or lost. It displays the connections between primary energy resources (fossil, nuclear, hydro and renewables) on the far left, and end-use sectors categorized into residential, commercial, industrial, and transportation on the right. Energy is expressed in Quads, where a quad is equal to 10E15 BTU or 1.055 × 10E18 joules (1.055 exajoules or EJ) in SI units.

Electricity Generation (EG) is listed midway between the primary sources of energy and the final demand centers. The reason for this is EG’s role as a secondary source of energy; transforming primary energy resources (resources listed on the left) into electricity consumed by the end-use sectors and heat energy lost (large gray line on its right side)

The grey boxes on the far right quantify “Rejected Energy” and “Energy Services.” Rejected energy refers to energy that's lost and not used, such as energy released as waste heat from boilers, car engines and power turbines. Energy Services refer to energy that is used to perform work.

This discussion shall focus on the left side of the chart – Energy Source. Sources of renewable energy include Solar, Wind, Geothermal and Biomass. Hydro (hydropower, hydroelectric) is excluded as a renewable source of energy. Related: Tech Giants Make Major Bet On Battery Boom

Not everyone agrees on whether hydropower should be classified as a renewable source of energy. There are many schools of thought, and qualification varies state-by-state. “One argument against qualification is that most hydroelectric facilities were built before adoption of renewable portfolio standards (explained later in this discussion); a mandate to increase production of energy from renewable resources such as wind, solar, biomass, geothermal and new waterpower technologies. Another argument points out that conventional hydroelectric plants interrupt the flow of rivers and can harm local ecosystems, and that building large dams and reservoirs involve displacing people and wildlife. However, unconventional hydropower using currents, waves, and tidal energy to produce electricity is less disruptive and qualifies as renewable.”

Conversely, biomass is considered a renewable source of energy. Biomass “is an energy source that is derived from crop waste and wood, but it is also derived from garbage, manure, sewage sludge and other organic waste that society continuously produces. For this reason, biomass is considered to be a natural and renewable source.”

Figure 2

(Click to enlarge)

Figure 3

(Click to enlarge)

Looking at America’s energy mix between 2015 and 2010, utilization of renewables grew approximately 1.8 quads; [wind (+0.9 quads), biomass (+0.43 quads), solar (+0.42 quads) and geothermal (+0.1 quads)]. While, utilization of fossil fuels declined about 2 quads; [coal (-5.12 quads), petroleum (-0.57 quads) and natural gas (+3.65 quads)], during the same period.

Increase in natural gas, the cleanest burning fossil fuel, utilization at the expense of coal in electricity power generation is attributed to stringent air quality standards by the EPA and plentiful supplies of domestic and relatively inexpensive natural gas from the shale gas bonanza afforded by technologies such as the hydraulic fracturing of hydrocarbon laced shale formations.

With regards to the renewable energy and fossil debate, it’s pertinent to note that a 2014 press release from the DOE Office of Fossil Energy stated: “ …. the DOE, EPA and DOI’s (Department of Interior) U.S. Geological Survey signed a related memorandum of agreement initiating multi-agency collaboration on unconventional oil and gas research (includes hydrofracturing of shale formations). The President’s FY 2014 budget request allocates $44.7 million to fund this effort.” The point is DOE’s ongoing interest in bolstering fossil fuel utilization. Related: Trump Set To Pull U.S. Out Of Paris Climate Deal

The energy flow charts also indicate:

• Renewable resources and fossil fuels constitute about 90 percent of U.S. energy mix in both 2010 and 2015. The remaining 10 percent is made up of hydropower and nuclear energy.

• The share of renewables in U.S. energy mix increased 1.8 percent from 2010 (5.65 percent) to 2015 (7.49 percent),

• The share of fossil fuels in U.S. energy mix declined 1.7 percent from 2010 (83.2 percent) to 2015 (81.5 percent),

• Petroleum was the predominate energy source constituting no less than 36 percent of all energy sources in both 2010 and 2015.

• Natural gas showed the most significant increase in usage of any energy source growing 15 percent (+3.65 quads) from 2010 to 2015,

• The other fossil fuel and one of the dirtiest, Coal, showed the largest decrease of any energy source declining 25 percent (-5.12 quads) from 2010 to 2015,

• The share of hydro power and nuclear energy in U.S. energy mix remained relatively stable from 2010 to 2015,

• Wind energy showed the largest growth in renewable energy generation, an increase of approximately 0.9 quads from 2010 to 2015,

• Both biomass and solar energy grew about 0.42 quads during the same period,

• Geothermal showed negligible growth during the same 5-year period.

A salient feature of the chart has to do with the slight change in overall energy consumption between 2010 and 2015. The U.S. population grew by 11.35 million from 308.74 million in 2010 and 320.1 million by 2015. According to Figures 5 and 6, total U.S. energy generation was 97.92 and 97.43 quads in 2010 and 2015, respectively. Therefore, as population increased, society’s demand for energy decreased by 0.5 quads. It’s a long shot, but this reduction in energy consumption from a larger population base may equate to some degree the effectiveness of the effectiveness of DOE’s Energy Efficiency programs.

Another, meaningful, measure to determine DOE’s effectiveness in transitioning America to a low carbon-energy future is the share (percentage) of renewable energy (hydro, wind, geothermal and solar) in total electric generation.

This measure gives an entirely different picture from capacity statistics. Figure 4 shows 2015 share of renewables (including hydropower) by countries; data compiled by Enerdata. The red bar shows America’s share of renewable energy at 13.8 percent (about 7.5 percent without hydro, see Figure 3). The U.S. ranked 28th of the 44 countries included in the study, i.e., 27 countries used a higher percentage of renewables in their economy than the U.S.

Figure 4

(Click to enlarge)

Source: Enerdata

Norway with a 98 percent share of renewable energy is the world leader and benchmark towards 100 percent renewable energy. The other top 10 countries for renewable energy utilization includes Brazil (73.5 percent), Venezuela (68.9 percent), Colombia (67.9 percent), Sweden (64.3 percent), Canada (62.7 percent), Portugal (49.3 percent), Romania (42.6 percent), Chile (41.6 percent), Italy (38.4 percent), and Spain (35.5 percent).

Most developed countries showed higher rates of renewables in their energy mix than the U.S. Though not shown in Figure 4, the U.S. share of renewables was also below the average share for the World (23.4 percent), OECD (23.6 percent), G7 (21.4 percent), BRICS (24.7 percent), Europe (34.2 percent), and North America (20.15).

A similar analysis conducted last year by the Author, showed the U.S. share of renewables in electricity production (including hydropower) at 13.7 percent in 2014. While the data points out the U.S. marginally increased its share of renewable energy by 0.1 percent in 2015, the U.S. ranked 27th in 2014, one position higher than 2015. Overall, U.S. usage of renewables on the world order remained relatively stable during this period, showing little or no meaningful growth.

One tool designed to stimulate demand of renewable sources of energy in electricity generation is Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS). RPS which “began as a policy concept from California in the mid-1990s, has emerged at the state level as an primary driver for renewable energy capacity additions in the U.S.” RPS rules have “been adopted in 29 states, Washington, D.C., and three territories, while eight states and one territory have set renewable energy goals.” In 2009, the US Congress considered Federal level RPS requirements. However, the proposed Support Renewable Energy Act died in the 111th Congress”

The primary objective of RPS is to offset emissions of greenhouse gases in electricity generation. The driving force behind the creation of RPS is the Clean Air Act (CAA) of 1970. The CAA directs the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop and enforce primary and secondary national ambient air quality standards for designated pollutants."

As a “market-friendly” way of ensuring adoption of a minimum amount of renewable energy throughout the economy, RPS is a widely-used mandate (relative to other renewable energy policy mechanisms) because it generally does not require governmental funding. ”RPS places an obligation on electricity retailers (generators) to provide a minimum percentage or quantity of their electricity supplies from renewable sources - such as wind, solar, biomass - and other alternatives to fossil and nuclear electric generation.” Other eligible technologies include “certain hydroelectric facilities*; ocean wave, thermal and tidal energy; fuel cells using renewable fuels; landfill gas; and municipal solid waste conversion, not the direct combustion of municipal solid waste.”

The RPS market-driven mechanism works by “certified renewable energy generators earning renewable energy certificates (REC) for every unit of electricity they produce and selling the RECs along with their electricity to supply companies. Supply companies then pass the certificates to a regulatory body to verify their compliance with their renewable energy obligations.”

The increase in wind power and solar utilization is also attributed to technological advances and competitive energy costs. Not only do wind and solar projects provide a clean source of electricity, they also help keep electric rates low and provide a hedge against fossil fuel price volatility. Wind and solar energy costs have declined over the past few years as wind turbine technology has matured with taller towers and improved turbine efficiencies and solar benefited by the flood of cheap silicon panels.

Wind energy is now one of the most cost-effective sources of new electricity generation, competing with new installations of other energy sources in wind-rich regions. According to Yale Environment 360, “Solar’s evolution over the past decade has been stunning, as falling prices and climbing demand drew photovoltaic costs level with, or below, power sources such as coal and even natural gas in some places.”

Excluding any possible renewable energy technology developments from the DOE, RSP, the most effective tool increasing the installed base of renewables in America’s energy landscape has its DNA in the EPA rather than the DOE. Recalling the Solyndra debacle (default of DOE’s $535 million loan guarantee to manufacture solar modules) as an example of wasted investments and intensive foreign competition especially in solar modules, it’s debatable whether DOE’s effort in providing new and improved renewable energy platforms has made any significant impact on improving U.S. adoption of renewable resources in its energy mix.

By Barry Stevens for Oilprice.com

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  • Dan on May 31 2017 said:
    All depends on what is most reliable. Natural Gas seems most dependable and cost effective taking in consideration of all development and repair of delivery systems.

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