The energy grid and generation mix are undergoing a significant transformation. And, by extension, so is the price of the electricity they deliver. The first article in this series surveyed the latest and sometimes greatest in traditional energy sources such as coal and natural gas. Now it’s time to shift focus to renewables.
Wind – More Boom, Not Bust
In the midst of an ongoing wave of investment and innovation, wind generation in many areas of the U.S. is now more attractive than coal and is cost competitive with natural gas.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), for example, is expected to add 2.5 gigawatts (GW) of wind capacity to the grid it operates in 2016, compared to only 1.1 GW of additional gas capacity. Simultaneously, a long-distance high-voltage direct-current (HVDC) power line that will connect the large wind capacity of the Great Plains to the Southeast is scheduled to begin operation in 2020. And other HVDC lines are in the planning stages.
Across the country, recently renewed federal subsidies are also spurring wind generation in both new and existing markets.
However, wind’s outlook is not without turbulence; key challenges remain. The greatest obstacle to wind as a generation source is the current grid design. In many parts of the world, electricity grids are set up to handle the flow of relatively stable power from large nuclear, hydro or coal plants. The variability of wind and its geographic limitations — i.e., states in the center of the U.S. are extremely breezy, while the coastal states are much less so — places extra pressure on peaking fossil-fuel plants and the existing transmission capacity network.
Essentially, brown power is currently needed to back up green.
To change the grid in order to incorporate the low marginal cost of wind will require expenses beyond the construction and upkeep of wind turbines and farms. Despite this challenge, the raw economics make sense and the wind boom will continue.
While solar occupies a tiny portion of the overall electricity portfolio in the U.S. — it’s the 1 percent… of the generation mix — the solar future is bright and can’t be ignored. The total output from solar last year was 38 terawatt-hours, a 20-fold increase over the amount produced in 2011. With current utility-scale costs at 11.6 cents per kilowatt-hour, solar is competitive with natural gas and coal in many regions, even without subsidies, which companies always welcome.
The single biggest challenge to solar is the feet dragging from utilities that are reluctant to integrate large-scale and distributed solar, e.g. on rooftops or carports, onto the grid. The bottlenecks will likely be solved (or stagnated) at the state level without a defined national policy.
A Look Into the Future
In the end, electricity and energy are influenced through policy decisions as often as they are by pure market fundamentals. A national carbon tax, for instance, could dramatically alter the generation mix in a matter of years, not decades.
Whatever the future for the electric power sector, the next few years will be the most enlightening since the Rural Electrification Act of 1936. (Part of the New Deal, it was a big deal, trust me.)
Contributed by Daniel Holder, Commodity Analyst, Schneider Electric