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100 Percent Clean Energy Goals: What Will It Take To Get There?


By Larry Sherwood

(Renewable Energy World)

Here we are in 2019, with more than 100 U.S. cities and 140 large corporations having established 100 percent clean, carbon-free and/or renewable energy goals. In several states, newly seated governors campaigned on goals of 100 percent renewable energy, and congressional representatives have arrived in Washington positioning for a like-minded national proposal.

This is what leadership looks like – understanding the dire consequences of not immediately responding to the climate crisis at hand.

Some argue that 100 percent clean energy is not the right goal, as the last five to 20 percent will be hard to achieve. But even getting to 80 percent clean energy is a monumental step from where we are today.

The question is: what really has to happen to get from here to there, and what are the benefits such a transition will bring?

In order to avoid long-lasting and irreversible changes to the earth’s ecosystems, human health and well-being, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says human-caused carbon dioxide net emissions need to decrease 45 percent globally by 2030, from 2010 levels, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. To achieve these dramatic reductions in carbon we must both reduce the demand for energy – by improving the overall efficiency of homes, buildings and transportation sectors – and supply enough renewable and other carbon-free energy to meet remaining demand.

Only 18 percent of all U.S. electricity generation came from renewable sources in 2017, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA).

Across the U.S., states vary in the types and proportions of renewable generation in play. Across all states, energy efficiency serves as a critical energy resource that helps reduce overall demand for new generation, transmission and distribution grid investments. At the same time, energy storage is being deployed, enabling more streamlined integration of intermittent renewable energy resources, such as solar and wind – as we know the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, even in Texas and Midwest states that get as much as one-third of their electricity from wind power.

Here’s the amplifier. In addition to demand for electricity under business-as-usual scenarios, on the horizon is the potential for a dramatic increase in overall electricity usage resulting from the electrification of existing applications now fueled by fossil fuels, including vehicles, space and water heating, and industrial applications. The Electric Power Research Institute estimates that under an efficient electrification scenario driven by technological change, consumer choice and policy, electric use will increase by a whopping 49 percent over the next 30 years!

One can debate details of various clean energy scenarios. But it is clear that to meet goals of 80-100 percent carbon-free clean energy and meet projected demand for electricity, including significantly more electric vehicles, there will need to be an expedited shift toward more energy efficiency, renewable energy and energy storage – in both the built environment and mainstream new construction – along with other enabling technologies, such as smart inverters and advanced metering. And cross-industry professions will need to update their operations and skill sets to support a clean energy workforce.

The good news is that many of our challenges are coming into focus, with viable solutions. What’s required is a new way of thinking about the electricity grid.

Fundamental changes are necessary to the grid, to both how it operates and how it is planned and managed over time. Renewable energy sources will need to be integrated with storage, demand response and other smart communications and control technologies so all resources are optimized, without compromising the reliability of the grid.

There needs to be easy and affordable ways to connect clean energy resources and technologies to the grid, through more streamlined interconnection processes, which are regulated by the states.

Consumers will need straightforward, cost-effective mechanisms to adopt and benefit from clean energy. Policies and programs will need to address equitable access, so multi-family households, renters and low- and moderate-income consumers directly benefit from clean energy programs.

Utilities and regulators will likely need to address how utilities earn revenue and profit, to remove the disincentives to a 100 percent clean and more distributed energy future.

In a sentence, the safety and security of the grid must be strengthened, and all consumers must have access to affordable, reliable service.

Cutting Edge Considerations for Clean Energy Goals  

With the advent of new technologies, the importance of anticipation and planning can’t be overstated, primarily on the state level. We are already beginning to see new issues emerge that warrant closer attention, as they will surely impact the prospects of a 100 percent clean energy future. Here are just a few examples.

Who owns and controls assets such as energy storage and the decisions regarding their operations (and how they affect customers) are challenging issues that policymakers, regulators and technology providers will need to address. In addition, the appropriate price signals, tariffs, and incentives will need to be in place.

Protecting the security of the electricity grid is an emerging area of discussion. Which issues are real and most critical to address? Consumer information, data sharing and privacy are all considerations.

The grid will need to become more flexible and responsive to real-time conditions. Generation may need to be modified or curtailed. Energy storage technologies will need to be set to store renewable energy for later use. There will need to be sufficient customer protections and/or compensation mechanisms in place to avoid major negative economic impacts on investments.

States will need to address long-awaited new national standards for distributed energy resources (DERs) and the rollout of smart inverters (IEEE Standard 1547-2018), which will transform how DERs interact with the electric distribution system. The standard outlines specific grid supportive functionalities relating to voltage, frequency, communications and controls. Once they are widely utilized, these functionalities will likely enable higher penetration of distributed resources on the grid, while maintaining grid safety and reliability and providing new grid and consumer benefits.

The electrification of transportation and heating is a movement likely to increase, for environmental and economic reasons. In order to avoid a huge increase in pollution and carbon emissions, electrification will require a focus on expanding deployment of clean, renewable resources to meet this new demand.

Cross-industry professions will need to update their operations and skill sets and embrace new technologies. Fire fighters and building code officials will need training to deal with distributed generation and energy storage systems. Real estate professionals will need to understand how to appropriately value buildings which are cleaner and more efficient. Community planners and zoning officials will need to support proactive urban planning and development that is inherently more energy efficient and powered with renewable energy, like community solar.

Small business owners and large industrial operations will need support with energy management and training. Utility distribution engineers and grid operators will need to be trained to integrate, optimize and interconnect higher volumes of distributed generation and energy storage on the grid, along with electric vehicles.

And the list goes on.

The 2019 Way of Thinking  

Unlike the private sector, innovation and rapid change are not inherent to the world of rate-regulated utilities and the country’s 20th century electricity system. Shifting the policy, regulatory, cultural paradigms in order to spur a faster shift to 100 percent clean energy will require more voices at the table, and more collaboration across siloed worlds.

Both simple and foundational changes will need to be embraced by utilities, consumers, businesses and clean energy providers alike. Sharing best practices can help state and local governments stay ahead of evolving issues as they work toward meeting the comprehensive challenges associated with the transition.

Once goals are set, policies, rules and practices can be measured against these Top Three Priorities:

  • maximizing the amount of clean energy and optimizing their function on the grid;
  • providing all consumers with equitable access to affordable, reliable and safe clean energy; and
  • ensuring the workforce is prepared to accommodate and embrace widespread clean energy deployment.

Fortunately, in addition to addressing urgent climate and health concerns, meeting clean energy goals provides economic benefits too, through both energy savings and increased jobs. So even for those who have disregarded the clear science, there is a face-saving way to support planet-saving actions. Increased deployment of clean energy technologies – from solar and energy storage to wind and electric vehicles – translates to increased economic opportunities. And everyone can find a way to support that.

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This column is excerpted from a white paper of the same title available here.

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Larry Sherwood is President/CEO of the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC), a national independent not-for-profit shaping a clean energy future since 1982. Through engagement in state regulatory proceedings, independent technical support to decision makers, advocates and industry, the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) is driving scalable, foundational policy solutions and best practices integral to achieving 100 percent clean energy goals, including a workforce trained to support a clean energy economy.


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