Alternative Energy is Going Mainstream

Andy Koenigsberg

Oct 2, 2016

Of the 4 trillion kilowatt hours of electric energy produced in the U.S., a third is generated by the burning of coal, down from a peak of over 50 percent in 1997. You may think that the reason for this decline is because of President Obama’s “War on Coal” as Senator Mitch McConnell likes to call it.

You would also be wrong.

Obama’s “Clean Power Plan”, which would regulate the carbon dioxide emissions from any power plant burning fossil fuels hasn’t even kicked in yet because coal producers and over 20 states are suing in Federal Court to stop it.

No, coal is declining because it is cheaper to produce, transport, and burn natural gas extracted from abundant subsurface shale formations using hydraulic fracturing technology (aka fracking) which came of age in the early 2000’s.

But it’s a cheaper fossil fuel that is “fueling” coal’s decline and that is not such a good thing, because shale gas isn’t exactly environmentally benign, far from it. That’s a subject for another column, though.

Bottom line though – coal is dying.

For most of us here in Westborough, how we get the electricity that powers our homes is not something that concerns us. Out of sight, out of mind. We don’t see mountaintop removal coal strip mines or massive drilling facilities used to extract gas from shales by fracking. We don’t see power plant smoke stacks or the landfills and wet storage ponds used to store highly toxic coal ash and sludge.

What we do see more and more in Westborough are solar panels. Solar panels on residential roof tops and solar panel fields located at Harvey Farm, Milk Street near the railroad overpass, Fisher Street near Otis Street, and along the Massachusetts Turnpike.

It is something we will be seeing more and more of, for many reasons.

I was one of the first homeowners in Westborough to install photovoltaic solar panels on my roof back in 2008. Eight years ago, solar panels cost about $4 per watt. Each of the 24 panels on my roof could generate 195 watts of power. Today, similar sized panels can generate as much as 345 watts and cost as little as $0.50 per watt, a stunning 800% decrease in price, and 76% increase in efficiency!

My “primitive system” still replaces over 75% of my total electric use. Today’s typical residential system costs less than half of mine and generates more electricity than most households could use. The excess is sold back to the grid.

One of the big arguments against alternative energy is that it is inconsistent. The wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine and that is why large “utility scale” commercial solar systems currently account for only 1% of all commercial power generated in the U.S, with wind accounting for about 5%.

Electric grid operators also are fighting back against connecting non-commercial residential solar to the grid for the same reason. The grid is not designed to handle the highly variable load from so many homes.

But even the intermittent power hurdle is rapidly being overcome through more and more sophisticated battery technology. The Department of Energy states that grid-scale battery storage capacity has increased by a factor of 10 since 2008, while the cost has dropped almost 75%. The cost is expected to drop another 20 to 27 percent by 2018. The same is true at the residential level, where a battery storage system now costs the same as a new oil burner or gas furnace.

Still, alternative energy is growing as “policies in three-quarters of America's states encourage the addition of wind and solar as replacements for coal. As costs have dropped, some states are pushing a faster switch to those renewables,” according to a recent Case Western Reserve University study.

There are approximately 174,000 people working in the U.S. coal industry, including mining, transport, and power plants and that number is rapidly declining. In 2015, the solar energy and wind energy industries employed 209,000 and 88,000 people respectively and grew 20% from just the previous year.

Add onto these numbers the fact that almost two million people are employed in the energy efficiency sector, which increased by 14% this last year, and you can see that far from being a job killer, moving to a low carbon energy economy is creating whole new industries, creating new, cheaper and more efficient energy production technology and making rapid inroads into our energy production.

As of 2015, solar systems in the U.S. alone generated 25 gigawatts of electricity and accounted for 29.5% of all new electric generating capacity that year, beating out new natural gas power plant installations. Rooftop solar alone could eventually account for 40% of all U.S. electric power generation.

It is not out of the realm of possibility that within the next decade, new homes will include solar power generation and storage systems just the way they now include heating, plumbing, and kitchen appliances, because the systems will be that cheap.

Alternative energy is not a pie-in-the-sky liberal fantasy. It is in fact becoming an important contributor to how we get our electric energy. Given what we know about our warming planet, alternative energy is not an alternative.