While coal power is headed for extinction, wind and solar are showing unprecedented growth, and new solar research confirms that putting grid-tied solar on your roof not only reduces the cost of electricity for you, but for everybody else too.
Coal goes extinct
The United States is a good example of what’s happening worldwide.
Last year saw another historic clean energy milestone in the United States: it was the first year that renewable energy sources generated more power than coal-fired power plants.
There have been no new coal plants built in the U.S. since 2013, and over the last 20 years the U.S. has retired 126,000 megawatts (MW) of coal generation, including 65,000 MW over the last five years. Another 60,000 MW are slated for shutdown over the next decade. (For comparison, the controversial Site C dam in British Columbia will produce only about 1000 MW.)
The main reason for this historic shift is simple economics. Solar and wind power facilities are cheaper to build and maintain and cheaper to run because they burn no “fuel.”
As a result, the really big investment money is fleeing fossil fuels and moving aggressively into renewables.
Solar and wind fill the gap
In the U.S. alone there are more than 60,000 wind turbines generating 112 billion watts (gigawatts, GW) or enough electricity to power 34 million homes. The U.S. wind industry employs some 120,000 workers, expected to grow to 600,000 over the next 30 years.
New wind farms comprise almost half of all new generating capacity under construction in the States, with the biggest wind resource yet, offshore wind, about to take off big time.
Every Atlantic Coast state has offshore wind projects in the works, with a potential capacity of about 2,000 GW. That’s immense! The total generating capacity of the U.S. today is just 1,200 GW.
Brighter than ever
Like wind, the cost of solar has plummeted over the last decade, and has now become the cheapest energy ever.
A solar farm has no moving parts, no pollution, and no toxic cleanup after it is retired. This makes for very low maintenance and very low cost of operation.
Germany has a thriving solar industry is spite of its modest solar resource, with 1.8 million solar roofs installed as of 2019 and a goal of being 80% renewable energy powered by 2050. (For comparison, Canada has only about 40,000 solar roofs in total and a tiny wind industry in spite of having massive wind and solar resources in every province. Go figure.)
In the U.S., utility-scale solar (that’s big solar farms, not just roofs) totals about 42 GW and employs some 70,000 utility-scale workers in 50 states, a total investment of about $100 billion so far.
Like much of the world, solar in the U.S. is doubling roughly every three years, which will make it the biggest single source of electricity worldwide in just 20 years.
Rooftop solar benefits everybody
Ever since rooftop solar became inexpensive and widely adopted, there has been controversy about whether it is good for the grid or just an added expense for electrical utilities.
Most home solar systems are grid-tied, meaning they feed power into the grid when they generate more electricity than the home needs, and pull power out of the grid when the solar doesn’t make enough. If overall the solar generates more power than needed, the utility pays the homeowner for that excess power with cash or credit.
A new study at the Michigan Technological University asserts that overall this is a benefit to the utility, not a cost.
Solar is “distributed energy” meaning it is generated at or near where it will be used. The study found that there are direct benefits of distributed energy to the utility: lower operation and maintenance costs, reduced need for new capacity, fewer power lines and less transmission line-loss, plus greater grid stability and reliability.
As the authors of the study say, rather than worrying about folks with solar being unfairly subsidized by those without, we should be making sure that solar owners are adequately compensated for the service they are providing to the grid operators and society overall.
Couldn’t agree more!
Don Pettit is a community columnist living in Dawson Creek and Executive Director of the Peace Energy Cooperative.