Electrical Power Pressure Point
Climate Change Feature Feature 2 Urban Environmentalist

Electricity, a pressure point for mitigating climate change

(Second of the Climate Change Conundrum papers)

Electricity is the magical elixir of our modern society. Without it, our cities would cease to function. Imagine having only natural gas lighting in your home or having to start up an oil-powered coffee maker for that morning cup of caffeinated delight. Electricity delivers ample power when and where we need it. But it also creates over a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in the USA. Modern society is addicted to electricity, and its popularity provides a clear opportunity for mitigating climate change using electricity as a pressure point.

Energy falls into two categories, primary and secondary. When you hop in your conventional car for a quick trip to Starbucks, fire up the engine, and back out of the driveway, you use primary energy. The engine burns gasoline, thus making the car move. If you have a Tesla Model 3, then the car runs using secondary energy, electricity. The production of electricity requires generating it from primary sources like natural gas, coal, solar, wind, hydropower, and nuclear. Primary energy drives the turbines and produces electricity. Therefore, electric power is not clean and green if its primary source emits greenhouse gases.

The pressure point

Fossil fuel use for electrical power generation is wide-spread, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calculates that electricity accounts for about 27% of the total U.S. greenhouse emissions. Coal and natural gas are the most common primary fuels for electric power plants. Also, about two-thirds of the electricity produced worldwide comes from these sources.

Demand for electricity is growing, and this growth provides a golden opportunity for significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Clean electric power has a knock-on effect, and movement towards cleanly-sourced electricity reduces the carbon footprint of electric cars, consumer goods, homes, offices, factories, and more. But the real leverage that electricity offers is through the regulatory regime surrounding it. Utilities are prisoners of both state regulators and federal policy. Regulators, in turn, bend to the prevailing political wind. But politicians are elected by the people, and it is here we see the pressure point. Voters can mandate clean energy through the ballot box and force actions with far-reaching consequences that significantly mitigate climate change.

Going Green

Electric cars are popular, and many people point to them as emissions-free vehicles that are good for the environment. But the answer is not that simple. Using an electric vehicle in West Virginia reduces your carbon footprint by about 20% compared to gasoline-powered cars. However, carbon reduction for the same vehicle rises to 92% in the State of Washington. These differences reflect the sources of primary energy used. West Virginia is heavily dependent on coal-powered electricity plants, but Washington relies on significant hydroelectric power.

Green electricity takes on two forms. One is electricity produced via fossil fuels, but all greenhouse gas is removed at the power plant. This idea is not as far-fetched as it seems. On the outskirts of Houston, Texas, a prototype natural gas electric power plant is set to produce emissions-free electricity using Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage (CCUS) technology. Assuming the prototype works, then the technology becomes a viable option for a green, clean future.

Another path towards green electricity is through generating it from clean primary energy. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) divides renewable energy into five categories: biomass, hydropower, geothermal, wind, and solar. These all represent energy sources that are naturally replenishing, but this does not necessarily make them clean.

Wood is part of the biomass category, but burning wood releases carbon dioxide (CO2). However, hydro, wind, solar, and geothermal form a subset of renewable energy sources that classify as “clean.” These sources emit no greenhouse gases. Hydroelectricity traditionally provided the largest source of clean U.S. electricity, but in 2019 wind power surpassed hydro. During the past two decades, wind-generated electricity moved from being a negligible power source to supplying over 40% of U.S. renewable energy.

The wind beneath our wings

Humans unlocked wind power when our ancient ancestors first used sails to power their boats across open waters. But harnessing that natural energy and converting it into electricity on a commercial scale is a relatively new phenomenon. It was a long slog from medieval Dutch windmills to modern wind power. But the technology for building massive wind turbines, capable of supplying industrial power, finally came into its own in the early 1980s.

These modern windmill behemoths rise hundreds of feet above the ground and support massive blades up to 200 feet (60 meters) in length. Those blades spin as the wind blows across them, turning the turbines, and producing electricity.

The USA is the second-largest producer of wind-generated electricity in the world, surpassed only by China. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, approximately 58,000 wind turbines pump out electricity to U.S. homes, businesses, and cities, and the average turbine supports about 470 homes. The biggest producers of wind-generated power in 2019 were Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Kansas, and California. They produced nearly 60% of the total U.S. wind-generated electricity.


Land-based wind farms significantly altered the face of U.S. energy production over the last two decades, but the industry now looks to the oceans for the next surge in wind power.

Offshore Wind

The quote “If you build it, he will come” (1989 – Field of Dreams) does not apply to wind farms. The wind doesn’t come to us, so we must go to the wind. Geography is all-important in harnessing wind power; perhaps “If the wind comes, we will build it” is a better quote for today. Because of the different ways land and oceans deal with heat, coastal transition zones are lucrative wind power locations. This phenomenon is not lost on the clean energy business, and the next big foray into wind-generated electricity will be offshore wind farms. The U.S. East Coast is a hot spot for developing wind power projects.

A map of where the wind blows (below) demonstrates why wind energy companies are flocking to the coastal seas from Virginia to Massachusetts. But geography is only half of the charm for this area. That northeast stretch of the eastern seaboard is the most densely populated region in the country. So an offshore wind farm close to a region with enormous power demands creates a win-win situation. The map also shows why the mid-continent is the location for four of the five states currently producing the most onshore U.S. wind power.

Map showing wind speeds at 262 feet above the earth’s surface. Purples and reds show the highest wind speeds, making the mid-continent and East Coast prime locations for harnessing wind power. (Source: NREL)

States lead the way

States are taking the lead in a move towards clean energy while the Federal Government dithers. Many states have stepped into the vacuum created by federal inaction and set realistic targets that move towards lowering or eliminating fossil fuel emissions over the next thirty years. Fifteen states plus Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico have commitments to obtain at least 50% of their electricity from clean sources. Fourteen of these commitments are for 100% clean energy.

These state commitments are essential because without them, the financial obligations required to develop clean energy plants become too risky for many investors. A significant portion of the clean energy needed by states in fulfilling their goals comes from wind power, and in particular offshore wind-generated power. Analysts predict that the offshore wind market will be a $70 billion industry by 2030. Procuring the significant financial resources needed for these projects requires long-term assurance that their electricity has an available market.

Understanding U.S. energy demand shines a light on why offshore wind power is deemed so necessary. The USA requires 1,100 gigawatts (Gw) of electric power capacity to keep the lights on. Currently, 16% of that energy classifies as clean, and wind accounts for about half the clean energy. Today almost all of that wind power is from onshore production, but that situation will change as we move forward. The U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy estimates that offshore wind has a technical capacity of about 2,000 Gw, or almost twice the current electricity demand for the whole country.

What about economics?

Having the technical capacity for generating all needed USA electricity is not synonymous with providing that power at an affordable cost. The economic challenges of moving to clean energy may prove more difficult than the technical task of generating it.

The move towards 100% clean electricity is surging forward on several fronts. A flurry of initiatives with green energy goals emerged from states, municipalities, and businesses over the past decade. Also, despite the current federal administration’s reluctance to embrace any meaningful stance on climate change, the Democratic Party’s interest in promoting the “Green New Deal,” and Biden’s bold campaign position for zero power-plant carbon emissions by 2035, both point to future federal involvement in reducing emissions.

The U.S. East Coast is optimally situated to produce wind power from locations close to large population centers, making these East Coast states ideal as first movers towards offshore wind power. But there are real economic challenges to clean energy. They may test the limits of the following climate change conundrum:

We desire a clean, livable environment, but we also want financial security and comfort. The tension between these two aspirations creates a quandary because we must sacrifice financially today, so future generations can enjoy a healthy environment tomorrow.

Consumers and voters

Cost is a significant issue since rising utility bills hit economically marginalized groups hardest. These groups are the ones who can least afford the increased costs. However, both left-leaning (Brookings Institute) and right-leaning (Heritage Foundation) think tanks point out that going green will incur additional costs for consumers. Interestingly about 85% of U.S. voters support requiring that electric utility companies transition to renewable energy, but only half of these voters indicated a willingness to pay higher prices. Cost is an issue for voters. So, with a 50/50 split on the consumer cost issue, the ultimate fate of a move to clean energy will be decided at the ballot box, perhaps based more on ideology and personal finances, than science.

Importantly, commitments to clean electricity are still aspirational, meaning that the full costs of fulfilling these goals are highly uncertain. Estimated household costs for 100% clean energy vary widely, ranging from $200 to $2000 per year. Unless Federal mandates appear, then the map to clean energy will be a patchwork quilt across the nation, as state voters wax and wane over the merits of clean electricity.

Mitigating climate change requires a collective vision of a carbon-free future. Science is not the issue, because the science is reasonably clear about both the threats climate change poses and the policies and technologies needed to combat it. Ideology thus becomes the defining critical element in determining our future. In countries governed by elected representatives, climate change mitigation will be addressed through voting. Clean electricity is a vital pressure point for change, so arrange your priorities and then vote for the future you envision.


ArcheanWeb:

Electrical power, a climate change puzzle (Source: ArcheanWeb) –  https://archeanweb.com/2020/06/26/electrical-power-a-climate-change-puzzle/  Also:

A Breezy Future: The Rise Of Wind Power (Source: ArcheanWeb) – https://archeanweb.com/2020/06/17/a-breezy-future-the-rise-of-wind-power/  Also:

U.S. East Coast, a hot spot for clean energy (Source: ArcheanWeb) – https://archeanweb.com/2020/07/14/u-s-east-coast-a-hot-spot-for-clean-energy/  Also:

States take the lead and move to clean energy (Source: ArcheanWeb) – https://archeanweb.com/2020/07/15/states-take-the-lead-and-move-to-clean-energy/  Also:


Sources:

Computing America’s Offshore Wind Energy Potential (Source: Office of Energy Efficiency $ Renewable Energy) – https://www.energy.gov/eere/articles/computing-america-s-offshore-wind-energy-potential  Also:

Green New Deal: Is 100% Renewable Energy Even Possible, Or Good For The Environment? (By John Merline; Investor’s Business Daily) – https://www.investors.com/politics/commentary/renewable-energy-possible-good-environment/  Also:

Who is willing to pay more for renewable energy? (By Abel Gustafson, Matthew Goldberg, Seth Rosenthal, John Kotcher, Edward Maibach, and Anthony Leiserowitz;  Yale Program on Climate Change Communication) – https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/publications/who-is-willing-to-pay-more-for-renewable-energy/  Also:

Feature Image: Port and lighthouse overnight storm with lightning in Port-la-Nouvelle (Modified) – By Maxime Raynal from France – Orage PLN, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42048641

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.