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Is Hillary Clinton’s Ambitious Solar Energy Goal Workable?

Clinton’s first climate change policy pitch is bold, but the US must look beyond solar for a clean energy revolution

By Karl Mathiesen

On Sunday, Hillary Clinton took a first swing at the many-headed carbon hydra. By the end of her first term, she said, the US would have seven times more solar energy capacity than it does today. And by 2027, renewable energy would supply a third of the nation’s electricity.

Clinton’s announcement, which the campaign said would be the first of many on climate change from the presidential hopeful, extends the carbon-saving ambition in a significant sector of the economy. Burning fossil fuels for electricity accounts for 31 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions. One estimate found Clinton’s 33 percent renewable target could slice another 4 percent off the US’s existing pledge to cut emissions by 26-28 percent by 2025.

photo of Clinton speakingPhotograph: Scott Morgan/ReutersDemocratic presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton talks about her environmental plan during a visit to the LEED Platinum certified DART Central Station in Des Moines, Iowa, on Monday.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s Americas chief, Ethan Zindler, said the ambition was high, but within reach. “It appears to be on the upper end but it’s entirely doable given the rapidly improving economics of renewables generally and solar particularly.”

The momentum is already swinging towards low carbon electricity. Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, due for activation in August, is predicted to push the renewable sector from its current 13 percent share of the electricity market to 25 percent by 2027.

In 2015, solar photovoltaic installations are forecast to rise by 27 percent, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). This rise has been aided by the soon-to-expire solar investment tax credit (ITC), which the industry said Clinton will have to revive.

“Clinton’s ambitious goal for solar is only possible if solar continues its impressive trajectory. SEIA is working to extend the solar ITC and remove statewide barriers that inhibit the growth of solar,” said SEIA president and CEO, Rhone Resch.

graphHillary for America The rise of solar under Clinton's climate plan and previous policies.

Speaking to reporters on Monday, Clinton noted that further federal investment would be needed to incentivize the sector’s push to 33 percent. In a fact sheet, the campaign flagged the resuscitation of tax credits and some innovation and regulatory incentives.

“That [the return of tax credits] is hardly a sure thing, given that at least one chamber of Congress will inevitably be Republican controlled during at least the first two years of any new president’s term,” said Zindler.

People in the US may care less about climate change than they do about cost

Jürgen Weiss, head of climate change at the Brattle Group consultancy, said incentives were important as the industry remained relatively tiny, with low public awareness. A large percentage of costs for installers of residential solar are wrapped up in selling the technology to a skeptical public who have relatively low electricity costs and little concern for climate change.

“The big part is convincing people to sign up in the first place. People in the US may care less about climate change than they do about cost,” he said.

Although the technology, regulatory and labor costs are roughly similar, the price of installing residential solar in Germany (where high electricity costs, strong public acceptance and large government incentives have driven a huge push to solar) is around $1.50 per watt cheaper than in the US. Even if half of Clinton’s target of 140GW of solar by 2021 were to come from residential (as opposed to utility) solar panels, that equates to a cost difference of more than $100bn, mostly spent on advertising and sales.

John Reilly, an energy economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the targets would be a challenge “in terms of providing incentives to build that much”.

Weiss said: “I do think those costs will come down as the market matures and people get more informed.” The danger, he said, was providing too much tax-payer funded incentive early on. In Germany and the UK, the solar industry has come under political pressure for being too successful when subsidies were high and now suffers from accusations of being a ‘subsidy junky’.

It’s important to clear up some ambiguity in the Clinton rhetoric. From her renewables campaign video, “a 10-year goal of generating enough renewable energy to power every single home in America” does not mean every home is going to have its own clean energy supply. The residential sector uses roughly a third of the total electricity generated. So a 33% renewable goal means the country will be generating this much clean energy, but not all of it will end up in homes.

But factories and office buildings don’t vote and the promise, as my colleague Suzanne Goldenberg points out, allows Clinton to sound like she’s liberating bill payers from utilities. It is also clear that Clinton’s focus on solar (as opposed to wind) is aimed at the voting bill payer. Solar even garners support among some Republicans because of the freedom it offers from regulation and bills.

graphHillary for America Renewable electricity growth under current, Clean Power Plan and Clinton policies.

But the other side of the clean power revolution might be justified in feeling a little left out by Clinton’s policy announcement. Wind energy is by far the big brother to solar. In 2014, wind generated 4.4 percent of the country’s electricity compared with 0.4 percent from the sun. In Iowa, where Clinton made her announcement, wind’s share is more than a quarter. It’s cheaper than solar, although the gap is narrowing, and the nation’s first offshore wind farm began construction on Monday.

“Recent cost declines have made wind energy the lowest-cost zero carbon solution, and one of the lowest cost generation options overall. As a result ... wind will account for the majority of all generation additions going forward,” said the American Wind Energy Association’s Rob Gramlich.

The Department of Energy has found that wind energy can affordably reach 20 percent of electricity generation by 2030. And, under Obama’s Clean Power Plan, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts it will be the biggest contributor of new renewable capacity throughout the 2020s.

As part of her announcement, Clinton pledged to uphold the Obama administration’s heavily-opposed restrictions on the carbon emissions of power stations, which are expected to accelerate the already rapid shut-down of coal plants across the country. This capacity will mostly be taken up by cheap gas, but there will be space for renewables if they can compete.

Alex Trembath, a senior analyst at the Breakthrough Institute, said: “Action on carbon emissions will largely come by making clean energy cheap, as opposed to making dirty energy more expensive, for a variety of reasons.”

The boost to renewables raises important questions about the ability of the grid, which is built to carry power from continuously-burning large power stations rather than millions of diffuse and variable solar panels, to handle such high levels of variable electricity supply.

Reilly said the 33 percent target was achievable. “If we did build that much, then in terms of the grid we would likely have a lot of spare capacity sitting around, so it would be possible to balance it out. The challenge as time goes by and that capacity retires is whether the back-up capacity is actually built,” he said.

But Weiss said the likely reality of a renewables explosion would not be uniform: “Average 33 percent across the country is a different story from having a 70 percent renewable share in some places and a 10 percent renewable share someplace else.”

Going beyond 33 percent is when things get really tough for the grid. A study Reilly authored in 2012 estimated that reaching 80 percent renewable generation would add around 40% to the cost of electricity. Jesse Jenkins and Trembath recently suggested that reaching levels of variable renewables above their ‘capacity factor’ becomes increasingly expensive. Capacity factor is the amount of time your source actually spends generating electricity - for wind 25-35 percent and solar 10-20 percent. So going above a third of the market is where the heavy lifting really begins.

This would ramp up the costs of preparing the grid for new types of generation, which the Clinton campaign flagged as a spending priority. Weiss estimated this could cost in the range of $100bn over the next 10-15 years, roughly a 5-10 percent increase on current electricity spending.

“My main issue with her target is that it is narrowly constrained to solar,” said Trembath. “The biggest omission I continue to see from Democrats is support for nuclear power, which needs federal support in different ways than most renewable energy technologies do.” In total, Clinton’s pledge will push the zero carbon electricity sector (including nuclear) from 32 percent today, to about 50 percent in 2027.

Any credible economy-wide climate scheme will need to encompass a great swathe of measures to reduce carbon, said Zindler.

“There are other means for lowering CO2 emissions in the US. Our comparatively profligate use of gasoline has been one area of focus and average consumer vehicle fuel efficiency has actually been rising in the US in recent years. More improvements in transport are definitely possible, particularly in the area of trucks. More efficient use of electricity in homes and businesses is also an area that clearly offers opportunities that do not even necessarily need to be policy driven as they offer consumers the opportunity to save money,” he said.

Environmentalists were also quick to point out that Clinton was still skirting the big federal policy questions on support for the fossil fuel industry — the Arctic and Keystone XL pipeline.

Can Clinton be a climate Heracles “taking on the global threat of climate change”? It’s a start and the rhetoric is certainly bold. But this amounts to a partial decapitation of one head. It will take many more swings to kill the beast.

The Guardian
The Guardian UK, one of Britain's top daily newspapers, provides coverage of international environmental issues. Earth Island Journal is a member of the Guardian's Environment News Network.

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