A Fast Track from Coal to Clean Energy

Coal to Renewables

The low-carbon, low-use energy future that’s essential for tackling climate change is scaling up before our very eyes. If we roll out proven solutions—energy efficiency, lifestyle changes, geothermal, solar, wind, plug-in vehicles, and smart grid—with speed and scale, we can more than meet the 80–90 percent carbon reduction by 2025 that climate scientists now say should be our target. Some people are calling this the convergence of clean energy solutions.

Many Americans, however, believe renewable energy is too costly and unreliable. They worry that, in most places, the wind doesn’t blow around the clock, and there’s no place where the sun shines at night. Regulators and utility officials can’t imagine enough efficiency and renewable energy going online fast enough to prevent the lights from flickering off during their watch.

But clean energy solutions are starting to achieve real speed and scale—and a new opportunity could further accelerate the renewable energy future. Just in the past year:

Alternative Energy and the Economy

Source: Public Agenda, "The Energy Learning Curve"

  • Congress passed the stimulus package with more than $20 billion for energy efficiency—the most important immediate and long-term strategy for tackling climate change.
  • For the first time, renewable energy production, at 11.37 percent of U.S. supply, surpassed nuclear energy production, which was 11.18 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. And throughout 2008 and 2009, new renewable energy installations grew faster than new fossil fuel production.
  • In September, a broad coalition of environmentalists, investors, farmers, faith congregations, policymakers, and local officials celebrated their 101st success at stopping planned U.S. coal plants in their tracks. In 2010 they are targeting 22 operating coal plants: We’re truly seeing the beginning of the rapid end of coal in the United States.
  • Solar is reaching price parity with coal. A solar farm outside of Las Vegas, Nevada, went online at a cost of about $3.85 for each installed watt. The AMP Ohio coal plant, likely the next online, is running about $3.65 per watt, not counting the cost of carbon the plant will produce while operating. Solar will be cost competitive with coal and nuclear across the country by 2015. And solar is on track to deliver 50 percent of U.S. energy, for all uses including plug-in vehicles, by 2042, according to Green America’s Solar Catalyst program.
  • Ford, General Motors, Toyota, Nissan, and Mitsubishi—and newcomers such as Tesla and Coda—promise to have plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles available between 2010 and 2012. Charging an electric vehicle with solar energy at today’s prices costs the equivalent of about $2.35 a gallon—and just $1.30 a gallon at the price of solar projected for 2015. With the advent of the smart grid, you’ll be able to charge your electric vehicle battery with solar during the day, and plug your car into your house to provide electricity at night.
  • China has recently set ambitious goals and serious incentives for wind and solar, and India isn’t far behind. Both countries are, unfortunately, still building coal plants. However, unlike in our country, energy doesn’t seem to come with ideological overtones. As solar and wind become less expensive than fossil fuels—and provide the benefit of clean air along with CO2 reduction—China and India will be scaling up wind and solar, and leaving their coal plants in the dust. And they each hope to become the world’s supplier of choice for renewable energy.

All good news. But we need an accelerated transition strategy here in the United States—and an enabler that makes the cost of the transition less than or equal to what we’d otherwise pay, providing a backup to wind and solar until energy efficiency and renewable energy can carry the whole system.

Speeding to an All Renewable Energy System: A New Opportunity

That enabler is natural gas, a fossil fuel that produces about half as much CO2 as coal, and only 20 percent as much nitrous oxide, a far more potent greenhouse gas. Admittedly, it’s an imperfect enabler, and it’s not a long-term solution, but it offers a better path than the one we’re on and a faster transition to the system we want.

Coal vs Renewables survey

Source: Public Agenda, "The Energy Learning Curve"

Recently discovered natural gas reserves are big enough to power current levels of gas use for more than 100 years. The new discoveries are primarily in shale formations across much of the country—in the Rockies, throughout the Midwest, in Texas and Louisiana, and up the western side of the Appalachians and into the Adirondacks.

A significant new source of domestic natural gas provides three big opportunities for the United States.

It would allow our society, for the first time in history, to really assess the impact of developing a new natural resource—including choosing to develop little or none of it. Natural gas extraction causes environmental problems. Extracting shale gas is likely to be even worse: It’s done with a controversial process called “hydraulic fracturing,” which uses significant quantities of water and a slurry of chemicals, raising concerns about contaminating groundwater. We’d need to determine where and how to extract the gas in the least harmful way possible, and assess the minimum amount of gas, used as a backup, that would allow the United States to transition to all renewable energy.

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Second, we could begin converting existing coal plants to natural gas. No waiting for 20 years; let’s get this done within three years of completing a socially and environmentally responsible plan for extracting the new natural gas reserves. Almost all coal plants can be converted to run on natural gas. And once converted, natural gas plants can be easily dialed up or down—or turned off for months—as more renewables come online. A gas plant is a great backup for renewable energy—you only use it if you need it. That’s a big change from coal or nuclear plants, which are difficult to turn up, down, and off as demand changes.

Third, it would allow us to make aggressive, cost-effective regional clean energy convergence action plans to move to energy efficiency, renewables, plug-in vehicles and the smart grid—with natural gas as the backup—within 10 years.

With energy efficiency taking the lead and low-cost gas as a stop-gap, the transition to the all-renewables system would cost less than expanding our current energy system to meet future demands.

Most important, it will deliver the promise of the clean-energy future—real energy security, green jobs, a cleaner environment—and a real go at tackling climate change.