“Super Power” Can Get Us to 50% GHG by 2030

By: Chandu Visweswariah 

Clean Energy U Curve courtesy RethinkX

Adam Dorr and Tony Seba of RethinkX, a think tank that studies technology disruptions, just published a report entitled “Rethinking Energy 2020 – 2030.” The report gives us a blueprint of how we can achieve 50% Greenhouse Gas (GHG) reduction by 2030 as required by an overwhelming consensus of scientific thought in order to limit global warming to 1.5oC and stave off the worst effects of climate change. Below is my summary of the most profound insights of this report.

  1. We are on the cusp of the fastest, deepest and most profound disruption of the energy sector. What happened in the world of bits will happen in the world of electrons.
  2. In the ’20s, solar photovoltaic systems will get cheaper by 72%, lithium-ion batteries by 80% and wind power by 43% (in addition to the torrid pace in the ’10s of 82%, 87% and 46%, respectively).
  3. These cost reductions will lead to 100% Solar, Wind, Battery (SWB) electric grids.
  4. 100% SWB is not only physically possible and economically affordable but will be inevitable by 2030. The capital cost of a 100% SWB system nationwide is under $2T over 10 years, less than 1% of GDP during that period.
  5. As a result, coal, gas and nuclear will become stranded assets in this decade. No new investment is rational at this point in time (backers of the Danskammer gas plant in Newburgh, please take note).
  6. The lowest cost SWB system is determined by a clean energy U curve (see figure above). This analysis leads to some surprising results:
    • The minimum generating capacity an electrical grid needs is its average hourly demand; theoretically, such minimal generation can be paired with a huge amount of battery storage to create a working grid. Obviously, this is not a minimum cost solution. Interestingly, the minimum cost solution involves generating 3x to 5x of this minimum capacity using cheap and abundant solar and wind power. Previous studies had advocated systems with slightly less than 1x capacity, while this report advocates much higher generating capacity. Unlike previous thinking, this report considers the extra electrical power an opportunity (see “super power” below) rather than a problem.
    • The amount of battery storage required is surprisingly small, ranging from 43 to 89 hours of storage depending on climate patterns in different parts of the country.
    • The mix of wind and solar heavily favors solar because solar will be cheaper. However, a small but judicious mix of wind power reduces the amount of batteries required (think 4 cloudy days in a row during which wind power reduces the strain on the system).

So, what does all of this have to do with greenhouse gases? Isn’t electricity less than 10% of the problem? How does this get us to 50% GHG reduction by 2030? Enter the concept of “super power.” It turns out that by a small 10% or 20% increase in investment, we can increase the amount of energy available by a large amount called “super power.” Super power is additional electricity available at very low marginal cost (see figure on right).

Super power can be used for flexible electrical loads like EV charging, water and sewage pumping, desalination, bitcoin mining, heat pump operation, etc.  The report studied the landscape in California, Texas and New England, predicted the cost and configuration of 100% SWB systems in each of these regions, and extrapolated the results to the entire country.

In California, the lowest cost SWB system will cover the needs of the entire existing grid and also all transportation (assuming electromobility).  A 10% additional investment will generate enough super power to heat and cool all residential and commercial buildings. A 20% additional investment will generate enough electricity to start electrifying industrial loads like making cement, steel, manufacturing, etc.

While grid design, transmission congestion, and land use and permitting issues are not addressed in this report, they are good problems to have in exchange for inexpensive energy, and we have 10 years to solve those problems.

What is the take-away from this report? 100% Solar-Wind-Battery systems are inevitable by 2030. They will generate enormous amounts of excess or “super power” at very low marginal cost. This super power can be used to further our decarbonization goals, provided we lean in and electrify our transportation and heating needs in this decade.

Resources: click here for a Utility Dive article and here for a summary of the report that I created.

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