Stephen Lacey: It has been labeled by journalists as a bitter dispute, a smack down, even a battle royale. They are not referring to Floyd Mayweather versus Conor McGregor or the upcoming season of Game of Thrones. Rather, those are just a few of the descriptors for a new study countering the notion that we can source a 100 percent of our energy from wind, solar, and water. It is a long running debate that came to a head this week. We are going to dig in to the dispute over 100 percent renewables. It has spilled out of academia and into the mosh pit of Twitter and politics, then reliability and renewables.
Does Europe's better outage record tell us anything about variable wind and solar and the health of the grid. Finally, America just got 10 percent of its electricity from non-hydro renewables in March. What does it tell us about where we are headed? If you couldn't tell, there's a theme this week and here to tie these stories together are Katherine Hamilton and Jigar Shah, both of whom are inside the beltway. Jigar might actually be on a beltway. I think he is finally got his standing treadmill desk in that exercise room of his that he promised not to use. Is that true?
Jigar Shah: I have not used the exercise room. This treadmill desk is in my office.
Stephen Lacey: How does a treadmill desk work and is it on right now?
Jigar Shah: It could be. You want me to turn it on?
Katherine Hamilton: No.
Jigar Shah: It actually was library quiet. It was a Kickstarter by this company called High Mover. They especially designed it to only go up to two miles an hour, so you can actually type and talk on the phone while you're walking.
Stephen Lacey: I have a hard enough time keeping my train of thought just sitting here on the podcast. Kudos to you to be able to talk on the phone, chew gum, be on your walking desk, type, all that stuff.
Jigar Shah: Drink coffee.
Stephen Lacey: That emphatic no you heard was from Katherine Hamilton, who is a partner at 38 North Solutions. Hello, Katherine.
Katherine Hamilton: Hi.
Stephen Lacey: What happens on Twitter this week, something interesting, hey you guys?
Katherine Hamilton: It was like a dork smack down, huh? I include myself in that group.
Stephen Lacey: We were all heavily tweeting this week. I actually held back a little bit in preparation for this show because I want to understand how people were talking about this 100 percent renewable study and rebuttal. Let's talk about it and give me a moment to provide some context here because I think a minute of setup is probably necessary to get us to where we want to go. I am a writer and editor, so I'm kind of intrigued by narrative and where this story is taking us over time. We are witnessing this major evolution in the public discourse around the possibilities and limits of renewables and it took a turn this week. From around 2010 to 2011 until last year, two camps started really duking it out in the public square, again, largely on energy Twitter over innovation versus deployment. You've heard this one over and over. We've covered it on the podcast. It's also played out at Greentech Media on the site.
At its most basic level, it is this. Innovation folks say wind and solar aren't enough and we need to fund major low carbon breakthroughs that can revolutionize energy in the coming decades. That's the Bill Gates breakthrough institute argument. Deployment folks basically say, "Let me show you the money. This is the Jigar Shah argument. We've got the tech today. It's all about deployment models and financial innovation. Renewable storage and efficiency are getting financed and built at record speed, so let's do as much as we can today." I've taken a step back from this debate a bit. I'm more fascinated by how the debates are constructed and what they say about the movement itself and the tribes that guide it.
The debate is found in new framing. That brings us to today's episode. Before, it was largely academic. Renewables were relatively expensive, but now that deployment is winning today by default because the cost of solar and wind are dominating utility planning. The folks on the innovation side are saying, "Wait a second. Now, we've got a path dependency." Is this trajectory of dominant variable renewables and optimal design strategy for markets and cost? This isn't theoretical anymore because the cost alone for conventional renewables and the policy enthusiasm now for 100 percent is winning the argument for deployment, winning in many circles anyway.
In step, Stanford professor, Mark Jacobson and some colleagues in 2015 with this study in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that said wind, water, solar and underground storage could basically take care of all Americas energy needs by 2055. He reversed engineered the grid. This study took off celebrities like Mark Ruffalo and Leonardo DiCaprio championed his work. Bernie Sanders made an integral part of his platform. Cities and states around the country have used 100 percent renewable energy as their own rallying cry in the age of Trump. Other energy gigs have long quibble with Jacobson, but this week it turned into a bit of a melee.
21 energy and climate researchers, some of the most respected in the field published a piece in the same journal concluding that Jacobson used poor modeling and inadequately supported assumptions. They say 80 percent renewables is more realistic. 80 percent, 100 percent, that's a lot of renewable energy, just another part of the peer review process, right? "Healthy scientific progress? Hell, no." So many people are passionate about this issue. I think a symptom of their urgency of climate change and the speed at which things are changing that the debate became personal very quickly. The last few days have brought personal attacks, a litany of tweetstorms and an insane amount of press coverage. I think it's helpful to break this conversation into two parts. First, what is this new study, say, that Jacobson got wrong? We'll talk about that a little bit. Secondly, I think it's the most important conversation, the reaction and the impact of the dispute. Why does this matter? I think we'll spend some time going through what the Twitter community asked us to cover. Katherine, what is the exact beef here? What are these researcher saying that Jacobson and his colleagues got wrong?
Katherine Hamilton: One thing justice to be laid is that what nobody disagrees with is that we have to get to a zero carbon future as quickly as we can. The issue is everybody has a slightly different vision. Their beef is actually doesn't present a vision. Clack and his colleagues do not say there is a specific pathway we need to do. They do quibble with the analysis methods, the assumptions, the modeling gaps that they see in Jacobson's work including ...
Stephen Lacey: They do early on reference an 80 percent renewable scenario and just say others have said that this is a more [likely] scenario, but they don't make a broader conclusion that that is necessarily the right way.
Katherine Hamilton: Right and they don't lay out any kind of technology pathway. They really just talk about how Jacobson excluded certain technologies that they consider commercially available like nuclear power and bioenergy. He includes technologies like underground thermal energy storage that isn't widely deployed or commercially available and uses that much more than he does commercially available battery storage. He assumes flexible loads, models for eight hours at a time when it's much more real-time needed. He also has some pretty big assumptions about hydro facilities ramping up. He leaves out transmission siting issues. There are a lot of things they say that he leaves out of his analysis or he gets wrong in his analysis. The key is that this is an argument over modeling rather than on should we do it? In the end, if you really get through the end of his report and look at his policy recommendations, which we can talk about in a little bit, they are not off the chart in what typical policy recommendations might be if you really want to move to a primarily clean energy future.
Stephen Lacey: Jigar, what do you think are the most important things that these researchers pointed out that were faulty in the Jacobson study? The hydropower piece seems to be the biggest one. It assumes hydroelectric output past 1,300 gigawatts. That's 10 times existing capacity, 13 times the number of existing turbines. We know that it's very hard to cite hydroelectric power that is way beyond what government estimates say we can put on. It assumes almost instantaneous turn on and turn off of hydropower. It also assumes concentrating solar power in the Midwest in a big way. Previously, it assumed CSP in New York and I know you don't take kindly to CSP. Do you want to say anything about those two issues?
Jigar Shah: I'd rather take this from a different perspective because I feel like this argument is made to try to make Jacobson and his fellow authors sound clueless. I feel like it's not the right approach. I was involved early on with the Greenpeace analysis where it was basically a modified spreadsheet exercise. You just said this number multiplied by this number is going to be how many solar megawatts you have the next year. That's how they got to 100 percent clean energy in their analysis, which as you've noted multiple times has been the most accurate forecast that was put out in '07.
When I met Mark Jacobson early on with Mark Ruffalo, I don't think they were doing something that much different. I think when they came out with their first study in 2010, the difference is that Jacobson is not doing an electric decarbonization. He was including transports so he has got hydrogen for large trucks. He has got all sorts of assumptions that he had to make to get existing technology out in the marketplace. Then, every year, he has joined with other researchers now up to 85 co-authors in the latest paper to be able to try to make this more academic, but he has not done a sophisticated transmission model. He has not done all these things. On the hydro side, sure, he said, "Well, I think we can put in more pipes. I think we can put in more turbines and we can let the water damp up behind and create instantaneous power."
I don't agree with most of his assumptions. I think I was one of the biggest critics he showed at New York State in New England to have concentrating solar power, which he has now taken out of the mix. I think people don't understand what this was for. This was for exactly what it accomplish, which was to inspire people to think about a 100 percent. Remember, when Jacobson came out with his study, we were all arguing around 30 percent.
Stephen Lacey: That's true. You've already stepped into the implications of this debate and I want to get there. You've raised some really good points about what this study was intended to do. I think this matters and I do want to just spend a few minutes to talk about the assumptions of the study. We sit here and rail on EIA for example for its assumptions for future scenarios and renewable energy integration. They are way conservative. Now, we are looking at a study on the complete other end of the spectrum with pretty broad assumptions about hydroelectric capacity, about underground storage that has not been proven at a commercial scale that would be scaled to nearly every community in the country. We are talking about a scale up in marine energy like tidal power, which has largely failed over the last decade aside from a few projects. Again, CSP and weird areas of technology that still struggled even the highest solar resource areas. There are a lot of assumptions here that I think are important to talk about if we are thinking about this as a serious document, which it is.
Jigar Shah: No, it's not. No.
Stephen Lacey: Everyone is taking it very seriously.
Jigar Shah: Who is everyone?
Stephen Lacey: Part of the Bernie Sanders' campaign.
Jigar Shah: No, come on. You are talking about Martin O'Malley talking about a 100 percent fossil fuel theory. Bernie Sanders jumping on the bandwagon and now a few legislators in Massachusetts in California talking about a 100 percent goal. The implementation will still be done in California at least by the CPUC and CEC and there will be very thoughtful people that figure out exactly how California might made that goal and I guarantee you there not starting with Mark Jacobson's report.
Katherine Hamilton: I agree with Jigar that this is aspirational, and it gets people to understand that there is a way to get to a 100 percent renewables. I think that there are big holes in what we are considering that to look like. He looks at matching electricity power directly with supply with demand and I think that's just not a great way to look at our system. We are not looking at deep energy efficiency or using buildings as mass and smart inverters and smart grid and really using the load side as a resource and doing all this optimization. There's this whole piece that's not in there, but what it does do is it says to people, "There is a way to do this."
His policy recommendations are not off the wall at all. They are pretty basically codes and standards, a few other programs that we are used to seeing out there. I don't think aspirationality is bad. I just think that it's not holistic enough. There aren't enough things in it. If we are looking at 2050, there's a whole lot of stuff, Blockchain, machine learning, artificial intelligence. All these things that we don't even know what's going to be available then and if we at least start moving in that direction, which I think some of these states are really doing by setting these targets and aspirational goals, we'll get there and we'll start scaling and bringing a new technology simply by having those policies in place.
Jigar Shah: He also open sources all of his spreadsheets and documents. At some point, other people could just say, "I don't believe in these things. I'd like to change the mix of technologies. I'd like to add nuclear. I'd like to do this other stuff." The problem I have is that there's a lot of academics out there who are basically saying, "Unless this actually works and my terabyte, teraflop model using some sort of optical super computer, then I'm not going to give it a time of day," which is fine, they don't need to. I don't think this ...
Stephen Lacey: That's not what they are saying.
Jigar Shah: No, but it is like Chris Clack stuff who is the lead author. He does not work on transportation or any of these other things. He doesn't even attempt to try to unify the decarbonization. He only works on grid, which by the way is extraordinary. I love his work and his podcast with Chris Nelder in the Energy Transition are very, very thoughtful and helpful, but it's apples and oranges.
Stephen Lacey: Jacobson is an expert in things like cement production and industrial processes. That's where the last 20 percent of decarbonization really matters where it becomes very hard to use just variable renewable energy to make up for the economy wide emissions, particularly in the industrial sector. You could say the same thing about Jacobson. He is not an expert and he knows ...
Jigar Shah: I completely agree with you and that's why I'm saying it's aspirational. The question really is that what should occur here and my sense is we should actually have a national academy of scientist funded effort that has hundreds if not thousands of academics work together in an open source fashion with EIA maybe or others to say, "What are the pathways? How could this work? What could happen?" Some of this has already been done by the International Energy Agency and others, but more needs to be done. I think this is the greatest existential threat of our time. I was the first to criticize Jacobson when he was including CSP in the plans for New York because I actually had a policy role in New York at that time in which he released it. That being said, I just think that we are busy going after a guy for inspiring a movement because other people's movements didn't get inspired by him.
Stephen Lacey: I want to address that specifically, but one last question just on the academic rebuttal first because I want to help people understand why this matters. Jigar and I'll ask you this Katherine as well. I want to know your thoughts. If we can sit here and criticize EIA for their conservative projections because they do matter in the policy arena, why can we not criticize Jacobson's work, which is increasingly important in the policy environment? We have 100 percent renewable energy bills in numerous states around the country. We have tons of cities thinking about 100 percent renewable energy goals and localities can do whatever they want. I'm not going to judge a specific pathway, but what we are saying is that these policies are based on one study that numerous researchers have said, "Hey, this is pretty unrealistic." Why can we not hold Jacobson's study to the same standard that we hold, say, an EIA study on the other end of the spectrum that's way conservative?
Jigar Shah: It's false equivalence. EIA is the official US government analysis, which I help pay for through my tax dollars. I have every right to say that EIA should be more intellectually honest in the way in which they are doing stuff. I don't fund Jacobson's work. I don't fund Robert Bryce at the Manhattan Institute. I don't fund a lot of folks' work and they can do whatever they want. They get money from XYZ group and then they actually create their own nonprofit and they are pushing stuff out there. Those are two different things. I don't want to compare EIA and Mark Jacobson's work because they have two completely differently functions. EIA is an official government body, which then that data gets inserted into official government proceedings within the Public Service Commissions. Mark Jacobson's work is viewed in the way that it should be viewed, which is aspirational, which is probably a little bit more academically rigorous than Greenpeace's work, but not that much more.
Katherine Hamilton: I would just not say that having a paper like this out there as an aspirational vision of one way to get this done is in any way making the law in these states that are setting 100 percent renewable energy goals. What you have to do to get a policy done like this paper is one tiny piece of it. You have the vision. You do analysis and back it up. You may have several different things you are looking at for like how are we going to actually get done? How are we going to meet this goals? You have to look at the technological viability and resource mix of wherever you are, whatever that status.
You have to come up with the policy instruments. Are we doing grants? Tax credits? Goals? Mandates? How are we doing it? That's just the policy piece. Then, you have to mesh it with a political pathway to get it done. When you do legislation, you have to look at the human being, the constituent impact. You have to look at what does the industry believe it can happen, what are the utilities believe that can happen. That's the sausage making piece of it. Just this one analysis is only one small piece of what would eventually come out at the other end of any kind of legislative policy.
Stephen Lacey: That's absolutely correct, but on the front end, it does have an outsize impact. This one study has motivated an entire movement. That's important because it dictates the kinds of pathways that legislators choose. In California, do they choose to spend their political capital and time to fix their cap and trade program or do they push a 100 percent renewable energy target? In Massachusetts, there are two bills floating around. I was going back and forth with Jesse Jenkins on this and Jesse is here based in Massachusetts. He said that there's two bills floating around, one is for 100 percent renewable energy, one proposed by the Governor Charlie Baker is for a decarbonization target, which would allow all technologies to compete. Does that influence a specific policy prescription if people are relying on this one study? I don't think we have an answer for it yet, but I do think it has an outsize impact on the debate. I would much rather see a CO2 reduction target and then to allow technologies to compete rather than saying, "Let's get 100 percent renewable energy from just wind, water, and solar and limit technology choice."
Katherine Hamilton: What's interesting is that those two opposing bills in Massachusetts are seemingly opposing bills may yield the exact same result. Because if you do compete, then a lot of these work expensive technologies aren't going to move forward. I do think though that policy does matter and does influence decisions that you make on what you deploy. You need to figure out what's the vision for your future? Do we want a zero carbon future? Then, what are the policies we have to put into place.
Jacobson's list of policies are pretty much standard codes and standards, incentivizing landlord investment and efficiency, promoting municipal incentives for energy efficiency, energy supply measures like RPSS, production tax credits, incentivizing energy storage, utility planning and incentive structures and then transportation and industrial processes, TOU rates. These are not outside the box really policies. If someone were to take his paper and say, "Hmm. I wonder what the policies are that I can put into place to really start me moving down this path." His policies are not really outrageous. The one thing he doesn't have in here interestingly was that none of his policies increase research and development. That piece is not in here. If you really want to get to some of these technologies and have them work like have CCS work or have some of this advanced nuclear work, you really need to focus on the R&D piece of it.
Jigar Shah: I also think that this sort of libertarian approach to policy is sort of belies what has worked. When you look at, for instance, in Massachusetts where they had the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, which legislation passed in 1998. Rob Caret was basically anti-solar for most of his tenure, so none of the money was used because none of the other technologies were actually prepared to put in the sales and marketing efforts to be able to put the technologies at the door. It wasn't until they shifted all the money to solar that that program was successful. I don't think that any money from the private sector is going to go into fourth generation nuclear unless there's a carve off for nuclear. I think if you said, "Well, CO2 decarbonization and whatever the best technologies are will win, it's probably going to be a solar and wind bill."
Stephen Lacey: I think we need to re-evaluate all our assumptions here because 100 percent renewable is often confused with a 100 percent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Just because you have a ton of renewable energy doesn't mean you drop greenhouse gas emissions by the same percentage. That's super important to think about because when you start developing policy and your goal is decarbonization, then you have a whole host of other things like transportation planning, city planning, energy efficiency and buildings. Really basic things that are outside of what Jacobson is modeling here and what is even part of the debate generally.
With that said, when it comes to next generation nuclear and even the nuclear reactors that are being developed, for example, in Georgia, the Vogtle or the Kemper CCS plant. We had a conversation with Jesse Jenkins who has done a lot of modeling on the costs associated with those plants. He said that in a 100 percent decarbonization scenario, after you get past the 80 percent carbon reductions, those technologies look very competitive. No matter how you run the models, those technologies are competitive with a 100 percent renewable energy scenario just because of grid constraints, the spacial issues with developing grids to reach renewable energy to load centers because of land constraints. There are a number of reasons why those technology still do pencil out in this really deep decarbonization scenarios.
Jigar Shah: I would love to see Jesse go to Georgia and get them another nuclear plant. This conversation is devoid of the fact that we are a political country and energy is deeply political in the way in which it's regulated. I just think this notion that you're going to rate base another $17 billion plant right now and any state in the country is crazy.
Katherine Hamilton: Mississippi Public Service Commission yesterday just said, "Forget about it," to Kemper. They said, "You are only going to operate this as a natural gas facility," by the way, probably the most expensive ever, ever built. They're going to remove risk from repairs for this whole gasification issue. CCS has not penciled out and has not been proven. This is exhibit A of that in this country.
Stephen Lacey: Right, and has not penciled given today's environment and I totally agree that modeling the economics of a decarbonized energy system is completely different from the near term repair impacts of an individual project. Totally onboard with that reaction. I think what we are missing too is that people assume when they talk about 100 percent renewables, again, that that means massive decarbonization. What they fail to recognize many of the liberal environmentalist supporters of this plan, they fail to recognize that natural gas has played a huge role in recent decarbonization and that renewables are only starting to play significant role. The phase out coal and the increase of natural gas has been a huge driver of decarbonization in the electricity sector. If you take those off the table, which a lot of people want to do when you say, "Let's go a 100 percent renewable," that starts to change the decarbonization equation. I just think that people are conflating these two things.
Katherine Hamilton: I also think you are cutting yourself out of all of these other things that aren't nuclear and natural gas, which are deep energy efficiency and demand response and DER that can convert loads into resources. I think we are living out a whole piece of the mix there, which calls for energy efficiency and smart grid and optimization of resources on the edge of the grid and that's just like everybody is pertaining that doesn't exist.
Jigar Shah: This is the challenge is that I get where you are coming from, Stephen, but it's still a theoretical conversation. I think when you think about what many of us worked on from 1999 through 2007 or so on RPS, the vast majority of RPS legislations were not passed for decarbonization. They were passed for diversification away from natural gas. Natural gas price spikes cripple the California economy. They crippled many of the economies in the west. That's why we passed RPS. Most of the legislators locally did not pass them to promote renewable energy. Most of them pass them because natural gas was so unreliable from its volatile nature in terms of electricity prices.
Then, when you think about like where we are in natural gas, you can be anti or pro natural gas. It doesn't matter. We still have 500,000 megawatts of operating natural gas plants in this country that can basically run the entire grid for most of the time. Most of them I think are still running at 40 percent capacity factors or less. It doesn't matter if we never build another natural gas plant again and all of the activist work their magic. Those natural gas plants are still going to be around until 2040, 2050.
Stephen Lacey: Katherine, do you think we are highlighting our differences when in fact there's way more agreement on where to go?
Katherine Hamilton: I think everybody's vision might be a little bit different about the path that we take, but the end goal seems still to be pretty clear, which is we need to get to a zero-carbon future and we need to make sure we don't go below 2 to 3 [degrees] centigrade. I think that if we keep that in mind and we don't [engage in] snark and patronizing comments like I think then will be a much better off. I think it's important to have these discussions and it's important to have differences of opinion. I think that's healthy. I think it's healthy to have the debate. In the end, what's going to impact policy is real political leadership.
Stephen Lacey: Let's just touch on the final piece of this, and this is Jacobson's reaction. We are not here to attack Jacobson. In fact, Shayle Kann and I, on other podcast, are going to invite him on and Chris Clack and we are going to dig into their different arguments in a deeper way because I think there is actually a lot of agreement. If you listen to Chris Nelder's interview with Christopher Clack on the Energy Transition show, Clack has respect for Jacobson. When you get beyond the Twitter debate, these are academics trying to critique each other's work, and this is a totally normal part of the scientific process.
I will say Jacobson's response through Twitter in particular in which he attacks the researchers, many of whom are some of the most respected energy and climate researchers in the field, says they took fossil fuel money, really challenges their motives. These are legitimate academics and energy experts who are trying to figure out the best pathway. He, in many cases, viciously attacked them and has been on the offensive. I don't think it helps his cause at all. I honestly think that the worst part of this process has been Jacobson's response himself, not the actual critic of his paper.
Katherine Hamilton: There are a lot of people out there who need to rein back their Twitter.
Jigar Shah: No. This was a classic case study on what not to do when attacked. What Mark should have done is actually said, "My papers were peer reviewed and I respect the peer review process of which this other paper was part of that. Basically, the back and forth of academics is fully natural." Then, what he should have also said was that he is proud of the fact that 100 percent renewable energy is now on the table for discussion, which it was not before his paper.
Stephen Lacey: We look forward to talking to him in greater detail and Chris Clack and you can hear that in the future. I just have one final thing to say that's really been gnawing at me because we live in a time when science itself and the very nature of facts are under attack. Liberals who are largely the folks who have taken up the 100 percent renewable energy cause and are so defensive about this report often vitriolic on Twitter are ... They lament the fact that science is being undermined and this is a peer reviewed process. This is how academic and scientific research gets improved. It's about challenging our own assumptions, defending your modeling, building off our new understanding of previous research. That's what this new study is trying to do.
I don't think they are attacking Jacobson. Maybe it comes across that way in the Twitter sphere, but academically, it's just a part of the peer review process. I just like implore our listeners to open their mind. Stop using these debates as a Rorschach test to see what you want to see. Embrace the fact that this is how academia works, how the scientific process works. This is an important contribution to our understanding of how low carbon energy systems can be deployed. There are a lot of different pathways. If there's anyone who can step out of the muck and reassess their assumptions and keep an open mind, I think it's our listeners and that's what I want people to take away from this.
We've spent so much time on Twitter. Time to talk about another story that got a little traction on Twitter this week. I tweeted out this chart from Dan Shugar, the CEO of NEXTracker, which compares outage levels and renewable energy amounts between Denmark, Germany and the US. Jigar actually turned me on to that chart. It shows that Denmark, which has more than triple the amount of non-hydro renewables of America and Germany, which has double the amount of renewables, both have 10 times fewer outages than the US. The implication is that renewables don't hurt the grid or even provide a benefit to stability.
That data point was also used in a prominent op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle written by California Energy Commissioner, David Hochschild and a member of the California Independent System operator board in this prebuttal to the Rick Perry baseload study coming out. I got a little flack from Twitter from my use of that chart. I do put context in the story, but people fairly pointed out on Twitter that you can't compare the two regions and the presence of renewables tells us nothing about outages. Can it tell us anything meaningful? I want to bring this stat up because it's one that I'm saying pop up more and more and Jigar you send me that link to Shugar's chart initially. Why were you compelled by it?
Jigar Shah: I've been faced with this firsthand in the Washington, D.C. area. The D.C. area is one of the worst places in the country where we average over a day worth of outages in Montgomery County. We had actually a multi-day outage like five days of outage that year when the derecho came through the D.C. area. The conversation around that was around tree trimming and around baring power lines and all the things. We had this really intense conversation around what it would take to improve reliability in the state. I was contrasting that with all of the basically lying that was done by utility companies for years around how the grid is going to become more unstable when you put in more variable renewable energy resources and all this other stuff. I was like, "Wait a second. We already have an unstable grid like basic weather patterns intend to take our grid down on a regular basis and you are basically blaming it on renewable energy."
Stephen Lacey: What you are saying is that our outage problems exist currently and it has had nothing to do with renewables in the US?
Jigar Shah: That's right. I completely agree with what the Twitter folks were saying, which is this is not causation, it's correlation. It's amazing to me how many people less today I would say than five years ago, but how many people basically are saying, "Well, the grid would be a lot safer and a lot more reliable if we have lot less renewable energy." Frankly, the First Energy CEO said that over and over again.
Katherine Hamilton: There's sort of two ways to look at it, one is local. Jigar, as you think about a tree falling on the line in your neighborhood or a specific feeder out because of a weather event versus the full grid and what is the grid need. We've had big grid outages like back in 2003 when a branch in Cleveland took out the entire grid in the northeast. Generally, on a large scale, we have a pretty good system and it has nothing to do with whether renewables were on it. In fact, during the polar vortex, you might remember that natural gas had to be diverted to home heating because it was so cold and the coal was frozen on trains. What came in to play? Renewables kept spinning and also demand response was there. All of these technologies that we have out there that get serve resources whether it's renewables or grid, demand response and DER on the edge of the grid. Those are what can come into play when you are looking at the full system.
Stephen Lacey: Important to talk about the outages in Europe versus the U.S. The U.S. is of course more susceptible to extreme weather, hurricanes in particular, and if you look at outages over the last few years, around half of them are caused by hurricanes and of course Irene and super storm Sandy were devastating to the electric grid. That of course has an impact on the statistics. In Europe, they bury a lot of their infrastructure. Their distribution infrastructure is the lines were often buried and that is a huge component combined with the fact that they see less extreme weather compared to the U.S.
I agree with both of what you are saying. What we are saying is that the presence of renewables can actually improve reliability in certain situations and in general, it doesn't hurt reliability. There are certainly regional differences in terms of outages, but we can't say that lots of renewable energy causes more outages. This is really important because we are waiting on this Rick Perry study showing why wind and solar are damaging to base load power and potentially grid stability. We don't know what's in that study yet, but there are a lot of assumptions. This is another data point I think to keep in mind as we await that study.
Jigar Shah: It's important because we are marching towards 80 percent renewable energy in this country. As we march towards that, the voices around this reliability piece will get louder and louder and we have to set this particular criticism aside.
Katherine Hamilton: I would just refer everyone to look at this report from Advanced Energy Economy and American Wind Energy Association that is sort of the prebuttal report about there's no evidence that changing power mix endangers electric system reliability.
Stephen Lacey: Final point for me. One of the big issues with grid reliability in the U.S. has been the lack of infrastructure investments throughout the late '80s and into the '90s. We just saw a real drop-off in investment and those investments have increased and many of those new investments are a result of utilities trying to find unique alternatives to developing new poles and wires. We are seeing a surge in investment infrastructure on the distribution system and the transmission system to accommodate renewables and new behind the meter DERs and to fit into the structure of, say, what New York is trying to develop. That's all coming together to potentially improve reliability and is a direct result of the coming surge of DERs.
Katherine Hamilton: We are looking at the grid more holistically now and how do we use it better. There's the energy imbalance market that brings Western states into the market, the real-time market, 5- and 15-minute markets in California, which really does help bringing use renewables that they do have grid ties and they do have transmission. We need much more of it, but there are constructs out there that are trying to help us be able to use those resources that are not at load centers to bring them closer to load center.
Stephen Lacey: That's a perfect segue to the final topic. We are going to do a quick stat check to round out the show. The EIA reported last week that the U.S. got 10 percent of its electricity from wind and solar in the month of March, a significant milestone. Those resources averaged out to about 7 percent over the course of the year. Wind pick up the large majority of that generation, but solar accounted for 3 percent and it was only a couple of years ago when solar was at less than a half of percent of generation, remarkable. Katherine, what is 10 percent? Tell us about what's going on with renewables and the electricity mix in the U.S.
Katherine Hamilton: It's significant and that it's more nationally than we've ever had for those technologies. What's really interesting is that we got far more than that when you look at very specific parts of the country. I was just at this Mid-America Regulatory Conference where there are about 15 states in the middle part of the country including Texas and all the states that are in the Southeast Power Pool. They were talking about getting 40 percent of its energy from wind. SPP, the Southwest Power Pool getting up to 60 percent sometimes. In certain areas, they are getting a lot more than 10 percent and they are managing it. These parts of the country, especially in the middle part of the country is very long on capacity. They are talking about how do we integrate all these renewables, demand response, transmission, but the 10 percent to me is just the tip of the iceberg.
Jigar Shah: I also love that like when EIA has a chart that talks about how much renewable energy is of the kilowatt hour sold in each state. The top states are Iowa, 37 percent; Kansas at 30 percent wind, North Dakota at 21 percent wind, Oklahoma 25 percent wind. Then, you get to California, which is a 20 percent wind and solar and small scale solar. Then, you get to like Colorado at 19. The states have the highest percentage of total kilowatt hours coming from renewable energy. All states have voted for Trump.
Stephen Lacey: That's right. I can never repeat the statistic enough. At least as of last year, over 85 percent of wind projects were installed in Republican districts, which is of course why in the congressional budgetary process you actually see far more support for this stuff. We've talked about that so many times. There's no need to really mention it again. The solar number, Jigar, all of a sudden EIA is focused on smaller-scale solar, not just utility-scale solar and they are showing 3 percent generation nationwide. That's a big increase over a couple of years and I suspect we'll see another big jump over the next couple of years. What's the significance behind that solar leap?
Jigar Shah: I think there is certainly a very large significance around EIA finally including small-scale solar, which they started to do last year, because small-scale solar I do think has a huge impact on the grid itself, much more than the utility-scale solar. I also think that numbers are starting to get meaningful from a merit order standpoint. When you think about how electricity is dispatched in wholesale power markets, it's the lowest variable cost resources that are allowed to run first, which for solar wind is viewed to be zero. They are always allowed to run. When you're at 10 percent of the U.S. grid, then you are actually always being allowed to run, which then depresses wholesale market prices, which is what's leading to the accelerating decline of the economics of fossil fuel generators.
Stephen Lacey: This show in particular of course had a theme about the increasing role of renewables in the electricity mix. If there's one thing you can takeaway from it, it's that this is not an academic debate. This stuff is happening now in real time. We are looking at a pretty dramatically different electricity system from when we even started this show. I'll look back on this show as a milestone for how folks are talking about this issue.
Katherine Hamilton: When Jigar gets the solar panels up on the wall, then it will just increase it by another 10 percent.
Jigar Shah: It really is extraordinary how Trump yesterday was like, "I came up with the idea of putting a solar on the wall."
Stephen Lacey: Let's take a step back. What did he say? Trump reportedly met with Republican lawmakers a few weeks back and said, "In order to sweeten the deal, I'll put solar panels on the border wall." People have been joking about that for a while and then Trump actually came up with a serious proposal. Then, the other day, he was talking publicly about it and gave a speech. What did he say, Jigar?
Jigar Shah: He said, "A solar wall, so it creates energy and pays for itself. Mexico will have to pay much less money."
Stephen Lacey: I don't even know how to respond to that.
Jigar Shah: I love it, honestly. [...] Since I wrote this article on January 3, 2017, I like the fact that there are all these right-wing folks who are listening to the fact that solar works, that solar actually works. I hate the wall. I hate everything it represents, but I love the fact that they are saying that solar power works.
Stephen Lacey: It's that time folks, the president will only talk about solar if it's on top of 12-foot wall bordering Mexico. I don't know what else to say about that, but we do have some other notable novel stories in our daily lives that we've been paying attention to and we are going to tell you something you may not know. Katherine, what's your story?
Katherine Hamilton: There are two things going on as we tape. One is that FERC is having a technical conference on the state of reliability. They are looking at the North American Electric Reliability Corporation's report on reliability so that's going to be interesting to watch given our discussion today and it is live stream so people who want to can always access it. Then, at the same time, Secretary Rick Perry is defending his budget to senate committee on energy and natural resources. He did yesterday in front of Senate Appropriations and he did earlier in the house side as well where he basically said, "I had no input into the budget, so don't blame me for it." We'll see how he does, but he is testifying as we tape today.
Stephen Lacey: That's a scary sign. If the energy secretary says, "I had no input on the energy portion of the budget that the White House proposed." It's another sign that a very small group of people who want to slash and burn government, not make it more efficient, but just decimate government or in control of the process. Jigar, tell us something we may not know.
Jigar Shah: Two things from me. One is that the wind energy industry is constantly been bombarded by folks who believe that rare earths are being used by wind turbines. These are rare earth metals, materials, mostly from China. I think that AWEA has a great report that they just came out with that shows that that's not true. That the amount of rare earths necessary is only about 2 percent of the U.S. wind turbine fleet. That most of the wind turbines are using conventional electromagnets made of copper and steel. It really is just canard out there that folks are pushing. It's important for the wind industry I think to face these head on and to survive them.
The second is I just wanted to give a shout-out early to everybody who is celebrating the summer solstice. I know there are summer solstice parties across the country starting yesterday, the actual day of summer solstice, and just want to wish everybody a happy summer solstice. I'll be at the Solar Foundation fundraiser tonight in D.C.
Stephen Lacey: It's the summer solstice and it's also today National HVAC Tech Day. For anyone sitting out there in the sweltering heat out west, give a big squeeze to your local air conditioning technician. They deserve it. Extra points if that technician is up on the Energy Star codes. That is all, folks. Thank you so much. Leave us a rating and a review on iTunes. That's where the vast majority of our listeners find us and it really helps us find new folks. Push us on social media. If you enjoy this conversation or others, tweet at us. Let us know what you think. We want to debate and discuss the issues with you online as well and subscribe if you aren't already. We are on every app you can possibly imagine, SoundCloud, Stitcher, iTunes, NPR One, Overcast, any podcast app of your choice. You can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This was really fun podcast. There's a lot more to say about this and I think we covered it pretty well.
Jigar Shah: I will raise a glass to you tonight.
Stephen Lacey: Katherine, see you next week in San Jose. Safe travel.
Katherine Hamilton: Thanks. I look forward to it.
Stephen Lacey: With Katherine Hamilton and Jigar Shah, I'm Stephen Lacey and we are the Energy Gang, a production of Greentech Media. We'll catch you next week.