The Department of Energy (DOE) recently released its Solar Futures Study showing that by 2035, the U.S. would need to quadruple its solar capacity to provide 1,000 gigawatts of power annually to the grid. Doing so would position solar energy to provide about 45% of total electric generation by 2045. To get there, the study says that the U.S. would need to spend approximately $562 billion.
The time horizon is at least 24 years because the grid necessary to transport all those solar-generated electrons isn’t ready, scalable storage technology doesn’t exist, and the cost of a totally carbon-free future, including solar, is actually much more likely to be between $20 and $25 trillion. While we wait, we are inundated with news that the planet is out of time. This past May, the World Meteorological Organization rattled the wires by declaring a 90% chance that at least one year between 2021-2025 will be the warmest on record. In the same month, 16 years after Kyoto, atmospheric CO2 measured at NOAA’s Mauna Loa Observatory peaked at the highest level since measurements began 63 years ago.
The country should invest in solar, but we do not need to wait 24 years to reduce carbon emissions. We can do three things today to make an enormous difference.
First, replace diesel fuel, especially in transportation –– cargo shipping, school buses, and medium- and heavy-duty trucking. Much cleaner options are available today, and they deliver all the thermal efficiency of diesel at less cost. For example, NOx reduction for on-road propane vehicles compared with diesel and even diesel hybrid electric vehicles is 95% and 79%, respectively, and today, propane blended with renewable propane made from used cooking oil and renewable dimethyl ether (DME) captured from dairy farms is producing a zero-carbon fuel.
Second, we need a three-dimensional energy grid. In this era of climate change, lines overhead and pipes underground aren’t enough. Overreliance on one source increases risk. Nine days after Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana, for example, 43,000 people remained without power, and many without another energy solution. Localizing power production through combined heat and power (CHP) generation is the answer. Micro-CHP, units suitable for residential deployment, hospitals, offices, restaurants and schools, provide resiliency where there is no reliability.
Finally, we need to take immediate decarbonization gains. It is a strange paradox that “Electrify Everything!” activists gloss over the fact that electrification does not mean decarbonization. Sixty percent of the electric grid is energized by coal and natural gas. Because of that, today, propane-fueled medium- and heavy-duty internal combustion engine vehicles provide a lower carbon footprint solution in a majority of the country when compared to medium- and heavy-duty battery-electric vehicles.
To be sure, DOE’s Solar Futures Study is a visionary document about the possibilities of tomorrow. Tomorrow, however, is too far away. The practical advantages that ever-improving clean gas technology is providing today creates space between now and 2º C, representing our best opportunity to avoid climate-related calamity.