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 (GW) of power annually to the grid. Doing so would, by DOE’s estimates, position solar energy to provide 1,600 GW to the grid by 2050, about 45% of total electric generation. To get there, the study says that the U.S. would have to install an average of 30 GW of solar capacity per year between now and 2025 and 60 GW per year from 2025-2030 at a cost of approximately $562 billion.
If we’re honest, it’s not a breakthrough study. The same argument could be made for other energy sources as well. If the U.S. quadrupled its nuclear, geothermal, wind or even hydroelectric capacity as is proposed for solar, any of the above would contribute more electrons to the grid and reduce carbon. That’s not the most frustrating aspect of Solar Futures, however. Even in a best-case scenario, the study plainly states that it’s going to take 24 years for solar to yield the promised energy production and carbon reduction.
Can we wait that long? The three-fold reason the time horizon is at least 24 years is because the grid necessary to transport all those solar-generated electrons is not ready, grid-scalable storage technology doesn’t exist, and the cost of getting to a zero carbon future to include solar, is much more likely between $20 and $25 trillion.
Unfathomable Changes and Impacts
While we wait, we are inundated with news that the planet is out of time. This past May, the World Meteorological Organization rattled the news wires by declaring a 90% chance exists that at least one year between 2021-2025 will be the warmest on record, along with a 40% chance of the annual average global temperature temporarily reaching 1.5° Celsius above the pre-industrial level – the threshold of climate collapse. An ecology professor from Oregon State University put a fine point on the matter by saying, “We are in an emergency that humanity has never seen before. We’re looking at unfathomable changes and impacts to society.”
More meetings are not going to help. The 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) is scheduled to be held in Glasgow in early November. As it did in Kyoto in 2005 and in Paris in 2015, the COP will gather, drama will ensue with certain countries refusing to get on board with aggressive goals for reducing carbon dioxide, a diplomatic breakthrough will come at the last minute, and after the closing party, the senior delegates will board their private jets to fly back home. The worthiness of more meetings could not have been made more plain than when, also this past May, 16 years after Kyoto, atmospheric carbon dioxide measured at NOAA’s Mauna Loa Observatory peaked at the highest level since measurements began 63 years ago.
One thing DOE’s Solar Futures study did get right, however, was with this statement: “A clean grid requires massive, equitable deployment of diverse, sustainable energy sources.” Yes, absolutely, could not agree more with the idea that we can decarbonize and do so much faster with a wide-path approach. Solar is good, but we do not need to wait for 2045 to reduce carbon emissions. We have everything we need to accomplish dramatic reductions today.
No Reason to Wait –– Three “Today” Actions
- Replace Diesel Fuel with Propane
In transportation –– school buses, cargo shipping and medium- heavy-duty trucking –– backup generation and home heating (fuel oil), propane delivers all the thermal efficiency of diesel at less cost while virtually eliminating ground level ozone pollutants like NOx and PM 2.5. Real-world NOx reduction for on-road propane vehicles compared with diesel and even diesel hybrid electric vehicles, for example, is 95% and 79%, respectively.
From a carbon standpoint, propane is the clear winner. The Energy Information Administration reportsthat 22.4 pounds of CO2 are produced by burning a gallon of diesel fuel. Propane’s equivalent number is 45% less than diesel at 12.7 pounds. It’s not zero, but Dr. Jane Lubchenco, the deputy director for climate and environment at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, made a short but profound statement recently when she said, “Every bit of warming matters, and every bit of avoided warming matters.”
And there’s more good news. Today, we are blending conventional propane, with renewable propane made from used cooking oil, with renewable dimethyl ether (DME) captured from dairy farm waste lagoons.
- 3D the Grid
Lines overhead and pipes underground aren’t enough today to reduce disruptions brought on by extreme weather. The versatile, on-demand, center of the grid is our best source of resiliency as we learn how to live in an era of climate change.
Overreliance on one energy type, including electricity, increases risk, and that risk costs a huge amount of money. Strained power grid systems have recently created eye-popping price spikes. In February, for example, Winter Storm Uri had prices on the ERCOT grid ballooning to $9,000 per megawatt-hour for brief periods of time when a similar unit of power typically costs less than $40.
Localized power production through combined heat and power (CHP) or cogeneration is the answer. CHP offers tremendous benefits compared to centralized power generation in two ways. First, CHP is terrifically efficient, as high as 90% efficiency. Transmission and distribution losses are approximately 5% while in a centralized system, more than 60% of energy used for electricity generation is lost in conversion. Specific to propane and for additional context, it is interesting to note that the federal government’s Energy Star program gives propane a source-site efficiency ratio of 1.01, compared to 2.80 for electricity from the U.S. grid. This means is takes 2.80 units of electricity to produce and deliver one unit of energy compared to only 1.01 for propane.
Additionally, power resiliency to household and commercial entities offers tremendous economic value. Every year, billions of dollars of economic losses are attributed to weather related electricity outages. More than 70% of electrical grid outages are from weather-related incidents. Micro-CHP –– units with <50 kW capacity suitable for residential and light commercial applications including hospitals, offices, restaurants, and schools –– provides resiliency where there is no reliability. It’s not an exotic idea, either. DOE reports that today, 461 microgrids are operating in the U.S, delivering a total capacity of ~3100 MW.
The upside potential for microgrids is tremendous. Growth in this space can alleviate grid outages due to weather related catastrophes including forest fires and hurricanes. CHP systems are especially attractive to operators of remote and edge computing data centers as well as communities like Silvies Valley Ranchin Burns, Oregon, which operates a combination solar, battery energy storage and propane generator system capable of supporting 600 homes. Likewise, Liberty Utilities has installed a 97% renewable microgrid in Truckee, CA combining a 20 kW solar panel, a 68 kWh battery with a propane generator as a wildfire mitigation solution.
On the subject of wildfire mitigation, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) supports the microgrid concept. Its wildfire safety plan includes this statement (pg. 319): “PG&E identified the technology combination of Solar Photovoltaic Generation and Battery Energy Storage with supplemental Propane Generators as the most cost effective, reliable, and cleanest solution for initial Remote Grid sites.”
Today, propane is a staple of the 3D grid. It is repeatedly called on to rescue the electric grid during emergencies because it doesn’t need electric transmission lines or natural gas lines to be put to work. It can be trucked anywhere at any time, including in the very worst conditions. Examples of propane’s importance to reliability and resiliency of the energy ecosystem shined over the past two years by supplying energy through the worst hurricane season on record, by heating homes during Winter Storm Uri, by powering pop-up tents to make COVID testing available throughout the country, and by allowing restaurants to stay in business using outdoor seating throughout the pandemic. A little-known fact, propane generators back up the majority of telecommunication towers, so even when the grid is down, cell phones work.
Efficient, economical, reliable, and ultra-low carbon solutions like microgrid CHP units deliver needed power and supplant the need for the carbon-heavy centralized grid. The technology is available today and cannot be implemented fast enough.
- Stop Waiting for Perfect
On August 3, 2021, the executive officer of California’s South Coast Air Quality Management District, Wayne Nastri, was compelled to send a formal and lengthy letter to 25 zero-emission advocacy organizations ranging from the California Environmental Justice Alliance to the Sierra Club of California.
The groups had complained that the District should wait to invest in zero-emission technology and equipment rather than making those investments today in commercially available near-zero technology and equipment. Nastri’s response is an object lesson in practicality. He wrote, “While the amount of emission reductions needed to attain clean air standards is daunting, it would be irresponsible for our agency to effectively throw up our hands and not explore all options for reducing emissions now.” In the footnote, he also included this, “…we owe it to our breathing public to do everything within our power to clean the air as soon as possible even if we have a long way to go.”
It is a strange but often-seen paradox that the most ardent climate change advocates are experts at killing the good by insisting on the perfect. Most turn to the bumper sticker, “Electrify Everything!” to make the most complex problem of our time seemingly solvable in two words. The idea isn’t just impractical, it’s a false promise. The reality is electrification does not mean decarbonization.
The grid is energized by coal (20%), natural gas (40%), nuclear (20%) and finally renewables, the majority of which are wind and hydro (20%). Until such time as 80% of grid power (because nuclear, which is carbon free, is also not acceptable to many) is replaced by wind, solar or other renewable energy (biomass is not carbon neutral so must be excluded), electrification will remain a high-volume carbon emission source. This simple fact makes policies such as gas bans and battery vehicle requirements more than flabbergasting.
Today, 15 states and Washington, D.C. have proposed full electrification of medium- and heavy-duty trucks by 2050 with a target of 30 percent “zero-emission” vehicle sales by 2030. But today, propane-fueled medium- and heavy-duty internal combustion engine vehicles currently provide a lower carbon footprint solution in 38 U.S. states and Washington, D.C., when compared to medium- and heavy-duty electric vehicles (EVs) charged using the electrical grid. When renewable propane is considered, propane-fueled MD-HD vehicles provide a lower carbon footprint solution in every U.S. state except Vermont where electricity is generated by, and imported from, Canadian hydroelectric power plants.
In addition, the grid can’t carry all the load. The deployment of electric cars, heat pumps, and other electric technology is poised to increase power consumption by 40% by 2050. Given that the present-day demand on the grid has led to blackouts, brownouts, and unreliable power, this shift towards greater electricity consumption will only make these painful interruptions more frequent.
Moving Fast Buys Us Time
For those who believe the electricity of tomorrow will be cleaner, then the same belief should be extended to the propane industry. This includes more efficient and climate-friendly applications, such as direct-vent fireplaces and tankless water heaters as well as increased production of precision energy blends using renewable propane.
Tomorrow, however, isn’t the point. We can all agree that future innovations will reduce carbon emissions and hold out hope those innovations deliver everything promised. While that innovation work continues, the clean energy available today that is already reducing carbon emissions, creates space between now and 2º C. That gives the world time for solar to make its contribution to our low carbon future.