The following is a contributed article by George Sakellaris, president and CEO of Ameresco.
In a world that continues to grapple with the unfolding effects of climate change and a global energy crisis that shows no signs of slowing, it’s never been more clear that the time to innovate our national approach to energy development is now. For too long, federal U.S. policy has taken a siloed perspective and focused almost exclusively on developing popular intermittent renewable solutions, like wind and solar — and it’s not enough.
Think of it like this: What happens when a Category 6 hurricane hits an offshore wind farm? Those turbines are wiped out and the security of the grid is threatened, potentially enough to leave millions without access to electricity for an extended period of time.
To make substantive progress in the energy transition, it is critical that we embrace a holistic and diversified approach to clean energy adoption that incentivizes the development of firm renewable solutions, or those that don’t solely rely on intermittent power. Firm renewables enable us to reliably meet energy demand regardless of varied weather conditions, which can pose issues for solutions like wind and solar. Mass adoption of solutions like hydroelectric power, which uses the natural flow of moving water to generate electricity, or biogas, which takes raw materials like municipal waste and manure and turns them into energy, would allow us to continue scaling the clean energy transition in a meaningful way.
In June of 2022, the Biden administration reinforced the federal government’s long-held siloed viewpoint and doubled down on intermittent renewables by announcing a two-year pause on imposing new solar energy tariffs. The move is a significant one as it signals continued federal support of clean energy adoption and encourages the renovation of aging U.S. infrastructure, which is hugely beneficial. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do much in the way of encouraging adoption of a more varied portfolio of sustainable solutions that would stand to strengthen our nation’s energy security more comprehensively.
To understand the context behind the U.S.’s laser focus on intermittent renewables, I think it’s important to examine U.S. energy policy from the early 2000s. At the time, concerns around the impending climate crisis began to pick up steam in national conversations. In an attempt to accelerate clean energy implementation and combat growing concerns, the federal government signed the Energy Policy Act of 2005 into law and introduced the Solar Investment Tax Credit.
For that time, the legislation was groundbreaking. Those who owned or implemented a solar energy system would receive a tax credit, which was equivalent to 30% of the system's eligible cost. The ITC encouraged mass adoption of solar energy on both a commercial and residential scale as it quickly became much easier, and more importantly cheaper, to adopt clean energy solutions than ever before. If the goal was to familiarize the general public with the benefits of renewable solutions, while simultaneously enacting widespread acceptance and implementation of these emerging technologies, the approach worked.
In 2008, the U.S.’s total solar power capacity was just 0.34 GW. Today, that capacity has grown to an estimated 97.2 GW. To put that in perspective, that latter figure is enough to power the equivalent of 18 million average American homes.
Diversifying renewable energy solutions
While any move toward accelerating the adoption of clean energy solutions over fossil fuels is a step in the right direction, it’s important we take a step back and think strategically about our viewpoint so that we don’t become overly reliant on any one solution. Like a good financial advisor will tell you, overdependence on just one investment, no matter its track record, will put your portfolio at risk. The same holds true for renewable energy solutions.
Though intermittent renewables are often touted because of their ease of implementation, smaller size, and broad distribution when compared to centralized plants, fluctuations in weather patterns can impact their reliability if not properly supported by the grid. Firm renewables don’t face this same issue because they’re not reliant on uncontrollable, outside forces.
However, that’s not to say that firm renewables don’t face issues of their own. Like most energy sources, there are trade-offs to production and use. For instance, biogas, while an excellent method of decarbonizing existent waste, still contains impurities following the refinement and compression process. It also faces the hurdle of urban scaling because large-scale production of the energy form relies on an abundant supply of waste manure or crop materials, which are most readily available in rural farmlands. In the same lens, hydroelectric power has faced its own set of obstacles as some dams that enable its operation have disrupted natural fish migration patterns, and water supply issues across the nation threaten the feasibility of using it as a reliable energy form.
Despite these obstacles, the benefits of each technology greatly outweigh the associated drawbacks. For biogas, the finalized product still significantly reduces methane emissions and makes use of excess waste in a highly efficient and clean manner. With hydroelectric power, the addition of fish “ladders” can mitigate any disruptions to migration patterns and the careful selection of locations for hydropower plants can negate any concerns around water supply.
No form of energy, whether clean or otherwise, is without its downsides. It’s why we need to embrace an integrated mix of solutions if we ever want to stand a chance against climate change. But firm renewables enable us to deal with the intermittency of solutions like wind and solar by bolstering existing energy supply.
They’re similar to energy storage systems, which are often touted as a solution to intermittent renewables because they capture excess energy for use at a later date, in that they both reduce imbalances between energy demand and production. But like solar and wind power, energy storage systems are also susceptible to security challenges when their energy reserves are depleted over extended periods of time.
At the end of the day, firm renewables allow us to substantially strengthen our national energy security without jeopardizing the reliability of our energy supply. This is especially pertinent given the Supreme Court’s recent ruling, which limits the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate global-warming emissions from the nation’s power plants. Those with the power to effect concrete change, like corporations, need to take action now.
The dominance of fossil fuels is waning, and as we transition to more efficient solutions, we must ensure that we’re doing so strategically and comprehensively. Wind and solar power just aren’t enough.
We are at a crucial moment in history. There is no doubt that in order to address the unfolding climate crisis, we need to embrace firm solutions at a hastened pace. We cannot afford to continue on our current path.