What Will It Take to Clean Up the Electric Grid?

Source: By By Justin Gillis and Sonia Aggarwal, New York Times • Posted: Monday, December 16, 2019

Yet society delayed action for so long that the pace of change now required seems impossible. Greenhouse gases are still risingglobally. Some advocacy groups are demanding that these emissions be eliminated entirely within a decade, requiring a scale of industrial and political mobilization matching or exceeding that of World War II.

In the United States, most of the Democratic presidential candidates have embraced a goal that is more limited, but still challenging: cleaning up, to a large degree, the electricity grid by 2030, just 10 years from now. Turning to cleaner energy sources to generate that electricity would not eliminate emissions from other sources like cars and buildings, but it would be a huge step in the right direction. It appears the 2020 election may feature an argument about whether such a rapid cleanup is possible. So is it?

To figure that out, we used the Energy Policy Simulator, developed by the climate policy research group Energy Innovation, to calculate the scale of the required construction program. The results are sobering, but they point to a strategy.

Getting the rest of the way in a decade, our modeling suggests, would require a national project of immense scale. New nuclear plants take too long to plan and build, and have incurred disastrous cost overruns, so they are largely off the table for a 2030 target. Instead, American workers would have to build about 120,000 new wind turbines and about 44,000 large solar power plants in a decade.

The pace of construction would need to be three to four times as fast as the maximum annual pace we have achieved so far, in 2012 for wind turbines and in 2016 for solar panels. We would most likely need more than 60,000 miles of new power transmission lines, and many grid batteries to store electrical energy on a large scale and balance the variable wind and solar output.

China, which has four times as many people as the United States, is building renewables faster than any country in the world. Yet the construction program required here would be about as fast as China’s best years for wind and solar.

The sheer physical demands of such a rapid build-out are daunting. To construct the turbines, steel mills would have to rev up to meet rising demand; spot shortages of raw materials and price spikes are easy to imagine. The roads would be crawling with trucks hauling huge wind-turbine blades. We would need hundreds of millions of solar panels, and most of the world’s production capacity is in China. American solar factories would certainly increase production, but many of the panels would probably have to come from abroad.

Yes, it all sounds quite intimidating.

We know for a fact that such a program is possible, however. We know so for the simple reason that America has tackled grand projects on this scale before.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in 1933, most of rural America still had no electricity. In 1935, he created the Rural Electrification Administration, and in just five years the nation built 250,000 miles of power lines and hooked up nearly a million farms. By the early 1950s, virtually the entire country had electricity. Many Americans have probably heard from their older relatives about the moment the R.E.A. transformed their lives.

As a young Army officer, Dwight D. Eisenhower joined a cross-country convoy in 1919 and was appalled by the condition of the nation’s roads. As president, he began construction of the Interstate Highway System in 1956, perhaps America’s greatest peacetime construction project. Within five years the country built 10,400 miles of freeways; by 1992 that number quadrupled, to 48,000 miles.

True, those grand programs happened back when America had competent national leadership and a functional Congress. Can we still build at scale? Well, consider this: Since 2010, companies drilled 130,000 new oil and gas wells, many using a tricky — and controversial — technology called hydraulic fracturing. Each of those wells was at least as complicated as erecting a wind turbine. Washington may be broken, but America remains a wealthy and skilled nation with a tremendous capacity for large-scale enterprise.

As you may have guessed, the real barriers to getting this done are not physical — they are legal and bureaucratic. The most critical missing element is a national mandate to do it, but that is not the only problem.

Our power markets, for example, are broken in some big ways. Ill-conceived market rules mean that dirty power plants are still getting paid to keep operating — or just to sit there! — across large areas of the United States where wind and solar power can now beat them on price. We may need to use some combination of market reforms and public money to pay utilities to shut down those dirty plants.

If liberals and conservatives joined forces to develop more of a free market in electric power, that would also unlock more low-cost renewable energy. Texas has done this, under Republican leadership, and that huge state of 29 million people is expected to get more than 20 percent of its power from wind turbines this year.

A fast renewable power construction program would require an acceleration of the cumbersome procedures required to put up power lines and other infrastructure. That would have to include speeding up environmental reviews, which can easily take a decade on large projects. We support strong environmental standards, but the reviews should be much faster.

The power-market rules, the bureaucratic hurdles — those were all created by governments. In the end, whether America can be repowered with green technologies in a decade, or even two, comes back to politics.

In the face of federal intransigence, Texas and some other states are moving forward on clean energy, but states alone cannot secure a safe climate without national leadership. President Roosevelt electrified the nation and President Eisenhower built the freeways because they inspired the public with their visions and won the political capital — the clout in Congress — to get it done.

In the end, it is not the capacity of our steel mills or our trucks that will determine how fast we can go. The real question is whether the American people will elect a government in 2020 that is truly committed to salvaging a livable Earth for future generations.

Justin Gillis, a former Times editor and environmental reporter, has been a contributor to the Opinion section since January 2018. Sonia Aggarwal is vice president of Energy Innovation, a think tank in San Francisco. Megan Mahajan and Silvio Marcacci of Energy Innovation assisted with research.