Short-term projections from the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimate U.S. solar generating capacity will climb by 43% this year and an additional 30% in 2024. Similarly, the agency sees the nation’s wind capacity growing by 5% in 2023 and 2024. However, energy developers will need to expand renewables’ share of the market even more quickly in the near future to meet the Biden administration’s ambitious goal of 100% carbon-free electricity production by 2030.
Reaching this target will mean larger-scale deployment of current-generation renewables and rapid adoption of technologies and policies just now coming online.
Below are a few developments that show near-term promise for accelerating progress toward carbon-free electricity generation. None of these are silver-bullet solutions on their own, but all could have roles to play.
Today, the United States is home to just two offshore wind farms, off the coasts of Rhode Island and Virginia, with a total of 42 megawatts (MW) of generating capacity. However, by the end of the year, the 12-turbine South Fork Wind project could be sending up to 132 MW of electricity to the grid. Onshore cables were installed in May and the first turbine foundation was laid in June—wind professionals call this putting “steel in the water.”
Turbine installation also is underway for the $4 billion, 62-turbine Vineyard Wind project off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. Some electricity from the 800 MW wind farm could start flowing by the end of the year, with completion expected by next summer.
Planning for the future
These are just the beginning. Projects totaling 40,083 MW of additional capacity are in various stages of development, with 18 projects in the permitting phase, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries have become a regular go-to for utilities seeking to capture electricity when renewable output is high for use during peak periods when resources drop off. They’ve also helped support grid operations in remote locations, in some cases postponing the need to string new transmission wires and build new substations. But Li-ion batteries have limits, with outputs for most utility-scale systems topping out at four hours. That’s one reason several startups are pursuing different technologies that could enable significantly longer grid support.
Many of these companies are turning to safe, abundant minerals such as iron and zinc. Their batteries can be larger than a typical Li-ion project, but space isn’t the same issue for utilities as for homeowners and small businesses. And they can provide output for 12 or more hours. ESS and Form Energy are two companies at the forefront of this technology, and both have begun partnerships with electric utilities to deploy long-duration products for peak-period supply and ancillary grid services like frequency and voltage regulation.
Natural gas furnaces and boilers have been the most popular heating option for decades, and today’s models can be surprisingly efficient, capturing 95% or more of the heat energy available in the natural gas fuel source.
However, emissions-free electric heat pumps, which can provide heating and cooling, are now taking top billing in new construction and replacement projects. In 2022, heat pumps claimed 53% of all residential heating-system sales, according to the International Energy Agency.
While heat pumps used to be limited to moderate-temperature regions, manufacturers have developed models well-suited to cold climates. These new units are highly efficient—a 95% efficient natural gas furnace is still only a third as efficient as a heat pump. You read that right: a heat pump can transfer 300% more energy than it consumes. As renewable energy continues to grow as an electricity source, electric heat pumps are considered key to reducing residential building-related emissions.
Emissions-based building standards
By 2050, 62% of the nation’s building stock is expected to have been built prior to 2023, yet most of today’s building performance standards (BPS) target new construction. So regulators are now beginning to look at the efficiency of existing structures in their efforts to reduce building-related emissions. While energy use—measured in kilowatt-hours for electricity and Btus for natural gas—has been one metric in these efforts, environmental advocates suggest that converting energy use into related carbon emissions could have a bigger effect on overall building performance.
Many states and cities offer efficiency-improvement incentives, but the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) says these programs won’t make a big enough difference in the face of mounting climate challenges. A June ACEEE report notes a growing BPS presence in jurisdictions such as Colorado, Maryland and Washington and in cities including Reno, Nev., St. Louis and New York.
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