New Year, New Clean Energy Analysis: New Study Finds Lots of Benefits, Few Costs

January 10, 2017 | 9:28 am
Credit: J. Rogers
John Rogers
Energy Campaign Analytic Lead

Last year was a tough one in some ways, though a great one for those of us tracking wind and solar progress. Now a new report from two of our nation’s premier national energy laboratories analyzes the power of a lot more strong growth in clean energy sources like those.

What they find is just about everything you could want in smart energy evolution: lots of likely upside, not much downside.

The report, from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, models a particular policy in place in a majority of US states, known as renewable electricity standards (or renewable portfolio standards). Their model assesses what different levels of renewable energy might mean for the future.

A prospective analysis of the costs, benefits, and impacts of U.S. renewable portfolio standards examines two renewables-centric scenarios. One, the “Existing RPS” scenario, assumes that state policies in place by mid-2016 stay on track. The other, a “High RE [Renewable Energy]” one, assumes that almost all states adopt RPSs with “relatively aggressive targets,” as some already have. It compares each of those scenarios to a “No RPS” one that assumes that those policies stopped driving renewables after 2015—not a likely scenario, given the clean energy sector’s incredible momentum, but a useful foil (since the incoming administration’s commitment to clean energy is still… uncertain).

The analysis uses those scenarios to look at a range of outputs, different metrics by which to judge whether we’re likely to be making progress, or not, on these paths.

The upshot is that the analysis shows a lot of up-arrows for things we’d want more of, and down-arrows for things we’d want to cut. Here are four important charts from the report, and what they mean:

1. More renewable energy means less air and water pollution, less water use.

The summary chart below shows what higher levels of renewables penetration under the two first scenarios could mean relative to the third.

(Source: Mai et al. 2016)

(Source: Mai et al. 2016)

The benefits stats in orange in the chart are notable, particularly under the “High RE” scenario:

  • Potential reductions of almost a third in emissions of SO2, NOx, and particulate matter, three important pollutants with regard to human health
  • Almost a quarter fewer CO2 emissions, with its strong implications for climate change and all the bad stuff that comes along with it
  • 18% less water use by power plants, through replacement of big water users like coal plants with water-free sources like solar panels and wind turbines

Those levels of reduction aren’t everything we need, and it’s also important to understand where those reductions are taking place, in the case of the ones with most direct impact on local health—in which parts of the country (maps in the report usefully show what regions the reductions might be in—think Midwest and Mid-Atlantic) but also in which areas, what types of communities.

But it’s also important to note that those drops are versus the “No RPS” scenario, meaning that the reductions from current levels would be considerably greater if viewed against a scenario with truly no growth in renewables. (For a taste of that, check out the considerable benefits from RPSs to date neatly covered in an earlier Department of Energy report; this write-up by Vox’s David Roberts is also useful.)

These stats also don’t take into account the broad range of other policies that could (and should) be brought to bear to deal with continuing health impacts from our nation’s power plants, particularly in lower-income communities and communities of color.

2. Renewable energy means jobs.

Job creation is a really strong point in renewables’ favor. And when you add up all the jobs created over all the years under these projections, you get some pretty-hard-to-ignore gains.

(Source: Mai et al. 2016)

(Source: Mai et al. 2016)

Here’s how the authors put it in the text:

In terms of total cumulative job-years over the entire 2015–2050 period, the Existing RPS scenario yields 4.7 million additional job-years compared to the No RPS scenario, a 19% increase in RE-related employment required. This is equivalent to the renewable energy sector needing approximately 134,000 more workers annually, on average, in comparison to the No RPS scenario. The High RE scenario, meanwhile, is estimated to require 11.5 million additional job-years, again relative to the No RPS baseline, a 47% boost.

Jobs. Lots of them.

The report is careful to point out that these are gross figures, not net. Some renewable energy jobs come at the expense of employment in the fossil fuel sector. But studies, including from UCS, have consistently shown that renewables produce far more jobs than fossils lose, meaning that the net figures are likely to be really impressive, too.

3. Renewable energy’s public health and climate benefits way exceed any costs.

The jobs figures alone should be enough for any administration in Washington, D.C., that professes to be focused on economic development. But the jobs numbers don’t have to make the case all by themselves.

(Source: Mai et al. 2016)

(Source: Mai et al. 2016)

As the graph above shows, the costs-vs.-benefits equations are likely to be quite favorable under renewables-heavier futures.

  • The direct financial costs or savings in terms of electricity rates under these projections are minimal, particularly under the “Existing RPS” scenario. As the authors put it, for that scenario, “…the net effect (whether positive or negative) is quite small as a share of overall system costs.”
  • The likely health and climate benefits are much larger, with savings potentially on the scale of the average electricity rate that American households currently face.
  • As to who pays the costs or gets the benefits: Any costs (or savings) would be felt by electricity ratepayers, but those overlap a lot with those who would benefit from the reduced air pollution—most of us pay electricity bills, and all of us breathe. The beneficiaries in terms of climate change mitigation (from “GHG”, or greenhouse gas, reduction) would be broader.

And all this, as the sub-note calls out, doesn’t consider some of the other effects studied, like the water savings and job benefits noted above.

The numbers above also don’t include the benefits of lower natural gas prices that can result when renewables displace gas generation and take pressure off natural gas supplies. That natural gas price suppression, as UCS has found in lots of its own studies, can be considerable across the economy—from people and businesses that heat their homes with gas, to industries that use it as a feedstock.

4. Even stronger policies could get a lot more renewable energy built quickly.

The graph below shows how quickly the modeling assumed renewable energy (wind, solar, and other, plus hydro) would grow, as a piece of the electricity pie. The green line is particularly noteworthy, showing how, under the High RE scenario, renewables could be a third of our generation by the middle of the next decade, and fully half of electricity supply by mid-century.

(Source: Mai et al. 2016)

(Source: Mai et al. 2016)

The authors make a point of calling out the fact that, while RPSs can provide a floor for renewables development, they don’t provide a ceiling:

…important to note… that RE generation is allowed to exceed RPS requirements, thus some additional “economic RE” is generated.

That is, the model, in trying to optimize our electricity future based on cost, picks more renewable energy than policies ask for. That’s in part because of tax credits and other policies that improve the economics of renewables, but also because of the impressive progress in recent years on costs and performance. RPSs, the authors note, while important, aren’t the only things driving renewables.

It’s also important to note that we can do even better than this—considerably better. Many studies have looked at the potential to get to 80% renewables by 2050, or even 100%. So just as the modeled policies shouldn’t be a ceiling, neither should the modeled renewable energy growth projections.

Still, these are useful levels of growth to consider.

What it all adds up to

This handy new study shows the far-reaching, positive implications of stronger investment in renewables, of ramping up policies that have proven themselves over many year, with “…benefits exceed[ing] the costs, even when considering the highest cost and lowest benefit outcomes.” Along with plenty of other studies, both retrospective and forward-looking, the analysis shows clearly that more renewables means less air and water pollution, more water savings, potential economic savings across the economy, and lots of jobs.

All that makes renewable energy well worth paying attention to.

Posted in: Energy

About the author

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John Rogers is energy campaign analytic lead at the Union of Concerned Scientists with expertise in clean energy technologies and policies and a focus on solar, wind, and natural gas. He co-managed the UCS-led Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative, a multi-year program aimed at raising awareness of the energy-water connection, particularly in the context of climate change, and motivating and informing effective low-carbon and low-water energy solutions.