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President Biden’s Transition To Renewable Electricity: The Goal, The Roadblocks, And What It All Means For Coal And Gas.

President Biden’s climate vision is to transition energy from fossil fuels to renewables in the electricity sector of the US economy. One of the goals is 80% of electricity generation from renewables by the year 2030.

This is a stretch because renewables now contribute just 40% if nuclear is included along with solar, wind, and hydroelectric (Figure 1). In just 7-8 years, the US has to go from 40% of current total electric energy of about 4,000 GigaKiloWattHours/Year (GKWH/Y) to 80% of a larger number of GKWH/Y since it’s expected the US will need more than 4,000 GKWH/Y of total energy by 2030.

But how much of a stretch is it? Let’s put some numbers together to see how feasible this goal is, and what might be the consequences for the oil and gas industry.

Growth of renewables needed to meet Biden’s goal.

The EIA provide a history of US electricity generation through 2021 (Figure 2). The numbers are given in Table 1. For 2021, renewables (including nuclear as defined above) amount to 40%. To raise this to 80% immediately would require another 40% or 186 GW of renewables. The total US supply is 466 GW.

If the EIA projection to 2030 is used instead, total power would be 4,570 instead of 4,080 GKWH/Y and reaching 80% of this total would require an additional 157 GW. Note, this 157 GW is lower than the 186 GW in 2021 because the 157 GW lies on top of a projected increase in renewable electricity out to 2030.

Also, this projection is EIA’s Reference Case. They also include four other projection cases which are not considered here.

Realistically, the additional growth of renewables until 2030 would be closer to 157 GW. But if solar and wind capacity of 186 GW were installed magically in one year, 2023, this supply would continue, with maintenance, to fill the gap of 157 GW and meet the 80% goal needed for 2030.

This range of numbers is much smaller than other numbers reported of 950 GW of new clean power and 225 GW of energy storage to the grid, making a total of 1175 GW by 2030. These higher numbers are apparently based on cumulative supplies of 120 GW every year, on average. But once a series of solar or wind farms generating 120 GW are installed, in the first year say, such installations remain for the rest of the duration. It’s not a cumulative proposition.

Three steps to implement renewables growth.

There are three steps to implement electric renewables growth: (1) generation of electricity, (2) transmission, and (3) distribution via substation to homes.

The capacity for electrical generation doesn’t seem to be a problem. The same report quotes 930 GW of capacity and 420 GW of storage are in line – waiting to be built across the US. This is way over the top, based on our calculations, which require a one-time additional increase of 157 – 186 GW.

But there is a problem with step (2): transmission by high-voltage lines. The report describes an analogy between a large increase in electrons moving along transmission lines and the freeway system across the US: to carry a large increase in car numbers needs more freeways, or wider freeways, and more entry ramps.

Roadblocks.

Developers of solar and wind are in line waiting for permits to build. The delays are due to “interconnection queues”, which means developer’s applications have to wait to be approved by regional authorities. Here are some useful insights into the problem:

Permission to connect took about two years before 2010 but double that time recently. Over 8,000 renewables projects were in line waiting at the end of 2021 – more than the total capacity of all existing US power plants.

Reasons are first, the existing transmission lines across the US are running close to full capacity. Second, some developers underestimated the costs of connecting to the grid – one report said costs have doubled after 2018.

Third, the system has been based on first-come, first-served basis. This runs into trouble when developers who are in a hurry put in connection applications that are under-prepared, and these tend to clog up the system. Maybe their strategy is to submit several applications and hope that one will stick somewhere.

One answer to this is to give priority to “shovel-ready” applications who have done their due diligence. Another answer is to evaluate separate proposals in groups, and then provide permits in batches.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), who are responsible for regulating transmission lines across the US, are working on new rules to streamline the connection approval process.

One observer said the bottom line is the US needs to expand transmission lines across the US by perhaps 25 %.

Tribal ventures into renewables.

The story is much the same for tribal enterprises in renewables such as solar and wind, but with a few extra twists.

First, the Inflation Reduction Act, IRA, of 2022 allows tribes to receive tax credits for solar and wind projects – for the first time. Lands owned by tribes cover about 6% of the US. This means they could supply almost 10 GW of renewable energies, which is about a third of the total US projects that came online in 2021.

But the main roadblock is the same – the interconnection queue. The long wait times, years, and then the uncertainty of interconnection fees are serious issues if tribal owners don’t have deep pockets. The report tells of two wind farms in development where the fees turned out to be $48 million and unaffordable by the developers who had to drop out of the queue.

In the territory of one tribe, the delay in the queue was estimated to be 5-7 years, which just about makes it a non-starter to help meet President Biden’s goal of 80% renewable electricity by 2030.

A disadvantage for tribes that want to develop their own electrical utilities is a lack of technical experience or seed funding to complete feasibility studies. But the IRA law has increased to $20 billion (from only $2 billion) what now is available for loans for renewable projects and this should be a big help.

With almost 600 tribes over the US, the new IRA law appears to be a great opportunity for tribes to develop their own solar, wind, and battery storage projects.

What this would mean for coal and gas.

If renewables are to increase by 30% or 157 GW by 2030, something has to go if the total electricity generation is 522 GW in 2030 as depicted in Table 1. Coal and gas would have to drop by 157 GW to compensate.

The first thing that goes would logically be coal-fired power plants since coal burns dirtier than natural gas. If coal goes to zero in 2030, a drop by 103 GW, then gas would have to drop by 54 GW to 123 GW in 2030, to ensure a total drop by 157 GW.

This drop in gas, from 177 GW in 2021 to 123 GW in 2030 amounts to 30%. So if all coal-burners are turned off gas-fired power plants would be using 30% less natural gas. And if supply follows demand, production of natural gas in the US would fall by 30% between 2021 and 2030. This agrees with the range of oil and gas cutbacks estimated previously, based on President Biden’s goals (updated in Teknisk Ukeblad, October 2021.)

A 30% gas production cutback by 2030 in the US would be a serious consequence of Biden’s goal of 80% renewable electricity by 2030. The fraction would be greater than 30% if all of the coal-fired power plants were not turned off by 2030. But the fraction would be less if the surplus US production could be rerouted overseas via LNG tankers to places like Europe and Southeast Asia.

Takeaways.

To achieve President Biden’s goal for renewables to provide 80% of total electricity by 2030, the forecast drop in gas-fired power plants, from 177 GW in 2021 to 123 GW in 2030, amounts to 30%.

This ought to be a concern for the oil and gas industry, because if supply follows demand, production of natural gas in the US would fall by 30% between 2021 and 2030.

The fraction would be greater than 30% if all of the coal-fired power plants were not turned off. But the fraction would be less if surplus US production were routed overseas via LNG tankers, which is already happening.

To achieve the President’s goal, the main roadblock is not supply, but upgrading of transmission lines that cross the country. FERC is changing the rules to speed up the system.

With almost 600 tribes over the US, the new IRA law for renewable project loans plus the new FERC rules should be a great opportunity for tribes to develop their own solar, wind, and battery storage projects.

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