Wind, solar PV power leap ahead in clean, sustainable energy “revolution”

Wind turbines at power generation installation. Photo: Inhabitat.com

Wind turbines at power generation installation. Photo: Inhabitat.com

Huge recent strides in both technology and cost reduction have facilitated major advancement in America’s deployment of both wind and solar PV (photovoltaic) electric power generation, according to a September 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

With the galvanizing title Revolution Now … The Future Arrives for Four Clean Energy Technologies, the report focuses on “technology revolutions” also in electric vehicles and LED lighting, but the developments in electric power production are by far the most significant from the standpoint of achieving sustainable future energy availability.

Wind power generation

The deployment of wind turbines to provide electric power has been “on a steep upward climb”, especially in recent years, according to the DOE report, which notes that the technology has benefited from increasing investment in research and development, propelled by funding from both government and private-sector sources. Particularly crucial has been the federal Production Tax Credit, subsidizing the industry with an additional 2.3¢ per kilowatt-hour for electricity generated over the first 10 years of wind turbine operation. This, says the report, has been “critically important to incentivizing deployment of wind energy.”

As a result,

Today, deployed wind power in the United States has the equivalent generation capacity of about 60 large nuclear reactors. … Wind is the first non-hydro renewable energy source to begin to approach the same scale as conventional energy forms like coal, gas and nuclear.

Since the beginning of 2008, says the report, U.S. wind power capacity has more than tripled — even despite a sharp rise in wind turbine costs from 2001 to 2009. In 2012, the USA deployed nearly twice as much wind as in 2011. “In fact, wind accounted for 43% of new electrical generation capacity in the U.S. — more than any other source.”

U.S. wind turbine power deployment and cost. Graph: U.S. DOE report.

U.S. wind turbine power deployment and cost trends. Graph: U.S. DOE report.

The report highlights three technological factors it assesses as “key” to the recent advancement of wind power production:

Increasing turbine size — In terms of electric power generation capacity, says the report, wind turbines have become “progressively larger” over the past three decades. “In fact, since 1999 the average amount of electricity generated by a single turbine has increased by about 260%.”

Scale of production — Increasing turbine size and increasing productive capacity have contributed substantially to cost reduction, thus improving market competitiveness of this power production mode.
“As with many industries, increases in scale tend to drive down costs.” Thus, in recent years, prices have been trending downward.

Operational improvements — Operators of wind power generation facilities have acquired much greater sophistication in terms of their understanding and ability to adapt to dynamic wind patterns. In turn, This has helped nudge up what the report calls the “capacity factor” — i.e., the percentage of operational time that turbines are actually generating electricity.

The DOE report is quite optimistic about the future of wind turbine-generated power. And particularly as a sustainable energy source” Since wind is “100% renewable”, emphasizes the report, “it won’t ever run out.”

Thus,

Wind continues to be one of America’s best choices for low-cost, zero carbon, zero pollution renewable energy. The combined potential of land-based and off-shore wind is about 140 quads – or about 10 times U.S. electricity consumption today.

The report underscores aggressive development current;y under way in the wind power industry. “With continued technology improvements and policy support, the Department of Energy estimates that as much as 20% of projected U.S. electricity demand could be met by wind power by 2030.”

Solar PV power generation

Solar PV power generation installation. Photo: Solar Energy systems.

Solar PV power generation installation. Photo: Solar Energy systems.

The DOE is also enthusiastic about solar photovoltaic power developments and their prospects, proclaiming that “today we are in the midst of a generational shift to solar energy.”

A major reason for this, in the view of DOE, is the dramatic drop in cost, making solar PV electric production “increasingly within reach for the average American homeowner or business.”

This shift has come about because of a dramatic retreat in the price of solar PV modules — a trend that has accelerated over the past 5 years. Today, solar PV is rapidly approaching cost parity with traditional electrical generation from gas, coal and oil in many parts of the world, including parts of the U.S.

Describing solar PV electric power generation as “99% cheaper”, the report observes that

In 2012, rooftop solar panels cost about 1% of what they did 35 years ago, … and since 2008, total U.S. solar PV deployment has jumped by about 10 times – from about 735 megawatts to over 7200 megawatts. … During that same time span the cost for a PV module has declined from $3.40/watt to about $0.80 /watt, and this has catalyzed a rush in solar deployment.

Solar PV power deployment and cost trends. Graph: U.S. Department of Energy report.

Solar PV power deployment and cost trends. Graph: U.S. Department of Energy report.

Much of this, says the report, is attributable to “advances in technology and increased economies of scale.” With more and more solar panels are fabricated and installed, costs have steadily dropped. Solar PV investment has also been significantly helped by government stimulus, such as a federal investment tax credit subsidizing 30% of the cost of installing rooftop PV systems. Similar PV incentive programs at the local level — as well as abroad (e.g., in the the European Union, Japan, China, and elsewhere — have also tremendously assisted development of the solar power industry.

Consequently, DOE sees a “bright future” for solar PV. “Today, Americans are increasingly turning to the power of the sun, which allows them the security of generating their own, low-cost, electricity.” ■

Welcome to Future Power Now

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Geothermal power plant, venting steam. Photo via Navigant Research.

Finding innovative ways to improve the production of energy — particularly for electric power generation — that are more efficient, sustainable, and environmentally sensitive, is crucial for the future of our planet.

Future Power Now intends to provide information, news, and analysis of this issue, especially by focusing on emerging technologies such as:

Carbon capture and storage (also called carbon sequestration) — Technology to capture and sequester, and hopefully re-use, carbon emissions from combustion of coal and other fossil fuels.

Environmentally compatible extraction of shale oil and natural gas — Technology to significantly upgrade and ensure the full protection of ground water and other resources in procedures such as hydraulic fracturing.

Environmentally secure protection in deep-water drilling — Technology to effectively prevent leakage and disastrous ruptures from deep-water petroleum extraction facilities.

Geothermal energy — Developments in electric power production from thermal energy extracted from deep within the earth.

Solar power — Developments in improving the efficiency of photovoltaic cells and ameliorating the environmental impact of solar arrays.

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Stillwater hybrid solar-geothermal power plant in Nevada. Photo via Inhabitat.com.

Concentrating thermal power (CSP) — This innovative form of energy production deploys mirrors or lenses to concentrate a large amount of sunlight (solar thermal energy) onto a small area, producing high heat. This can then be used to generate electrical power by channeling the converted heat to drive a steam turbine or similar device geared to an electrical power generator.

Wind turbine power — Developments in improving the efficiency of wind turbine power generation facilities and ameliorating their environmental impact.

Nuclear fusion — Developments in efforts to make this promising form of nuclear energy extraction (with insignificant residual waste) a reality.

Future Power Now (FPN) will focus both on citations and links to news and information from other sources, as well as the results of FPN‘s own original research and analysis. We hope you’ll continue to follow us!