9.11.19, WORLD CHANGING IDEAS, It’s now cheaper to build new renewables than it is to build natural gas plants People could save $29 billion on their electric bills if utilities built new clean energy instead of new natural gas plants.
BY ADELE PETERS, Fast Company 2 MINUTE READ
Clean energy has reached a tipping point: It’s now cheaper to build and use a combination of wind, solar, batteries, and other clean tech in the U.S. than to build most proposed natural gas plants. Utilities want to spend $90 billion to build new gas plants and $30 billion to build new gas pipelines—but if they used renewables instead, consumers could save $29 billion in electricity bills, according to a new report from the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute.
“In 2019, given what is needed on the grid today, we show that these technologies have crossed the line and become the cheapest way to add electricity to the grid,” says Chaz Teplin, a manager in RMI’s electricity practice. “Going forward, that case is going to only accelerate because while the price of natural gas, for example, may fluctuate up and down, the cost to install new renewables is only going to continue to decrease.”
The researchers looked at how natural gas plants are used on power grids today and then calculated what would be necessary for clean energy to replace those plants, including batteries to store power when wind and solar aren’t available. It’s already cheaper, in almost all cases, to build and run new clean energy projects than natural gas projects. By the middle of the 2030s, clean energy could drop in cost so much that it will be cheaper to build and run new renewables than to keep existing gas plants running, and gas plants could quickly become stranded assets (the same thing is currently happening with coal plants around the country). More than 90% of recently built plants could be forced into early retirement.
Many utilities already recognize the economic need to switch. Idaho Power plans to transition to 100% clean energy by 2045. Minnesota-based Xcel Energy, which works in several states, aims to be carbon-free by 2050. Regulators in Indiana rejected a plan to build a new $781 million natural gas plant earlier this year out of concern that it would become a stranded asset. Florida Power and Light plans to build the world’s largest solar-powered battery storage system to retire new natural gas plants. And the list goes on across the country.
But some utilities continue to plan to build natural gas projects, either out of inertia, or because they haven’t recognized the full economic advantages of renewables, or because the system allows them to make a bigger profit with gas. Another new report, from the Energy and Policy Institute, explains that companies like Duke Energy have demonstrated a market “need” for new gas pipelines—which they partially own—by signing contracts with their own utilities, manipulating the system to make it seem like a more expensive investment is necessary. In states where utilities plan to move forward with natural gas, consumers should question that choice. “It is worth it, if folks prefer that their state prioritize new, clean technologies, that they advocate for that either directly to the utility or to the state regulatory agencies to make their voice heard on that,” says Teplin.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world’s largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book “Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century.”
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Most of our food is moved across great distances—and through many different forms of transit—before it reaches our plates.
[Photo: Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker]
BY MEGAN KONAR3 MINUTE READ
My team at the University of Illinois just developed the first high-resolution map of the U.S. food supply chain.
Our map is a comprehensive snapshot of all food flows between counties in the U.S.—grains, fruits and vegetables, animal feed, and processed food items.
To build the map, we brought together information from eight databases, including the Freight Analysis Framework from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which tracks where items are shipped around the country, and Port Trade data from the U.S. Census Bureau, which shows the international ports through which goods are traded.
We also released this information in a publicly available database.
What does this map reveal?
1. WHERE YOUR FOOD COMES FROM
Now, residents in each county can see how they are connected to all other counties in the country via food transfers. Overall, there are 9.5 million links between counties on our map.
All Americans, from urban to rural are connected through the food system. Consumers all rely on distant producers, agricultural processing plants, food storage like grain silos and grocery stores, and food transportation systems.
For example, the map shows how a shipment of corn starts at a farm in Illinois, travels to a grain elevator in Iowa before heading to a feedlot in Kansas, and then travels in animal products being sent to grocery stores in Chicago.
2. WHERE THE FOOD HUBS ARE
At over 17 million tons of food, Los Angeles County received more food than any other county in 2012, our study year. It shipped out even more: 22 million tons.
California’s Fresno County and Stanislaus County are the next largest, respectively. In fact, many of the counties that shipped and received the most food were located in California. This is due to the several large urban centers, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as the productive Central Valley in California.
We also looked for the core counties—the places that are most central to the overall structure of the food supply network. A disruption to any of these counties may have ripple effects for the food supply chain of the entire country.
We did this by looking for counties with the largest number of connections to others, as well as those that score highly in a factor called “betweenness centrality,” a measurement of the places with the largest fraction of the shortest paths.
San Bernardino County led the list, followed again by a number of other California transit hubs. Also on the list are Maricopa County, Arizona; Shelby County, Tennessee; and Harris County, Texas.
However, our estimates are for 2012, an extreme drought year in the Cornbelt. So, in another year, the network may look different. It’s possible that counties within the Cornbelt would show up as more critical in non-drought years. This is something that we hope to dig into in future work.
3. HOW FOOD TRAVELS FROM PLACE TO PLACE
We also looked at how much food is transported between one county and another.
Many of the largest food transport links were within California. This indicates that there is a lot of internal food movement within the state.
One of the largest links is from Niagara County to Erie County in New York. That’s due to the flow of food through an important international overland port with Canada.
Some of the other largest links were inside the counties themselves. This is because of moving food items around for manufacturing within a county—for example, milk gets off a truck at a large depot and is then shipped to a yogurt facility, then the yogurt is moved to a grocery distribution warehouse, all within the same county.
The food supply chain relies on a complex web of interconnected infrastructure. For example, a lot of grain produced throughout the Midwest is transported to the Port of New Orleans for export. This primarily occurs via the waterways of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.
The infrastructure along these waterways—such as locks 52 and 53—are critical, but have not been overhauled since their construction in 1929. They represent a serious bottleneck, slowing down innumerable supply chains nationwide, including that of grain. If they were to fail entirely, then commodity transport and supply chains would be completely disrupted.
Railroads are also important for moving grain. Fresh produce, on the other hand, is often moved around the country by refrigerated truck. This is due to the need to keep fresh fruits and vegetables—relatively high value agricultural products—cool until they reach the consumer. In future work, we hope to evaluate the specific infrastructure that is critical to the U.S. food supply chain.
Megan Konar is assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This post originally appeared on The Conversation.