September 23, 2020, John Palfrey, MacArthur Foundation
Renewable energy has long been recognized as better for our environment and for human health. Now promising new research shows the reasons once given for slowing down a transition away from fossil fuels—technological barriers, cost and jobs losses—can no longer reasonably be claimed as obstacles to progress in renewable energy.
In fact, green energy production would reinvigorate the economy and create tens of millions of jobs while reducing the emissions that cause global warming.
Researchers with the nonprofit Rewiring America recently calculated that a full decarbonization of the U.S. economy by 2035 would generate 25 million jobs over the period of transition and then continue to support 5 million jobs over time.
The entire economy could be electrified using existing technology, the report finds, and would save the average family up to $2,000 in annual energy costs.
In June, research published by the University of California, Berkeley, showed the U.S. could transition the grid so that 90 percent of electricity generation would come from clean sources by 2035—up from 20 percent today—without any additional cost to the consumer.
These reports, for the first time, take into account the rapidly falling price of wind and solar generation, along with battery storage capacity. As costs have become competitive with and sometimes beat fossil fuel energy costs, clean energy has been one of the most consistent drivers of job growth in the U.S., adding jobs 70 percent faster than the economy as a whole.
And while the pandemic has hit the industry badly—nearly half a million clean energy workers remained out of work as of August—these jobs can be quickly recovered as planned and existing projects are able to restart and investments in new projects begin again.
Green energy can also save lives.
According to the Berkeley report, shifting the country’s power grid to 90 percent clean electricity will mean 85,000 fewer Americans will die prematurely over the next 30 years from health damage caused by the dangerous fine particulate matter expelled by gas and coal plants. That does not account for the lives that will be saved by preventing worsening heat, storms and diseases caused by catastrophic climate change.
We have also witnessed how the COVID pandemic disproportionately impacts communities of color across the country. Many Black, Brown and Indigenous communities also face a higher risk of being exposed to environmental harms directly caused by burning fossil fuels—such as in cities with poor air quality and near gas or coal power plants—that lend themselves to diseases that make COVID deadlier, such as asthma or diabetes. Rebuilding our electric grid to eliminate most greenhouse gas emissions is necessary to creating the just society in which we aspire to live.
This year has been one of the most difficult the United States has faced in over a century, with a global pandemic, massive unemployment, anti-Black violence at the hands of police and the hope of a growing mass movement for change.
Our national response has not done nearly enough to support the recovery, nor begun to address the problems that made it possible for the worst-case scenario to come to pass.
The MacArthur Foundation, along with others, has made a commitment to deploy more resources, faster, to help stabilize and sustain the nonprofit sector. But that’s not enough. The federal government must take greater responsibility for the health and well-being of our nation by instituting ambitious policies that bring about a more just and equitable recovery.
There is no panacea for the problems we face. Even if the U.S. federal government reaches agreement on additional emergency funding in the coming weeks, it’s clear we should be thinking about transformational solutions—like sustainable energy—that not only repair the immediate damage but seek to prevent future harms.
John Palfrey is president of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The MacArthur Foundation supported the University of California, Berkeley, research.
The Energy Transition Needs Perovskite PV and Alternative Storage
Existing clean energy technologies are not enough to reach zero-carbon generation, the author writes.ADAM DURANSEPTEMBER 25, 2020
Pervoskite PV cells represent a potential game-changer for solar. (Photo: Dennis Schroder/NREL)
Adam Duran is program manager at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and co-director of the Shell GameChanger Accelerator powered by NREL.
The energy sector is making progress toward low- or zero-carbon generation. But even with recent technology developments and corporate and municipal action to deploy renewables, we still have a long way to go, and there is much debate about the best path forward.
Several researchers consider perovskite photovoltaics and long-duration storage necessary players in the energy transition. Here’s why.TOP ARTICLES
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PV can’t stand alone
Solar module manufacturing has achieved major milestones over the last 20 years, but today’s standard silicon solar panels can’t address our energy challenges alone. In order to meet Paris Agreement targets, solar must grow at an average of 15 percent each year until 2030. This rate of growth would require ongoing reductions in PV costs, even as solar reaches cost parity with coal and natural gas.
Researchers at the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) say perovskite solar cells, an emerging higher-efficiency thin-film alternative to silicon PV, can help. Perovskites are highly flexible and can conceivably be applied to curved and irregular surfaces. This creates opportunities to deploy solar directly on sources of energy consumption, such as covering the exterior of electric vehicles with solar paneling to extend a vehicle’s range.
Already perovskites are proving to be more efficient than standard silicon panels. Scientists studying and piloting combined perovskite-silicon cells, or tandem solar cells, recently broke performance records by converting 27 percent of sunlight to energy, a 7 to 12 percent increase in efficiency compared to silicon PV’s 15 to 20 percent.
Even with significant evolutions in performance, perovskites face roadblocks to get to market. An estimated 90 to 95 percent of startups fail due to a lack of proper financial and technical resources. “Hard” technology startups in particular fall prey to long development, testing and deployment times, and to complicate things further, perovskites face a heavily regulated environment, requiring them to navigate ever-changing restrictions and subsidies.
The biggest hurdle keeping perovskites from commercialization is cost. To address this, researchers are teaming up with innovators through the Shell GameChanger Acceleratorpowered by NREL (GCxN) to cut costs along the manufacturing process. One area of focus is a scalable, novel vapor-deposition manufacturing process.
With continued support from research and development agencies, the perovskite market is on pace to grow by more than 30 percent each year over the next decade.
Beyond a single energy storage solution
Photovoltaic technology isn’t the only domain that researchers aim to diversify. Energy storage technology is expanding rapidly and will become increasingly important for balancing demand variability on the grid, particularly as the industry sees wider adoption of electric vehicles and distributed resources.
To date, lithium-ion batteries are responsible for expanding storage penetration through electric vehicles, residential deployments and other smaller-scale needs. But lithium-ion batteries are limited by an average four-hour duration capacity and pose life-cycle and sustainability challenges. They also require finite elements such as cobalt, nickel and graphite, all of which are procured through mining processes that have significant environmental and health consequences.
To diversify the sector, researchers and startups at GCxN are testing and piloting long-duration, organic flow batteries and hybrid solar-thermal PV systems. Organic compound-based redox flow batteries deliver a higher operating voltage and three to four times the energy density of traditional systems. Hybrid solar-thermal systems snap to the back of panels to cool the solar array — improving panel efficiency by as much as 25 percent — and stores would-be “waste heat” as energy to generate power-on-demand. Both technologies tackle the storage industry’s ongoing challenge: to store power cost-effectively and sustainably.
But just like perovskites, alternative storage technologies face the infamous “valley of death” and must reduce risk quickly in order to attract interest from prospective investors. Significant research capabilities to test technologies and reduce risk, as well as a robust network of experts to pilot projects and demonstrate scalability, are crucial components along a startup’s journey to market.
Expanding our arsenal of technologies for the energy transition
The bottom line is this: The energy industry will eventually max out how much it can lower costs and improve efficiencies of the existing resources we rely on today.
Yes, cleantech innovators face an uphill challenge first to get to market and then to successfully compete with incumbent technologies. But when they do, the impact is substantial. Perovskites, organic flow batteries and hybrid solar-thermal photovoltaic systems have the potential to function as entirely new markets, rife with investment opportunities and real-world impact.
Editor’s note: The original story referred to cobalt, nickel and graphite as rare-Earth elements. While finite, they are not classified as rare-Earths.