The Presidential Promise of a Half-Billion Solar Cells

Figure courtesy of Walmart via Flickr

Figure courtesy of Walmart via Flickr

It is my pleasure to introduce Adam Kirk as guest writer for this week’s post!  Adam is a freelance writer specializing in renewable energy and associated topics.  To find out more or hire Adam for your own website, visit AdamKirkWriter.com.

Last week, Hillary Clinton secured the nomination of the Democratic party for this year’s presidential election.  The stark contrast between the environmental positions of the Democratic and Republican platforms are being highlighted more so than other recent presidential campaigns.  With the election coming so soon after the Paris Agreement on climate change and off the back of Obama’s own Clean Power Plan, there is voter value in the pledges made by candidates with respect to the environment.

Large  divisions between Donald Trump’s and Hillary Clinton’s views on global warming provide a sharp contrast for voters making decisions based on environmental concerns. Trump has been quoted in the past year stating that “green energy is just an expensive feel-good for tree-huggers” and that “I’m not a big believer in man-made climate change.” These statements would seem to echo the view of many in his party, including most of the original presidential candidate contenders.

On the other side, Hillary Clinton has been very vocal in her belief that more effective action needs to be taken by the US, declaring that “we do not have to choose between a healthy environment and a healthy economy”, but not before handling potential challenges from her past role in the Obama administration.  Indeed, she clearly admits to the United States’ role in global warming, stating that “we acknowledge – now with President Obama – that we have made mistakes in the United States, and we along with other developed countries have contributed most significantly to the problem we face with climate change”.

Based on these positions, the ‘pro-environment’ candidate is Hillary Clinton. What, exactly, is she planning to do to deliver on the rhetoric? The answer, as you will see shortly, is certainly ambitious.  The question is: can she deliver?

Hillary Clinton: Leading on Environmental Change?

Hillary Clinton and the Democrats sit firmly on the side wanting to fight climate change. As evidence, she has laid out a challenging plan and committed to implement it on ‘day one’.  In July 2015, Hillary Clinton and her campaign team set out her commitments on the environment in this briefing document. In essence, it contains two key commitments:

  1. By 2020 (i.e. the end of her first term as president) the USA will have half a billion solar panels installed.
  2. Within 10 years of her taking office (2027) the USA will generate enough clean, renewable energy to power every home in America.

Let’s examine each of these goals and understand how she plans to achieve such an ambitious proposal.

1) A Half-Billion Solar Panels by 2020

500,000,000 solar panels is a huge number and it helps to put some context around it.

The Topaz Solar Farm in southern California is the fourth largest PV power station in the world with 9 million solar panels generating 550MW.

Those nine million panels are just 1.8% of Hillary Clinton’s target; she’ll need to establish 55 Topaz’s to reach her 2020 goal.

Fortunately, she’s not starting from nothing.   The USA already has three of the largest five PV power stations in the world (China and India have the largest two) and over half the largest 20.  Talking about them in terms of solar panel count may be great for attracting votes, but it is not helpful when considering energy production.  For example, the USA’s largest PV power plant is Solar Star, also in southern California. It generates 579 MW to Topaz’s 550 MW, but only uses 1.9m panels to achieve it – less than a quarter of Topaz’s count.

This is an important distinction because it is the efficiency of the panels used which will be just as important as their number. The best efficiency today of commercially available PV cells is around 20%, but science lab’s have produced crystals with efficiencies as high as 44.4%. It’s easy to see that technology twice as efficient as today’s panels means less land, fewer materials, and lower cost to produce the same amount of energy.

With panel efficiency in mind, instead of using a panel count as a primary goal, the more useful detail under the half-billion pledge is the capacity target of 140 GW by the end of 2020 (although there’s no mention of the assumptions underpinning the link between a half billion panels and 140 GW, the math suggests if the calculation assumed the efficiency of Solar Star’s panels Clinton would need around 460 million of them to produce 140 GW).  At the end of 2015, America had 25 GW of PV power capability with 30 GW of additional capacity planned. There’s an additional 6 GW in distributed generation from residential and non-residential premises, summing to give 61 GW of power available/planned when Clinton takes office.

At 140 GW, the Clinton solar commitment would require doubling that capacity over the next four years, which might appear unfeasible. However,  recent growth in solar energy is booming. This chart shows growth solar-produced energy was sluggish in the US until 2011, before hitting ‘hockey stick’ exponential growth. Between 2013 and 2014, production levels doubled. Not only that, according to the US Department of Energy, the number of homes using solar energy increased 10-fold from 2006 to 2013, and is expected to increase another 2 – 10 times before Clinton’s 2020 deadline. It almost feels like a hard target to miss.

2) Enough Clean, Renewable Energy to Power Every Home in America

This eye-catching statement is another great one for voters but its wording could be misleading.  The target could be every home will be powered by clean energy, or the US will produce enough energy that the total energy use of American homes could be met by electricity produced from clean sources in 10 years.

Assuming the latter scenario of an equivalent production, the demands are startling. The amount of energy required to power the equivalent requirement of all the homes in America (125 million in 2015), consuming around 11,000kWh each, is almost 21,000 Trillion British Thermal Units. Just 770 Trillion of those, or 3.7%, were fueled by clean power technologies.

This second pledge seems significantly more challenging to achieve. It needs a 30-fold increase in last year’s production to achieve her 10-year goal and, perhaps more significantly, it increases the Clean Power Plan target of energy coming from renewables by 2027 from 25 to 33 percent.  

It is no surprise in the face of such an ambitious target that the language shifts away from talking solely about solar to ‘clean renewable energy’. Moving the focus makes sense pragmatically, given that wind electricity production in the US is already around three times that of solar.  It also make political sense, since voters in states like Iowa, where almost a third of their power came from wind last year, might feel snubbed with all efforts devoted only to the solar industry.  

According to Energy Information Administration projections, wind energy production capacity could double to around 180 GW in 2027.  Increasing clean energy production to provide 33% of the country’s needs is going to require both a variety of forms of energy production and lots of effective support.

If the goal is for every home to actually provide their own clean power, then wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass production will all need to be in the mix.

How Will the Plan be Achieved and What are the Challenges?

Hillary Clinton’s incentives revolve around a $60 billion mixture of competitions and ‘prizes’ to motivate states and communities to beat already-established targets, plus federal support to remove barriers for low-income families to install solar panels.

There are a number of obstacles she will have to face, not least of these being Republicans that are likely to retain power in the House of Representatives. If this occurs, her own campaign chair, John Podesta, recognises that Clinton’s hands will be tied when it comes to comprehensive energy policy change.  It seems her way of dealing with a Republican House is to work around it, which she appears happy to do.

The rest of her team appears to support the same tactic. In an interview with GreenTech Media earlier this year, Trevor Houser (Hillary Clinton’s energy policy advisor) explains she’ll work around Congress by using existing authorities, partnerships with states, and direct federal investments.

Aside from the Republicans, she has two other challenges to consider.  The first is the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline from Canada that is proposed to travel the length of the US. This project has become an anchor for a philosophical argument between the two sides of the environmental debate (how that happened is brilliantly explained in this New York Times video). The pipeline causes Clinton headaches for two reasons: the first is that she was Secretary of State when it was originally discussed – she has ‘skin in the game’ – and the second is that Obama is the person who has to authorise it coming over the border.  Being on his ‘side’, Clinton is constantly forced to decline sharing her view on whether she’d allow it or not so as not to undermine his position, possibly hurting her own environmental credentials.

Her second challenge of note is one which, depending on your perspective, could be characterised as being naive or dishonest.  There is significant opinion that Hillary’s plans for delivering the change she is pledging will only get us part of the way there and that the only mechanism that will really move the dial is putting a value (or tax) on carbon. Discussions of new taxes could be toxic for voters and a gift for Trump, so Clinton has made no mention of it to date, but perhaps she should take solace from this poll which suggests even a slight majority of republicans would be supportive of a carbon tax if it was managed in the right way (i.e., used for R&D in renewable energy or as a fee and dividend returned to the public).

What is Next for Hillary’s Plan?

Whatever your view, it is hard to argue that the objectives are not ambitious or for the good of the environment, although there are a lot of gaps still to be plugged.  

Clinton is pledging two significant environmental policy targets that will be set on her first day in office. The first goal of a half-billion solar panels is definitely lofty, but she would inherit 1) a momentum of growth in the industry , 2) a growing conviction that human-made climate change needs to be tackled proactively, and 3) technology that’s edging ever closer to higher efficiency (and so relatively cheaper) panels. In all, this feels very achievable.

The second target is substantially more ambitious. Hillary Clinton is setting out on a ten-year journey to increase the amount of sustainable energy produced in the US to 33% from today’s 3%. The incentive program to do this is large, but it faces substantial challenges from a Republican house and, as yet, no mention of what role taxes will play in achieving it. This is definitely the harder target to be positive about and, cynically, perhaps that’s why it’s only deliverable by a different president, even if Hillary achieves two terms in office.

As President Obama has discovered over the course of his eight-year journey, there is only so much even the West’s most powerful leader can achieve when political views are so polarised.  Even though she may have “put the biggest crack in that glass ceiling yet”, Hillary still has to wake up victorious on November 9th for her bold environmental plan to stand any chance at all.

 

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