Laying out his plan for economic stimulus yesterday afternoon, President-elect Barack Obama called for the U.S. to double renewable energy production within three years. That’s a hefty challenge for a country playing catch-up on clean power (renewables now make up less than 10 percent of U.S. energy generation) while beset with a trillion-dollar deficit. Some Senate Democrats have called energy-related spending and tax incentives “way under-represented” in Obama’s plan. So even with a president pledging to create 5 million green jobs and invest $150 billion in clean energy and advanced vehicle technology, how feasible is it for the U.S. to get to around 19 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2012?
An Obama aide provided details on how the President-elect intends to meet the target in an email to the Wall Street Journal, which it published this morning. The incoming administration estimates that the U.S. currently produces 24,000 MW of wind, solar and geothermal power, and the optimistic email noted that wind generation would play a key role in doubling that figure, accounting for an additional 20,000 MW. Solar and geothermal are expected to fill in the rest. But not everyone has such a rosy projection of how quickly renewable energy generation can grow.
Last year, the Energy Information Administration projected that renewable sources would fuel only 12.5 percent of total U.S. electricity generation in 2030, up from 8.4 percent in 2007. Last month, the EIA set its forecast for 2009 renewable fuel consumption growth at 3.3 percent. That was before anyone was talking (as Obama did yesterday) about a finance-sapping recession lingering for years — and still the pace was forecast at far less than double in more than two decades. However, with the Obama administration offering support for renewable energy, some industry players are optimistic.
The solar sector, now a relatively small player on the national grid, hopes to pull more than its share. According to Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) spokesperson Monique Hanis, doubling output to a total of about 7 gigawatts in three years is not unrealistic. “We’ve already seen that kind of growth in the last three years,” Hanis said, “and I think we can definitely increase our contribution to the overall picture.”
Government PV installations, which SEIA called for last month, would be one way for solar to ramp up. But for the kind of growth targeted for 2012, utility-scale solar systems (like the more than 30 plants we’ve mapped out here) and wind farms generating 1 megawatt or more will play a role.
Wind power, as the email cited in the WSJ notes, has a head start, with installed capacity increasing by 45 percent in 2007 alone. Wind’s installed generating capacity for electricity exceeded geothermal for the first time that year. And, the email notes, “Before the financial crisis brought the renewable industry to a halt, the wind industry publicly announced the expectation to install at least 7500 MW in 2008.” According to the American Wind Energy Association, there’s potential for wind to generate twice the current U.S. electricity supply. The Obama team says it will provide “significant loan guarantees” to the industry to help meet its targets, followed by a national renewable portfolio standard.
Gigawatts could become the new megawatts if governments globally grease the wheels for Godzilla-sized power plants. The incoming president knows at least one thing about what needs to happen to reach his goal: “This plan must begin today.”