It has been 37 years since Dr Allan Hoffman gave President Jimmy Carter the plan that could have started America’s renewable revolution. The idea was shelved after Reagan was elected. Hoffman waited, as administration after administration ignored the potential, until Barack Obama was elected. The retired senior Department of Energy executive views the growth of US renewables during 2014 as a vindication of what he and his colleagues saw decades ago. Interview by Roy L. Hales of the ECOreport.
It seems that the US in 2014 turned a corner. According to information published by the website Clean Technica, 53% of new installations came from wind and solar last year. In December the figure was almost 55%. Though natural gas was still the leading single energy source in the US last year, in terms of installations during 2014, its 7.5 GW of added capacity is overshadowed by close to 10 GW from the renewable sector.
“If the Clean Technica chart (which includes an estimate for non-utility solar) is accurate, more than half of the new capacity added last year is from renewables. This is very significant. I pinch myself when I see these numbers and I am very grateful to see the transition move to the extent it has,” says Allan Hoffman.
Hoffman, former senior official at the U.S. Department of Energy, in 1978 personally delivered a monumental multi-departmental study to President Carter, which concluded that “solar energy could make a significant contribution to U.S. energy supply by the end of this century”. The study, backed by 30 federal departments, stated that “even with today’s subsidized energy prices, many solar technologies are already economic.” Yet no action was taken and solar power and other renewable energies stagnated for over 30 years. (He has written a fascinating account about this for Energy Post here and on his blog Thoughts of a Lapsed Physicist.)
“You are going to see a determined battle from the petroleum industry, who want to continue their role in transportation”
So where does Hoffman see the US headed in the future?
“There is no doubt that natural gas will be with us for decades, but I don’t see it as a long term option,” says Hoffman. “Right now it is exciting. We will probably use more natural gas in transportation. It is perfectly suited for that, if you build the right kind of car, but I think electrification is the answer for most forms of transportation in the future.”
He uses the automotive sector to illustrate what is happening with fossil fuels. The trend is to electrification, but EVs are not yet ready to take over. Around 70% of car trips, in the US, are less than 40 miles. EVs can supply this, but there is still a need for a gas or diesel back-up on longer trips.
“There are a lot of vested interests protecting fossil fuel use. You are going to see a determined battle from the petroleum industry, who want to continue their role in transportation. That doesn’t change overnight. Cars are on the road for an average of 10 to 12 years in the United States. They need petroleum, so that’s going to be with us for a while,” says Hoffman. “But I don’t think the fossil fuel industry can win this battle over the long term and the smart companies will be switching over eventually.”
He adds, “We will still have fossil fuels in 2050, but it will be a diminishing fraction. We will move increasingly to electrification. Our children and grandchildren will eventually drive electric cars.”
Hoffman is convinced that alternatives, like biofuels and biojet diesel, will eventually replace fossil fuels in sectors like aviation. The US Air Force is already moving in that direction. Even the US Navy, which uses bunker fuel to power many of its ships, is switching over.
“I consider offshore wind to be the most important and exciting emerging renewable technology”
The 4 GW of wind capacity added in 2014 is impressive, but Hoffman believes the real future of this sector is offshore.
“I consider offshore wind to be the most important and exciting emerging renewable technology. When you go offshore, the winds are stronger and more steady. That’s really critical because more steady winds produce a higher capacity factor. A larger fraction of the potential is realized in generating energy, which is really the ultimate test. The other thing is that with higher speeds, the economics become much better. The energy extracted from the wind goes as the third power of the wind speed. So if you double the wind speed, you get eight times the power out of that machine.”
Developers can also build larger turbines than on land. There are a lot of logistics involved, but 6 to 7 MW turbines are presently common offshore. Hoffman has seen plans for 10MW to 15MW and even a 20 MW turbine.
“Of course there will be hurricanes and things like that and these machines have to hold up under those conditions, but I have confidence we can do that.”
“The resource available in offshore wind is very, very large. Look at the United States. It has four coastal regions: The East Coast; The West Coast; The Gulf Coast; and the Great Lakes Coast. There is a lot of wind available.”
There is a potential for close to 4,000 GW of capacity, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (2010) report Large-Scale Offshore Wind Power In The United States. This figure needs to be reduced, by subtracting areas (like shipping lanes) where you cannot put wind turbines, but the potential is still HUGE.
“To put this number in perspective, the United States’ present potential for generating electricity is just over 1,000 GW,” says Hoffman. “So even if only a fraction of offshore potential is realized, we have a major source of energy coming online in the future.”
Though the US has been slow to adopt offshore wind, Hofffman expects that to change in the next few years. It will start on the East Coast, where the winds are strong and a large part of the population lives.
Just a beginning
The 5.2 GW of new solar capacity added in 2014 is also impressive, but just a beginning. The potential for growth in this sector is enormous.
“The business community has a major impact on Congress and they are going to see it is in their interest to move ahead with a clean energy system”
“Solar may be the fastest growing energy source in the world today. Look at what’s happening in Germany. There are days when more than half the electricity comes from solar and Germany is not a particularly sunny country, says Hoffman. “So I can see that happening in the United States. States like Nevada, Arizona have an incredible solar input.”
“There has been a lot of resistance from utilities. They have resisted net metering and other simplified connections to the grid because they see it as diminishing the importance of their business model. They make a lot of money selling energy at peak hours, when electricity is more expensive. If solar provides energy during those peak hours, their business model is upset. They are going to resist it for as long as they can because change is hard for people to accept.”
This battle is already over in Germany, where the four major utilities have now switched over to become providers of solar energy. They lease solar systems, maintain them and are now offering energy storage for homes.
Hoffman perceives the utility model of a centralized grid as a relic from the past. There will be more of a variety of systems in the future. Some people will utilize battery storage to be independent of the grid, there will be more local microgrids, regional grids and possibly even a global multinational grid.
“I have no question that this is happening. It’s happening as we speak. It will unfold over the next decades, but I think it is inevitable,” says Hoffman.
Though he believes both nuclear energy and natural gas will continue for several decades, Hoffman predicts their importance will diminish. Environmental pressures and economic realities are pushing the US into renewables.
“Eventually Congress will have to move in this direction, even Republicans can get the message,” he says. “What’s going to happen is that people are going to be talking to their members of congress. The business community has a major impact on Congress and they are going to see it is in their interest to move ahead with a clean energy system.”
“Someone has to do the long term thinking to protect this generation as well as future generations from having to deal with climate change under less desirable conditions”
Hoffman says the US needs to adopt an energy plan, so that people have certainty about the future. Businesses need it, so they can formulate their own strategies. “Climate Change is real and it has adverse effects, but they are long term effects,” says Hoffman. “Someone has to do the long term thinking to protect this generation as well as future generations from having to deal with it under less desirable conditions.”
Despite the resistance in Congress, Hoffman believes a carbon tax is inevitable. “Putting a price on emissions” is probably the best way to reduce them. The revenues can be used to reduce other taxes, like income tax, or redistributed to low income persons who are adversely affected by increased energy costs due to a carbon tax.
“I think there are a lot of tradeoffs on a carbon tax that would not only address carbon emissions, but that could also provide revenues that can be applied to other aspects of our economy,” says Hoffman.
“I see the early stages of what I consider an inevitable transition away from traditional energy sources, largely fossil fuel sources but also including nuclear to some extent, to an increasing reliance on renewable energy in the form of wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and eventually ocean energy as well.”
“I have been saying this was inevitable for many years, but for a long time it was hard to get people to accept that. I think we’re seeing it happen. When you look at the numbers, both from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the Department of Energy and the Federal Energy Regularity Commission (FERC) you can see that the transition is beginning to take place. The new capacity that is coming online is largely renewables.”