Can Renewables Power the Future?

Bridging the gap between fossil energy sources and renewables is perhaps the greatest technological challenge facing Americans this century. Global awareness, health and environmental concerns, geo-political instability, and raw entrepreneurism are all driving U.S. efforts to build a new, cleaner, and more diversified energy economy. Such challenges are being addressed in a collaborative fashion as America continues to innovate in areas where other countries have stumbled.

In recent decades, business-friendly regulations and incentives sparked a boom in investment in solar and wind generation. Today, solar and wind currently constitute a third of all renewable energy produced each year in the United States. By setting the stage for investment, the country is poised to make even further use of emerging renewable innovation.

Unfortunately, the transportation and storage technologies needed for the full exploitation of these vital new resources remains for now, inadequate. Consumers large and small require consistent, dependable, and affordable access to energy. Faced with the ebbs and flows characteristic of solar and wind fuels means that for the immediate future, the superior reliability of fossil energy remains unchallenged.

Cracking the code of the renewable energy grid will take time, money, and sound economic policies that manage risk and encourage investment. During this bridge phase, the renewable portion of the overall U.S. fuel mix will ultimately remain smaller than some would like. Too rapid a shift to less reliable fuels would, however, create incalculable economic, political, and security disruptions.

Recent advances in energy storage give reason for hope the transition to a more renewables-rich fuel mix is just around the corner. Most encouraging are substantial steps taken by several of America’s top electric power producers in solar and wind power storage programs.  Their initiatives evidence the growing confidence that technology will be able to capture the power produced at times of highest return will one day enable consumers to rely on solar and wind energy continuously, even during poor (low wind or sunlight) weather conditions.

Several storage pioneers are leading the way. For example, Dallas-based Oncor Electricity, a division of Energy Future Holdings Corp., recently announced a $2 billion dollar investment in a plan to install thousands of battery systems around Texas. Once built, the new systems will be able to capture and store up to 15,000 megawatt-hours of wind and solar energy for use during weather lulls. Oncor’s bold new stake in renewable storage is representative of an industry-wide trend that could massively shift the balance in the U.S. fuel portfolio toward renewables.

For industry, there is giant business potential in giant batteries.  According to a study by Navigant Research, a clean energy market consultancy, energy storage will multiply rapidly in the coming decade, growing from 538.4 megawatts (MW) in 2014 to 20.8 gigawatts (GW) in 2024. This growth represents a number nearly 40 times greater than the current stored amount. In just a decade, revenue from this growth will increase from $675 million to $15.6 billion.

This bullish growth outlook is not limited to Texas. For example, Denver-based Renewable Energy Systems Americas Inc. (RES America) plans to build two grid-scale systems to supply real-time frequency regulation to an area just outside of Chicago. The two Illinois projects, which will be the largest commercial energy storage systems in North America, are slated for completion by August 2015.

These market trends give hope in the new energy economy, a profitable, endlessly innovative, new renewables industry that will work alongside legacy fossil industries, delivering clean fuels through a battery enhanced grid.  With luck, the innovations enabled by the new energy revolution will eclipse those of the shale boom whose success has been undeniable in lowering energy costs for all Americans.