Wind turbines farm at sunset

How to save a United States' worth of carbon emissions

 April 12, 2018 

As Renewables Surge, They Can Do More, With a 4 Gigaton Opportunity Right Under Their Noses

By Matt Evans and Chiel Borenstein

Pick up any newspaper today, and there are stories that might make you worry. But one bright spot has been the continuing Cinderella story of renewable energy worldwide. When WattTime was founded only a few years ago, renewable energy deployment every year was barely more than a footnote in the global economy. No more. According to January 2018 numbers from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, world clean energy investment totaled $333.5 billion in 2017. That’s a 3% increase vs. 2016 and the second-highest annual investment total ever. Cumulative investment since 2010 has reached an impressive $2.5 trillion.

Investment focused on solar (48% of the global total), then wind, then energy-smart technologies (including smart meters, battery storage, smart grid, and electric vehicles), then all other clean energy technologies (which collectively ranked a very distant fourth).

The United States, for its part, ranked second globally behind only China. That clean energy investment helped to propel the U.S. to its third consecutive year of emissions declines, dropping by 0.5% in 2017.

Domestically and internationally, these are encouraging developments about which to be rightfully optimistic. Yet if we want to beat climate change before we reach the tipping point, we need to move even faster. It’s time for renewables to seize the moment and up their game. At WattTime, we have discovered a way they can do just that.

Tackling the Carbon Emissions Elephant in the Room

Back in November 2017, Carbon Brief—a UK-based climate science journalism site—reported on some alarming findings from the Global Carbon Project: after a three-year plateau, global annual carbon emissions were forecasted to rise by an estimated 2% by the end of the year.

Last month, the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) confirmed those initial estimates in IEA’s inaugural Global Energy & CO2 Status Report. The verdict? In 2017, global energy-related CO2 emissions rose 1.4% to a record-high 32.5 gigatons.

Looking ahead to the rest of 2018, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) March 2018 release of its Short-Term Energy Outlook, U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions are expected to rise by 1.0% in 2018, followed by another 0.8% in 2019.

In the wake of the Paris Agreement, it all could be seen as a discouraging setback in the race to decarbonize the energy sector. But rather than despair, there is reason for hope. Renewables in particular have an opportunity to make each new clean MW go further. Here’s how.

The 4 Gigaton Opportunity Sitting Under Renewables’ Noses

People typically think of solar, wind, and other clean-energy projects as just creating zero-emissions energy, making them in some sense all the same. But upon closer inspection, not all renewable energy is actually created equal. After all, the way that renewables help the environment is that they displace dirty energy. So, the same wind turbine can actually have radically different impacts on the environment and the electricity grid’s emissions depending on whether it’s displacing, say, a coal plant, or another windmill.

Thus, as is often noted in matters of real estate, when it comes to renewable energy deployment, location matters. Where developers site new renewable generation can greatly influence which kinds of energy they displace, and therefore how much carbon emissions those clean electrons ‘erase.’ As it turns out, the size of that prize is large. Very large.

Recently, the WattTime team crunched the numbers from the U.S. EIA’s International Energy Outlook 2017, which forecasts world energy generation and consumption through 2040. The results were very surprising to our team.

If the global distribution of new renewable energy generation forecasted to be built through 2030 were redistributed geographically to optimize for avoided emissions, it could save an estimated 4 gigatons (Gt) of carbon emissions over the life of those renewable energy projects. That number is nearly equal to the annual carbon emissions of the United States.

And the impact could easily be far greater. Renewable energy capacity additions have routinely far surpassed the U.S. EIA’s projections in past years, so 4 Gt—big as that number is—could merely be the starting point.

This is an incredible “free” opportunity. Think again about the implications: holding renewable energy investment and new MW of clean generation constant—and optimizing solely on location for the sake of avoided emissions—renewables that are already planned could vastly multiply their impact.

Such an opportunity is squarely within reach. It is now incumbent on utilities, renewable energy developers, renewable energy buyers, and others to add a new lens to their clean energy investment and deployment. Alongside dollars and MW we should now also include location-optimized avoided emissions. A United States’ worth of carbon emissions are on the line and available for the taking.