Renewables and Energy Storage: What Does the Last Decade of Growth Tell Us about the Next?

Microgrid Knowledge

August 1, 2017 By Elisa Wood

The last decade brought the U.S. double-digit growth for renewables and energy storage. Impressive? Yes. But nothing compared to what could lie ahead.

That’s the message from a new report, Renewables on the Rise: A Decade of Progress Toward a Clean Energy Future, released by the Environment New York Research & Policy Center.

It’s no mystery that these markets are accelerating. But quantifying their 10-year history offers perspective on why some — including the report authors — think America should pursue a 100 percent renewables goal.

Just by keeping up the current pace of growth, renewables could provide more than half of the United States’ electric supply in about three decades, according to the report.

“If the nation were to install as much renewable energy every year as we did in 2016, by 2050 American would be producing enough electricity to meet only 57 percent of today’s electricity demand,” says the report.

By mid-2016 the U.S. saw its one millionth solar panel installed. Totaling close to 60,000 GWh, solar produced 43 times more power in 2016 than it did in 2007, according to the report. Wind grew seven-fold over the decade and now provides 5.5 percent of America’s power.

The report finds that over the same period, battery storage grew 20-fold in capacity, from just under 100 MW to about 550 MW.  This takeoff has been fueled by price declines and technology improvements, with an assist from battery-powered electric vehicles. Five states – California, Illinois, West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania – lead the nation in energy storage additions. 

Renewables and energy storage as a dream team

Together, renewables and energy storage make up a kind of dream team, which is why the pairing is often incorporated into new microgrids. Batteries can store renewable energy for use at times of day when grid power is more expensive.

In addition, batteries offer a way to keep the power flowing when wind suddenly ceases or the clouds hide the sun. They can inject quick energy to overcome renewable intermittency. Hence, grid stabilization is a primary market for energy storage.

Batteries present other attractive opportunities, as well, such as reducing demand charges for commercial and industrial customers or averting the need for utilities to invest in more expensive capital-intensive grid upgrades.

The report cites GTM Research projections that annual U.S. energy storage additions will provide 1.7 GW by 2020, nearly three times the total energy storage additions of the last ten years.

renewables and energy storage

While they’ve seen remarkable innovation and growth, renewables and energy storage have yet to reach their full potential, says the report. With continued innovation comes improved economies of scale and market penetration.

As a result, prices are likely to keep falling. The report finds that the price of wind power is expected to drop 24-30 percent by 2030. By 2025, the average utility-scale solar energy system may be cheaper than using coal on average globally. And in a few years energy storage could cost half its 2016 price, and may drop even lower by 2025, reaching $160/kWh or less, down from $200/kWh projected for 2020.

Road to 100 percent

The report lays out five goals for government, business and institutions to democratize their energy supply beyond fossil fuels:

  • Set targets to meet all energy needs across all sectors by 2050
  • Prioritize energy savings to ease the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy
  • Require utilities to ramp up renewable energy generation over time, work to make clean energy technologies more affordable and accessible for consumers, and encourage adoption of clean energy at all scales, from small rooftops to large wind and solar farms
  • Support emerging technologies critical to the development of a fully renewable energy system, including offshore wind power, smart grid improvements, and electrification of heating and transportation.
  • Set limits on carbon and greenhouse gas emissions that will shift us away from fossil fuels