The Road To Zero: Neutral Carbon And The Magic Number For Renewables and Energy Storage

It’s a massive challenge, but a crucial one. Across the country and around the world, companies, cities, even entire countries are committing to getting to zero carbon emissions. Ranging from the ambitious to the outrageous, the timeline for those goals varies by decades, but the real question is how we plan to get there. It’s a race against time, against pollution, against resistance, and against significant technological barriers. It’s a race to zero. But how do we get there?

It appears there are two avenues, though both of them rely heavily on renewable energy as a crucial piece of their infrastructure. Some of those goals are specific in achieving carbon neutrality with renewables and energy storage alone, which would eliminate nuclear or biomass sources of electricity. That’s a key distinction, with various risks and inefficiencies of those types of energy production already controversial. This avenue puts tremendous pressure on renewable technologies not just to adapt and improve quickly, but to do so cheaply. While solar, wind, and other renewables have improved in leaps and bounds, they’re only now becoming reasonable options for consumers, especially at grid-level. 

The other option is to include renewable options like biomass and nuclear energy as pieces to the energy puzzle, not only to meet specific timelines but as integral parts of the energy picture for decades to come. This relieves some pressure on renewables, allowing certain parts of the grid in place; think of it as starting a game of connect-the-dots with one corner already finished. However, support of nuclear power, in particular, is waning, and with geopolitical instabilities around all things nuclear more fragile than ever, it’s not a technology that can be fairly, safely, or equitably implemented around the globe. 

So how do we get to grid-level renewable energy, which has a near-constant demand, with power generation that is variable at best? Both wind and solar electrical production peaks and dips according to the season, the time of day, even minute to minute; a passing cloud could affect solar, while gusting and becalmed times can have a huge impact on wind. The key, then, is storage, and storage that’s inexpensive enough to implement now. 

That number isn’t exactly a mystery. MIT ran a study that put the figure at $20 per kilowatt-hour to make renewable energy and energy storage viable. The downside? That’s nearly half the rate these technologies can offer right now. Experts say that this figure may not even be possible by 2030, a full decade away. A big part of that forecast is that the study accounted for not just daily, weekly, or monthly fluctuations in wind and solar energy, but entire years and even decades; they aren’t building this model based on short-term changes, but for long-term peaks and valleys in energy consumption. In effect, they’re preparing for the worst-case scenarios, which would be extremely high demands (think six years of very cold winters and very hot summers, for example) with extremely low output from wind and solar. 

It’s those ‘worst-case’ scenarios that skew the target kilowatt costs. The study pointed out that if we account for 95% of energy needs, opposed to 100%, then the target kilowatt-hour jumps to $150. Why does such a small change have such a big impact? Because that 5% accounts for astronomically small and rate weather patterns; it’s like saying we’re having the worst weather possible not just for a year or two, but for decades. 

And that’s a big point to make; such gloomy weather forecasts are extremely unlikely. It’s also worth noting that these renewable energy sources are no different than fossil fuels and natural gas in one way; no source of fuel is perfectly reliable. Changes in access, production, and efficiency in oil refinement, for example, is why the cost of a barrel of oil can change drastically in a single day, and even more do over long periods of time. Historically, oil production has gone up, while the future only looks brighter for renewables. While scarcity and exhaustion mean oil will only ever costs more before it ultimately runs out, technology and efficiency improvements mean renewable energy can only get less expensive. 

That brings us to another point to be optimistic. If you were to invest in the infrastructure of your business, your city, or your country, which would you back financially. Option one will only cost you more money over time and eventually run out, but it is cheaper now. Option two will only cost you less money over time and never run out, but costs more today. Anyone planning for the next decade and beyond will go for the second option, and that’s why the 2030 forecast for viable energy storage and renewable energy might not be as optimistic as it should be. Soon, the industry will have the type of investment and financial backing to make the types of strides we need to see to make it viable sooner, and that’s because it’s not just society that needs these changes, but the influential businesses themselves. 

Will it take another decade to see renewable energy and energy storage take over? We don’t think so. Want to learn more? Give us a call and let’s talk about how you can create your own grid now and insulate your business from changing energy costs for years to come.