Wind, solar and storage are on the cusp of collaborating to provide near carbon-free energy at cost equal to the cheapest fossil fuels, according to MIT chemist and former CIA director John Deutch.
They’re close enough, in fact, that Deutch called this month for a demonstration project—instead of regulation—to convince the private sector they are worth adopting.
“Uncharacteristically I have been an optimist—I am an optimist—about this, and I believe we are very close to having an economically competitive triad—wind, solar and storage—to produce electricity at a cost as low as the cheapest fossil alternative, which is natural gas combined cycle,” Deutch said at Stanford University. “We are close to having this be a commercial operation.”
The secret to success, Deutch said, is to ask renewables to provide 95 percent of electricity generation instead of 100 percent. A clean system can meet 95 percent of demand at nearly half the cost of a system meeting 100 percent, he said. The remaining 5 percent, he hopes, can be reduced through demand response or cleaned up through carbon capture.
“I’m going to propose a different policy for introducing this technology,” he added. “I want to find a way to introduce it and have the private sector see what the results are, and have them make the investments in the future, which means that I am opposed to mandatory regulation for mandating storage, such as is practiced in this far west corner of the United States.”
State regulations obscure the economics of renewable energy, Deutch contends, making it unclear to investors whether renewables are viable on their own.
Instead, Deutch proposes setting up a competition between energy developers, allowing them to bid on a 20-year contract to provide a system that meets 95 percent of demand in an area using solar, wind and storage alone. All the government has to do is create a “regulatory envelope” within which the project will be allowed. And then be sure to publicize the results.
“Wind plus solar plus storage is going to be here and it’s going to be here soon and the job now is to decide how you are going to make progress on that how you’re going to get the private sector to deploy that in the shortest period of time.”
Deutch and his collaborators, including Yet-Ming Chiang of MIT’s Department of Material Science and Engineering, demonstrated their proposal by calculating the costs of such a system in central Texas. The hypothetical electricity cost 13 cents per kilowatt hour to produce today with lithium-ion batteries, but only 6 cents with the flow batteries likely to replace lithium ion for grid storage. That’s the cost of the cheapest energy produced by natural gas, he said.
The researchers tested their model on locations in Iowa, where renewables faired slightly better, and Massachusetts, where they faired slightly worse, Deutch said. He expects it to translate equally well to any state—”The numbers will come out very very good they’re not that far off.”
He named Puerto Rico and Hawaii as excellent locations for a demonstration project, and he noted that the results will be particularly attractive in countries where the population is not accustomed to 100 percent of demand being met.
“You are going to find yourselves very shortly in a situation where you have storage alternatives that when matched with existing solar and wind generating systems will be able to meet load extremely effectively.”