Wind and Solar Start To Hit Primary US Energy Demand

Disruption from wind and solar power has, until recently, been largely confined to global powergrids. The two renewable technologies now compose more than 10% of EU electricity, 8% of US electricity, and 6% of China’s electricity. But their progress in the broader energy mix has been slower. Dominated by oil, transportation has successfully resisted the impact of wind and solar power—giving the impression that decarbonization will never quite arrive at adequate scale. But data now shows that wind and solar reached 2.77% of US primary energy demand last year, and will rise to over 3% this year. Contrary to intuition, those are not small numbers. They are big numbers, full of potential.

Crowding out coal, and now natural gas, combined wind and solar are becoming the go-to solutions for marginal growth in power systems, owing to their rapidly declining costs and construction speed. Now, in the important domains of China, the EU, and the US, electricity is starting to escape from those powergrids into the transportation sector. This process began late last decade with the resurrection of electrified rail transport, but is now being extended through personal electric vehicles and buses.

Last year, combined wind and solar provided 2.701 quadrillion btu in a US energy system that consumed 97.496 quadrillion btu from all sources. This year, combined wind and solar are on course to provide 3.145 quadrillion btu in a year that total US energy demand is on track to fall, by about a half a percent, to 97.00 quadrillion btu. As you can see in the chart above, demand for all energy sources ex-wind+solar is currently in decline. Wind and solar are threatening to hit primary energy demand in the same way they began to hit powergrid demand at the start of this decade. Their target? Transportation.

As shown in a recent report from the ICCT, EV sales have already reached 10% in San Jose, 6% in San Francisco, and 4% in Los Angeles. Transit agencies across Southern California are ordering, and deploying, electric buses. In California, and also in Texas, overnight or off-peak EV charging plans are becoming routine offerings from utilities. The future of public transport in Southern California will be entirely electric, and the transition has already begun. Echoing, or rather leading, the trend is the rapid adoption of EV buses in Chinese cities. Shenzhen’s entire fleet of 14,000 buses will be 100% electric by the end of this year.

As wind and solar grow globally, primary demand itself will see its growth halted through the harvesting of thermodynamic savings. Work and processes will continue to migrate away from combustion, and its enormous heat loss. Large transit services like LA Metro will increasingly run trains and buses off a powergrid that is rapidly adding cheap wind and solar.

It took about five years for wind and solar to advance from below 1% of US electricity to nearly 3%; and then another 5 years to advance towards 7%, last year. Wind and solar will easily reach 10% of US electricity by 2020. Now, it appears wind and solar will trace out a similar path in US primary energy demand: 2.77% last year, likely 7% by 2021, and 10% before 2025. When people complain that rate isn’t fast enough, here is a question: what is your model for the rate of plausible, systemic change?

–Gregor Macdonald

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