The growing clean energy backlog, in five charts – Canary Media

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For the past four years, researchers at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have been tracking a major threat to the U.S. clean energy transition: the backups and bottlenecks in connecting proposed solar, wind, and battery projects to the electricity grid.

LBNL’s team laid out their latest findings in a recent webinar. The overarching takeaway is that clean power plants can supply enough near-term electricity to avoid building new fossil-gas-fired power plants or keeping coal plants open longer — but only if something is done about the grid backlog.

U.S. utilities and the entities responsible for grid reliability are warning that growing demand for electricity from data centers, factories, electric vehicles, and decarbonizing buildings is expected to outrun the pace at which new clean energy resources can be added to the grid. Already, many utilities are proposing to keep coal plants open past previously planned retirement dates and to build new fossil-gas-fired power plants supplying gigawatts (GW) of power — even though those plans threaten to put the country’s carbon-cutting goals out of reach.

At the same time, the U.S. has an enormous amount of proposed carbon-free projects waiting to replace those fossil-fueled generators. As of December 2023, nearly 2,600 gigawatts’ worth of proposed projects, the vast majority of them wind, solar, and battery storage, were making their way through the series of studies and steps required to plug into the power grid — about twice the amount of generation powering the entire existing U.S. electrical grid.

The problem? Grid operators and utilities can’t fit all those projects onto their existing power lines, and they’re buried under the piles of paperwork required to figure out how to expand the grid to accommodate them.

The situation is only getting worse: The interconnection backlog at the end of 2023 was roughly eight times the capacity that was active in the queues as of the end of 2014,” said Joseph Rand, an energy policy researcher at LBNL and co-author of the lab’s latest Queued Up” report. But the pace of transmission grid expansion has slowed to about 1 percent per year over the same period of time.

Still, the amount of clean power and batteries seeking to be built could, at least in theory, provide plenty of headroom for U.S. grids to meet the forecasted growth in demand. These five charts from LBNL’s latest report demonstrate that.

Meeting peak demand without emissions 


The chart on the left shows just how much solar, wind, battery, and hybrid” capacity — batteries combined with renewable energy, almost all of it solar today — is waiting to come online. The chart on the right shows how far those clean resources could go in meeting electricity needs, including those summer and winter peaks in demand that keep grid planners and operators awake at night.

The gray bars on the chart on the right represent the total amount of generation capacity seeking to be interconnected in each region, which is typically far higher than the existing generation capacity in each region, as marked by the black lines in each column.

Since wind and solar may not generate their full capacity when grids need the most power, LBNL’s chart also compares the most important metric for grid reliability: peak loads, or the maximum amount of electricity demand in each region, which usually spikes during hot summer afternoons or cold winter mornings. On that chart above, those regional peak loads are represented by yellow lines.

LBNL also ran what Rand called a rough back-of-the-envelope calculation to estimate the approximate peak load contribution of all of that active capacity in the queues,” shown as the red lines on the chart. Those red lines exceed peak load in all regions, and they actually exceed the installed capacity in several regions as well,” he said.

This does not mean that regions can expect their peak grid demands to be met by yet-to-be-built solar, wind, and battery capacity in the near term. That’s because it’s highly unlikely that most of the capacity in queues will be built.

In fact, only 14 percent of the generation capacity of all the projects that submitted interconnection requests from 2000 to 2018 had been built and brought online by the end of 2023. That completion rate may or may not hold steady in future years, but it does serve as a warning for utilities and grid operators planning to rely on still-unbuilt projects to meet their peak load needs.

How much clean energy could actually get built in the near term? 

To get a better sense of how much clean energy and battery capacity might be ready to meet grid needs in the near future, LBNL’s report examined where projects stood in terms of timing and status. Rand noted that nearly half the projects now in interconnection queues have proposed to come online by the end of 2026, adding up to nearly 1,300 gigawatts of capacity — an amount equivalent to the entire existing U.S. grid.

The most promising projects are those that have already executed interconnection agreements — the key step that allows them to begin construction and start paying for whatever grid upgrades have been assigned to them. About 12 percent of the active projects LBNL studied have reached that point, adding up to 311 gigawatts of capacity — and those are the projects I would say are much more likely to actually reach commercial operations in the relatively near term,” Rand said.

Chart of pending electricity generation capacity seeking to connect to U.S. grids by 2026 from LBNL Queued Up 2024 report

How the likeliest projects could help the grid 

What might be the grid value of the projects that have passed through the interconnection gauntlet?

To answer that question, LBNL ran another back-of-the-envelope calculation of those projects’ peak load contributions and compared it with the five-year forecast of peak load growth and power plant retirements for six of the country’s grid operators, using data from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), a nonprofit organization that maintains standards for grid reliability.

The results indicate that there’s significant potential for these close-to-the-finish-line projects to meet much of the capacity needs from peak load growth and power plant retirements in the Midwestern and mid-Atlantic regions served by grid operators Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO), PJM, and Southwest Power Pool (SPP). For grid operators in California, New England, and Texas, those projects may even exceed those needs.

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