COLUMBIA, Mo. — Today 78 percent of Missouri’s electricity comes from coal. Replace coal and other fossil fuels with clean, renewable energy, and Missouri could be powered by wind, solar farms and solar panels mounted on top of homes and businesses. A small percentage of power could include using Missouri’s existing dams. And all this could be accomplished by 2050.
Sound far-fetched? Mark Jacobson, a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford, says it’s do-able. He published a study in the Journal of Energy and Environmental Sciences with a roadmap showing how all 50 states could rely on 100 percent renewable energy by the year 2050 and keep greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution and energy prices lower than current numbers. In the Show-Me State, that includes 90 percent of the state’s energy from solar panels and large wind farms.
Jacobson’s plan has gotten national attention, even a hearing in Congress. Environmental leaders say it’s a bold vision for lower-carbon future. And it’s not the only such plan; another proposal from Alexander MacDonald, a retired director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, suggests the U.S. could achieve reduced carbon emissions and greater energy efficiency using wind turbines and solar combined with some natural gas.
Some states have already begun transitioning to cleaner energy. Iowa and South Dakota have about 30 percent of their electricity from wind. New York and California plan to reach 50 percent renewable by 2030. And Hawaii has the goal to be the first state to reach 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.
But Missouri is dragging its heels transitioning to alternative energies.
Missouri lawmakers and utility companies continue to fight renewable energy with lawsuits and legislations. In October of last year, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, a Democrat, joined a lawsuit with 29 other states, several industry groups and corporations to halt implementation of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, a policy aimed at setting a national limit on carbon emissions produced from power plants.
Representatives of Ameren Corporation — Missouri’s largest electric utility company, which supplies power to more than 2.4 million people — also do not support an aggressive shift to renewable energy, which they say would be costly and inefficient. The company’s long-term energy supply projections include a majority of coal and natural gas in 2040.
Scientists and other leaders say if Missouri continues to avoid these renewable technologies, it will fall behind other states in energy efficiency and increase its negative impact on the environment.
100 percent renewable Missouri
For Missouri to transition, Jacobson’s plan calls for an aggressive transformation of both infrastructure and ways people consume energy through large-scale implementation of existing technologies.
Jacobson’s research process looked at each state’s energy use for electricity, heating and cooling, transportation, industry and buildings. He then projected what the energy demand would look like in 2050 based on population changes and energy efficiency improvements.
“Then we looked at each sector trying to electrify it,” Jacobson said in an interview, “where electricity would come from wind, water, solar power.”
The plan calls for Missouri to replace natural gas for heating and cooking with renewably-sourced electricity. Missouri homes by 2050 would preferably use electric stoves instead of gas; homeowners would replace old inefficient appliances and use LED light bulbs; cars would run on batteries or hydrogen produced from electricity; heating and cooling sectors would use water and ground sourced heat pumps. In industry, they’d use electric furnaces.
By 2050 Missouri’s sources of energy would come from 60 percent onshore wind; 24.3 percent solar from photovoltaic, or PV, plants, transmitting light to electricity; 5.1 percent solar from homes; 5 percent solar from solar plants; 4.4 percent solar from government and business buildings and 1.1 percent hydroelectric. The solar plants would also act as storage units for additional energy.
This capital cost in 2050 for the wind, water and solar generators in Missouri for all energy sectors would be $165 billion.
But Jacobson says the cost is mitigated through the money Missouri would save. According to his research, electricity costs with wind, water and solar would be 8.5 cents per kilowatt- hours compared to 9.8 cents if Missouri doesn’t transition. That is an annual energy savings cost of $368 per person in 2050. That doesn’t include the annual costs saved by preventing premature death and illness caused by air pollution and damage to the environment, he says. That would be an average of $13,000 per person.
And though the capital cost is higher for renewables, these energy sources have no fuel costs. “Fossils have continuous and rising fuel costs,” Jacobson wrote an a email, “which causes their overall costs to be higher.”
Missouri could also reduce power demands by roughly 32 percent. It then could squeeze out an additional 7 percent by reducing of power demands, using more efficient appliances and electrifying homes, Jacobson says.
Jacobson notes that Missouri could save money through trade-offs like reduced spending on air-cleaning technology and through changes in infrastructure, such as no longer needing gas stations. He says the plan would also create around 61,000 construction jobs and roughly 23,500 operation 40-year jobs.
Ralph Cavanagh, co-director of the Natural Resource Defense Council, or NRDC, says Jacobson’s plan is a serious proposal.
“Demand and supply [are] going down and up every minute now,” Cavanagh said. “It is a time of significant change, but the change is well within the capacity.”
A bill based on Jacobson’s research was introduced into the House of Representatives last November titled House Resolution 540. If passed, the bill would support transitioning the U.S. to near zero greenhouse gas emissions, expanding renewable energy and creating “green jobs,” among other implementations, by 2050.
Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have committed to a future with cleaner sources of energy. Clinton plans to cut carbon emissions in the U.S. by more than 80 percent by 2050, according to Clinton’s campaign website. According to Sanders’ website, he wants to put a tax on fossil fuels and make America 100 percent renewable by 2050 – using Jacobson’s research, Jacobson says.
Renewables: too good to be true
But for Frank Maisano, a lawyer based in Washington D.C. whose firm specializes in representing the energy business, Jacobson’s plan is a little too optimistic.
He says utility companies like Ameren are putting resources into renewables but also must deal with customer satisfaction and reliability rates. Each year these companies are required by the government to produce a reliability report that includes the total number of customer complaints about reliability and power quality. An implementation like Jacobson’s puts the service companies at risk.
“Jacobson doesn’t have to meet a reliability requirement for his base,” says Maisano, a senior principal in Bracewell & Giuliani’s government relations and strategic communications practice. “Or a shareholder to report to.”
Maisano also says it is unfair to compare Missouri to a state like Iowa, which makes almost 30 percent of its electricity from wind, because it has the wind resources and transmission capacity to make those kinds of implementations. Missouri doesn’t have that and must implement technologies on an incremental basis, he says.
Ameren has a publically accessible 20-year resource plan that outlines how it proposes to transition Missouri to cleaner energy, including expansions to solar and wind technologies. Ameren plans to retire about one-third of its coal-fired generating capacity, including the Sioux and Meramec Energy Centers based in the St. Louis area, and convert others to natural gas. The document additionally proposes giving incentives to homeowners who install more efficient appliances and building an additional solar energy center this year.
However, Ameren’s resource plan does not take into account the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. It also does not propose to significantly reduce fossil fuel sources such as coal or natural gas. In fact, by 2034 Ameren plans to increase its natural gas capacity from about 3,000 megawatts to an additional 600 of efficient combined cycle and clean-burning natural gas generation.
As of 2014, about 92 percent of energy generation comes from Ameren’s coal-fired, nuclear and natural gas fired energy centers. By 2034, Ameren proposes to reduce these numbers to 62 percent.
“If you read it you’ll see of what [Ameren] is doing is pretty innovative,” Maisano says.
Ameren was contacted out to for comment but did not respond.
Maisano also says that in order for Missouri to make a transition, its rural electric cooperatives would have to be on board. He says a plan like Jacobson’s or the Clean Power Plan would put Missouri’s rural co-ops at risk. Missouri has about 47 electric co-ops, organized and controlled by members who participate in policies and decision-making.
“The Clean Power Plan will ask them to scrap their single or small assets that are largely coal,” Maisano says, “and replace them without cost reimbursements.”
And because rural co-ops use largely coal, Maisano says, the plans would force them to transition to renewables and they wouldn’t be able to swallow the costs — Another reason why slower implementation would be more beneficial for a state like Missouri, he says.
But Jacobson says slow implementation due to resources is nonsense because the cost of electricity would go down.
“That statement is contradicted by actual data,” Jacobson says.
He says the states with the highest fraction of electricity coming from wind saw their cost of electricity decrease by 1 percent over a five-year period, while all other states increased by an average of 8 percent.
Missouri’s big opposition to renewables
Missouri’s government leaders have also made controversial decisions on the state’s future of energy.
Twenty-nine states, including Missouri, filed an argument that stated the EPA was intruding on a “traditional state responsibility.” It also listed that the required emission reductions were too aggressive, citing the court case Michigan vs. EPA, when the Supreme Court decided that the EPA unreasonably used the Clean Air Act and did not consider cost when implementing regulations.
The Missouri Attorney General’s office did not return several requests for comment.
“The EPA’s Clean Power rule effectively eliminates Missouri’s competitive advantage as a low energy-cost state,” Koster said, according to a transcript of his speech on the Clean Power Plan at the Electric Coop annual meeting at the Branson Convention Center in October of last year.
According to the EPA’s website, compliance would cost each state $5.1 to $8.1 billion. The Clean Power Plan would give states until 2018 to propose a plan to reduce carbon emissions or use the federally made ones. By 2022, the states would be expected to begin making pollution cuts.
“The final rule fails to give Missouri any credit for major investments that energy producers have made in wind power since 2012,” Koster said according to the speech transcript.
But according to Jacobson, the EPA and other groups in support of renewables, a transition to renewable energy sources would not only be more efficient but would decrease Missouri’s energy-cost even more.
Cavanagh, co-director of NRDC, says the debate between EPA and the opposing states is a pure ideological struggle over state authority.
But regardless of what goes on with these groups, the U.S. is headed toward wind, water and solar, he says. “They will uphold the power plan and they will get on with continuing with what they are already doing: capturing a clean energy trend… that was already underway.”
He adds: “50 years from now I actually am skeptical if you will have nuclear or natural gas. The nuclear plants will have phased out. I don’t expect new ones because of the high cost. [Nuclear plants] are too big and inflexible. Natural gas has lower CO2 emissions but still has emissions. “
And Cavanagh may be right about the legal outcome. After the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court is now in an ideological split and the fate of the Clean Power Plan has been up in the air. The presidential outcome could determine the plan’s fate.
But what happens on the national level potentially won’t change things on the state level in Missouri. Both Democrat and Republican candidates for the Missouri Attorney General oppose of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.
Nonetheless, Missouri is already changing. There are unconfirmed plans of bringing 50 to 100 wind turbines to Clinton County by NextEra Energy Inc.
Although it seems that Missouri lawmakers and environmental groups can’t agree on an energy system solution, there are other ways to significantly reduce carbon emissions.
MacDonald, retired director at NOAA, published a study in the international journal Nature in late January that showed offered four options for how the U.S. could achieve reduced carbon emissions and greater energy efficiency using wind turbines and solar PV combined with some natural gas. One option includes remaining coal-fired power plants.
According to his research, by 2035 the U.S. could reduce carbon emissions by 2035 from the electricity sector by 3,378 percent — reducing emissions to approximately 2012 levels.
The secret, he says, is to create a national energy grid with high-voltage direct current transmission lines underground. According to MacDonald, direct current is the preferred solution for renewable energy because it can move great distances without losing much energy. For example, he says the nation could move a current from North Dakota to New York only 7 percent energy would be lost rather than 40 percent with current methods.
Currently, the U.S. uses a high-voltage alternating current line, which means that both the current and voltage on the transmission line move in a wave-like pattern that loses energy.
“It goes up and down 60 times a second and that’s pretty much how our energy power is,” MacDonald said in an interview. “Direct current and it just stays at one level.”
MacDonald’s research offers four scenarios for how the U.S. could move forward. The first scenario keeps the cost of electricity similar to those in 2012 with renewables costing more and natural gas costing less. The second is the opposite, with renewables costing less. In this scenario the U.S. achieves future expected cost reductions for renewables and a demand for natural gas. The third scenario keeps the cost of renewables and natural gas the same. The last scenario involves coal with renewables costing less than natural gas.
MacDonald’s reason to continue to natural gas as a source of energy mirrors what Missouri politicians have said about renewable energy: The sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow.
“[Natural gas] is a bridge fuel,” Macdonald says. “When there is no wind blowing, there is some back-up. “
MacDonald’s research was ranked one of the top papers for several months by Nature, an international journal with research from several scientific disciplines.
Cavanagh, co-director of the NRDC, says the biggest need for the U.S. energy grid is flexibility. MacDonald’s plan offers that.
“The energy efficiency is all about technology innovation and most of it comes from outside,” Cavanagh says.
MacDonald says his biggest challenge is to convince politicians and the American public that an underground electricity system is a viable option. But, he says, once people realize it is the safest and least expensive option, they’ll be on board.
MacDonald says in the future he wants to do more studies and higher resolutions. But he cautions U.S. leaders to not take too long in their decisions.
“I don’t think we have very much time,” MacDonald says.