Here Are the Best Places to Expand Renewable Energy in the US and Abroad

From the Great Plains to the Atlantic Ocean and North Africa, the geography of untapped renewable energy is massive, but a lack of political will remains an obstacle.

Years of efforts to nurture renewable energy have borne fruit dramatically in recent years, with wind and solar farms sprouting worldwide.

That growth has largely overshadowed fossil fuels like coal, which is struggling in competitive electric markets against cheap, cleaner natural gas. But people who study the system say there’s a lot of potential that isn’t getting tapped, in the United States and abroad.

“We’re not saturated in terms of the resource availability at all in any state,” Stanford University engineering professor Mark Jacobson told Seeker. “It’s just a question of deciding to deploy more.”

Fossil fuels — coal and natural gas — still provide about two-thirds of the electricity Americans use. They’re cheap, but they produce carbon dioxide and other gases that have been building up in the atmosphere, driving global temperatures upward, and destabilizing Earth’s climate.

By comparison, renewables other than long-established hydroelectric dams provided less than 7 percent of US electric power, and all but about 1 percent of that was from wind. But the numbers have been growing rapidly in recent years, buoyed by tax credits and state rules setting targets for renewable power. More than a quarter of new utility-scale generating capacity came from solar panels last year, with wind providing nearly a third. Small-scale rooftop solar panels on homes and businesses add about half of 1 percent.

Jacobson has published a detailed but ambitious blueprint for converting the world to renewables by mid-century. Some of the Great Plains states are well along: Iowa and South Dakota generated more than 30 percent of their power from wind in 2016. Jacobson said there’s still huge amounts of wind power that can be harnessed in the Great Plains and off the coasts by wind turbines.

“Now that we have floating turbines operating commercially, pretty much the whole Atlantic and Pacific oceans are fair game,” he said.

While Denmark gets about 10 percent of its power from offshore wind, the only turbines spinning off American shores so far are at a 30-megawatt project off Rhode Island. But the Interior Department auctioned off a 122,000-acre tract off North Carolina earlier in March, estimating it could yield about 1,500 megawatts — enough to power more than a quarter of a million homes. And a 90-megawatt wind farm that can power up to 50,000 homes is going up off the southeastern end of Long Island, built by the same company behind the Rhode Island project. 

Solar has the most technical potential in the southern United States, “but most of the country could tap into it,” said Bret Fanshaw, solar program coordinator at the advocacy group Environment America.

“Germany has a similar cloud cover as Wisconsin, and they’ve got a ton of solar,” Fanshaw told Seeker. “A lot of it is driven by having the right types of policies.”

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Environment America estimates that if wind and solar power continues to grow at about half their current rates, those sources could meet current demand by 2035. Solar panels have fallen in price by more than 60 percent since 2008, and are capturing a bigger share of the sun’s energy. Wind turbines are about 40 percent cheaper, and battery storage capacity has grown 20-fold since 2007. And improvements in efficiency – especially the adoption of low-power LED lights – mean Americans are consuming less energy than they did a decade ago.

A 2012 study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, an arm of the Department of Energy, found large-scale solar projects in rural states could produce thousands of gigawatts more power than today, especially in the southern and Plains states. Rooftop solar panels could add hundreds of gigawatts more — not only in sunny states like Florida and California, but in the Great Lakes and Northeastern states as well.

Meanwhile, wind turbines across the central United States and offshore in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf of Mexico could yield nearly 15,000 more gigawatts, or dozens of times more electricity than what Americans consume today., the study found.

The landscape is shifting even more dramatically toward renewables around the world. Solar was the leading source of new capacity in 2016, according to the International Energy Agency, as developing countries increasingly look toward photovoltaic cells and wind turbines to provide electricity for the more than 1.2 billion people who still lack power.

The Middle East and North Africa in particular could be solar superpowers, Jacobson said.

“Places that have a lot of land, that have deserts, and that are running on fossil fuels, they’re targets for transition to clean, renewable energy,” Jacobson said. “In pretty much every country that has buildings, solar can be very cheap, You can add batteries to your buildings and even provide electricity 24 hours a day.”

China has fueled the boom by pouring money into solar and wind power, becoming a clean-energy superpower and driving down prices worldwide. And as costs fall, they’re drawing more investment.

“Countries are taking a step back on coal,” David Schlissel, who directs resource planning analysis at the Cleveland-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, told Seeker. “There are new coal plants being proposed and built, but they’re taking a step back on their plans for coal and moving toward renewables.”

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In August, the US financial giant JP Morgan Chase announced it was pouring $200 billion into clean energy between now and 2025 — and would power all its operations with renewables by 2020. The company’s offices total about 75 million square feet, the equivalent of 27 Empire State buildings. It’s also curtailed investment in coal, swearing off funding for new coal-fired plants in the developed world and limiting funds in the developing world to high-tech, cleaner generating units.

But while other countries are moving toward wind and solar, Schlissel said, policies in the United States have lagged behind. Some public utilities have fought rooftop solar in the South, where their plants rely more heavily on coal. The Republican-led Trump administration is fighting market trends to revive the country’s moribund mines, while the bulk of the GOP now resists efforts to address carbon emissions — or calls the issue a hoax.

“I don’t think politically we’re going get from where we are today in 20 years to full renewables,” Schlissel said. “I think the future is going to be consistenly declining coal, though it won’t be a straight line down … and then the alternative is going to be a mixtures of renewables and natural gas.”

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The Trump administration has asked Congress to slash funding for renewable energy and announced plans to repeal the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, the core of the US pledge under the Paris climate pact — which President Donald Trump has renounced as well.

Fanshaw said the Trump administration’s tack is “definitely concerning.” Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s call for rate subsidies for coal and nuclear plants that are losing ground in deregulated utility markets could pose a particular threat to renewable growth, he said. And the White House may soon be asked to decide whether to impose tariffs on imported solar panels, a choice that could pit the administration’s stated antipathy for trade it considers unfair against its disdain for renewable energy.

“For a long time, we’ve been saying we need to move to renewables because it’s the right thing to do,” Fanshaw said. “Now we can say it’s the right thing to do, and it solves your math problem, too.” But subsidizing coal and nuclear plants “would throw a wrench into the equation.”

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