On the Rise: Solar Thermal Power and the Fight Against Global Warming

Released by: Environment America

Executive Summary

Global warming is real, is happening now, and is largely caused by human activities. To prevent the worst impacts of global warming, the United States must take action to reduce global warming pollution quickly and dramatically. Electricity generation accounts for more than a third of America’s emissions of global warming pollution. Preventing catastrophic global warming, therefore, will require the United States to shift away from highly polluting sources of power, such as coal-fired power plants, and toward clean, renewable energy.

Concentrating solar power (CSP) technologies—which use the sun’s heat to generate electricity—can make a large contribution toward reducing global warming pollution in the United States, and do so quickly and at a reasonable cost. CSP can also reduce other environmental impacts of electric power production, while sparking economic development and creating jobs.

The United States has limited time to transition away from dirty energy sources and toward clean, renewable energy.

  • The latest climate science tells us that the United States and the world must reduce emissions of global warming pollutants quickly and dramatically to prevent the most catastrophic impacts of global warming.
  • Should global average temperatures to increase by more than 2° Celsius, scientists warn that dangerous impacts from global warming will become inevitable, including flooding of coastal cities, the loss of large numbers of plant and animal species, and increases in extreme weather, wildfire and drought.
  • To have a reasonable chance of preventing a 2° C increase in global average temperatures, the world must keep the concentration of global warming pollution in the atmosphere below 450 parts per million.1
  • The United States must, at minimum, reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 15-20 percent from 2000 levels by 2020, and by 80 percent by 2050 to prevent catastrophic impacts from global warming. Other nations must act aggressively as well.
  • America’s electric power plants produce more carbon dioxide (the leading global warming pollutant) than the entire economy of any nation in the world other than China.
  • Even if America uses energy efficiency improvements to prevent future growth in electricity consumption, the nation will still need to expand its renewable generating  capacity dramatically. Reducing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants to 20 percent below 2000 levels by 2020, for example, would require the U.S. to generate 15 to 24 percent of its electricity from new renewable sources—or between 158 GW and 257 GW of new renewable energy by 2020. The need for clean energy will further accelerate in future decades as the United States seeks to meet increasingly stringent targets for emission reductions.

Concentrating solar power is ready to reduce global warming pollution, and can begin doing so right away.

  • America has immense potential to generate power from the sun. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has identified the potential for nearly 7,000 gigawatts (GW) of solar thermal power generation on lands in the southwestern United States—more than six times current U.S. electric generating capacity. Other sunny areas of the United States, such as the mountain West, the Great Plains and Florida, can also generate power from solar thermal energy.
  • Solar thermal power plants covering a 100-mile-square area of the Southwest— equivalent to 9 percent the size of Nevada—could generate enough electricity to power the entire nation.
  • Building just 80 GW of CSP capacity—a target that is achievable by 2030 with sufficient public policy support—would produce enough electricity to power approximately 25 million homes and reduce carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. electric power plants by 6.6 percent compared to year 2000 levels. Solar thermal power can make even greater contributions in the years to come—precisely the time when the nation must achieve deep cuts in global warming pollution.
  • CSP plants are increasingly cost-competitive with other power generation technologies that do not produce carbon dioxide. The cost of energy from solar thermal power plants is estimated to be approximately 14 to 16 cents/kWh—competitive in cost with theoretical coal-fired power plants that capture and store their carbon dioxide emissions and with new nuclear power plants.
  • CSP development has accelerated dramatically since the beginning of 2007. More than 2,800 MW of solar thermal projects are in some phase of development nationwide and could be completed by 2012. CSP benefits the environment and America’s economy.
  • CSP power is clean. Its only necessary emission, water vapor, is harmless. By developing CSP, America can avoid the need for coal-fired power plants—which emit health-threatening mercury, particulate matter, and smog-forming pollutants and consume large quantities of water—and nuclear power plants, which consume large amounts of water and produce radioactive waste.
  • CSP can play a leading role in the electric power system. Unlike intermittent forms of renewable energy, CSP plants with thermal energy storage can deliver power when it is needed to serve demand. CSP plants can be designed to provide either peak or baseload power, enabling them to address a variety of needs within the electric grid.
  • Solar thermal plants create permanent jobs for local economies. Construction of 80 GW of CSP power has the potential to generate between 75,000 and 140,000 permanent, green jobs for Americans.
  • CSP and other forms of renewable energy reduce demand for natural gas, thereby reducing prices. Installing 4 GW of CSP in California could save Californians between $60 million and $240 million per year in the cost of natural gas.
  • America’s vast potential for CSP could one day produce renewable electricity to be used in vehicles—thereby reducing the nation’s dependence on oil. Strong public policies can increase the use of CSP in the United States. Priority actions include:
  • Enacting a national Renewable Electricity Standard (RES) that requires 25 percent of all U.S. electricity to come from renewable resources—and a certain percentage from solar power technologies—by 2025. States should also enact RES policies or expand their existing RES targets.
  • Expanding and extending the Renewable Electricity Investment Tax Credit can give CSP project developers the financial certainty they need to move forward.
  • Enacting caps on global warming pollution at both the national and state levels, which will encourage the development of clean, low-carbon energy sources like concentrating solar power and encourage the retirement of America’s dirtiest electric power plants. Money raised by auctioning allowances under a cap-and-trade system should help support renewable energy development and reduce the cost of the program to consumers.
  • Creating feed-in tariffs for renewable energy sources, which provide financial rewards to generators who feed renewable energy into the power grid. Widely used in Europe, feed-in tariffs aim to move renewable energy to non-subsidized cost competition with conventional energy, creating fair markets between new and traditional electricity sources.
  • Providing access to transmission for CSP, in particular through western regional policy agreements and initiatives, can ensure that solar power can be delivered to power consumers. New transmission lines should be built to renewable resource areas before they are built to traditional power generators and be sited and designed to minimize environmental impacts. The federal government should also fund existing research and development on a high-voltage direct current transmission backbone.
  • Creating an annual $3 billion fund for research, development, and deployment of renewable energy for 2009, which can ensure that CSP and other renewable energy technologies are available to meet America’s energy and climate challenges. The fund should be renewed for the next 10 years, committing $30 billion over the next decade. These dollars should come from shifting funds away from coal, oil, gas and nuclear power subsidies.