A Q&A With Jesse Jenkins of the REPEAT Project

RealClear Energy
September 30, 2022

Jesse Jenkins, an assistant professor at Princeton University, has gained a lot of media attention in recent years for his models that promote large-scale deployment of renewable energy. Last month, Jenkins and several colleagues released modeling and analaysis from the REPEAT Project that shows the possible outcomes of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. The report “describes the national-scale energy system and greenhouse gas emissions impacts” of the IRA.

Yesterday, we released an episode of the Power Hungry Podcast in which I interviewed Jenkins about the legislation and its possible impact on the U.S. energy sector and emissions. After talking to him, I realized that I had more questions than we had time for in our one-hour conversation. Therefore, I sent him a few follow-up questions which I thought would help further public understanding of what his models are proposing and how they might work (or not work) in the real world. Jesse quickly (and patiently) replied to my questions. Here is the full text of that Q&A, which I edited only for punctuation:

RB: I am still puzzled by your model which claims we can install an additional roughly 260 GW of wind and 550 GW of solar capacity by 2030 and do so in just 7.5 years. The land requirements are enormous and local communities are objecting repeatedly to the encroachment of big wind and solar projects. As I mentioned during our conversation, more than 40 townships in Ohio have banned wind and/or solar over the past 10 months. Thus, my question: where, exactly, you are planning to put all that infrastructure?

JJ: The map below depicts the ‘downscaling’ of wind, solar and long-distance transmission expansion results from our REPEAT Project modeling for IRA. That’s one possible way all that wind and solar could be deployed. But there’s also quite a bit of flexibility to shift about to other sites without noticeably changing the costs. The map gives you a sense of the spatial extent and possible patterns of deployment consistent with or aggregate national results.

RB: Have you looked at my Renewable Rejection Database? It provides date, place, and URL for rejections going back to 2015. Why do you think so many communities are rejecting wind and solar projects? And given all these rejections, why should we assume that siting so much new solar and wind is plausible?

JJ: Yes I’ve seen the database. As we talked about on the episode, there are communities that want these projects and those that do not. And still others that initially are ok with it until cumulative impacts get too high.

But are you also tracking all of the projects that made up the 13.4 GW of wind and 13.2 GW of solar capacity installed in 2021 or the 11 GW of wind and 20 GW of solar expected to be deployed this year? There’s roughly 140 GW of total installed wind capacity across the country now. So for every rejection, how many successful projects are there? Siting and community/social license are critical and clearly present challenges for the pace and scale of wind and (less so) solar build out. My colleagues and I spotlighted those challenges in our Net-Zero America study and our other work under the ‘Rapid Switch’ initiative at Princeton. But it’s also simply not a one-sided story. There are rejections and successes alike. And there’s lots of projects underway.

RB: We touched on the issue of high-voltage transmission. You said we can double the rate of deployment under REPEAT. And your NetZero America model called for, in one case, a tripling of HV transmission mileage. Do you have numbers as to how many miles of HV transmission (say, 230kV and above) are being built annually? If you have it in GW-miles, and can share it, that would be great.

JJ: Michael Cembalest and his team at JP Morgan have assembled a few sources for his excellent annual energy report and estimates we expanded the grid at about 1%/year over the last decade, coinciding with a period of basically no demand growth nationally. We averaged 2%/yr from the late 1970s to 2020, encompassing a period when demand was consistently growing (until about 2005).

REPEAT modeling for IRA finds a bit over 2%/year expansion through 2032 (about 2.3% per year). This if of course during a period when we expect demand for electricity to begin growing robustly again with electrification of vehicles and heating etc. So basically, we need to get back on the same track we were the last time electricity demand was growing. More demand means we’ll need a bigger grid, and if we want to see emissions of climate-warming gases and air pollutants fall, we’ll need more transmission to connect sufficient quantities of new clean electricity (mainly wind and solar this decade). REPEAT Project recently explored the impacts if we fail to accelerate transmission expansion in this report, spotlighting the central importance of transmission to unlock the full potential of the IRA.

RB: Why does REPEAT have so little wind and nuclear capacity?

JJ: New reactors won’t really be in the market at scale until the 2030s (with first of a kind projects built very late in the 2020s) and there’s considerable uncertainty about what they will cost. Our default nuclear costs (which come from EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook assumptions) are too high to see any built before 2035. We also see a lot more solar than wind built during this period because of siting flexibility and lower transmission costs (the same issues that you highlight that frequently constrain wind build out, which we account for in our supply curves and costs for each resource). We still see a lot of new wind (~260 GW of additions from 2023-2030), but not as much as solar (~550 GW of additions over that period).

RB: Given that climate change will likely mean more frequent extreme weather events, why should we build more generation capacity that depends on the weather?

JJ: There’s no reason to believe wind and solar are more vulnerable to extreme weather events than thermal plants (they could even be more robust since they’re a lot more distributed spatially). It was the failure of allegedly “firm” gas and coal generators that plunged Texas into the deep freeze in February 2021. Wind and solar are reliably unreliable, as I wrote in the NYT and testified in Congress. We know not to count on them all the time, and so we need adequate firm generating capacity that we count on to be there whenever we need it for as long as we need it. So when firm resources we count on to be there when we need them fail, that’s when disaster strikes. That’s exactly what happened in Texas in February 2021, when over 30 GW of allegedly firm generating capacity failed, predominately gas and coal units (plus one nuclear reactor), plunging the state into a terrible and deadly crisis.

RB: Regarding transmission miles, again, I would like to know if you have any hard numbers on the pace of HV transmission growth. I am familiar with Cembalest’s work. Further, given the extraordinarily slow growth in HV transmission, a plan to simply double the current pace won’t be sufficient. My data shows an average of 1,700 miles per year of 230 kV and above have been built since 2008. That means doubling the mileage of the U.S. HV-grid (240 kV and above) which now extends about 240,000  miles will take roughly 140 years. If you have a different set of numbers on the historical growth of HV mileage, I’d like to see them. Regarding community acceptance, I will reiterate that wind and solar are so unpopular in New York that the state is seeking to override local zoning. There’s no new wind being built in California or Vermont. And a week ago, Inventory sued another small municipality to force it to take a wind project it doesn’t want.

NextEra just lost a court case in Kansas over a wind project. You want me to consider the successes in siting new renewables, but I don’t believe you understand the depth and breadth of the opposition to wind and solar or are acknowledging the hardball tactics that NextEra, Invenergy and others are using against small town America.

JJ: To clarify: REPEAT project finds we need to double the pace of transmission expansion, not double the total grid. We report our analysis in terms of GW-miles as our metric, not just miles, since we’re talking about transfer capacity in addition to mileage. A GW-mile is the capacity to transmit 1 GW over 1 mile. We estimate about a 25% expansion in grid capacity by 2030 (relative to an estimated 2020 total capacity at 200 kV and above of ~200,000 GW-miles across the continental US), which is about on par with the pace of overall electricity demand growth we see in our results.

Beyond that, I’m not sure what you’re trying to convince me of. I am not at all contesting the challenges that individual projects can face. You don’t have to convince me of that. I have been at this a long time and I know the realities out there. But neither are you going to convince me that building wind and solar is impossible when we keep building more and more. Or that we can’t possibly expand the grid at 2% per year, when that’s what we did from the late 1970s through the early 2000s (the last time demand for electricity was steadily expanding).

So the question is how fast can we ultimately build? That’s what I was emphasizing on the podcast interview too, and in so many of my public remarks on the impact of the Inflation Reduction Act. There I can’t know the answer with certainty, and I look forward to finding out. What REPEAT Project modeling shows us is the pace and scale that makes economic sense to build at. When I look at those results, I find them to be ambitious but I don’t find them to be outside the realm of possibility, especially when we’ve aligned all of the financial incentives behind overcoming barriers to this pace of deployment. You are entitled to a different opinion of course.

Our work is also meant to focus attention on the non-financial barriers that have to be overcome to realize this potential, including, for example, reforms to transmission planning, siting, permitting, cost allocation. We released a report last week for example summarizing additional modeling on the impact of constrained transmission expansion on the outcomes under IRA, to provide context for contemporary discussions about permitting reform and rulemakings at FERC.

RB: Your map is quite detailed and shows new HV transmission lines. How many miles of new lines will be required for the roughly 600 GW of new renewable capacity included in your model?

JJ: As mentioned above, we have been reporting transmission results in terms of GW-miles of capacity, since 100 miles of a 165 kV line is not the same as 100 miles of 500 kV. The total is ~50,000 GW-miles of additional transmission through 2030, an increase of roughly 25% over estimated 2020 total transmission capacity of ~200,000 GW-miles.

RB: About how much land area will be required for all the new wind that is included in the model? About how much land area is needed for the new solar in the model?

JJ: From 2023-2030, our modeling of IRA identifies about 260 GW of new wind capacity and 550 GW of new utility-scale solar PV capacity (for total installed capacity of ~400 GW of wind and ~630 GW of utility solar PV at end of 2030). Given the estimated average power densities we derived for the Net-Zero America study (see p. 104), that amounts to a total spatial extent (e.g. the total boundaries of the wind and solar farms) of 37,000 square miles for wind farms and 4,700 square miles for solar PV. That’s roughly the area of Tennessee, so no joke, or 15% of the area of Texas. The direct land area occupied by facilities is much smaller (about 1% of the spatial extent for wind and 91% for solar), or 370 square miles for wind and 4,300 square miles for solar. So the land directly occupied by wind turbines and solar panels and associated roads, substations, etc. is about half the area of New Jersey. Still, we have a big country, and there’s lots of different places we could deploy those resources. The question is: which communities will want the investment, jobs, and tax revenues associated with these projects, and which will see them as a blight on their community? This next phase of the challenge rests squarely on how wind, solar and transmission development proceeds, how communities are given voice in this process, and how the benefits of clean energy investment are distributed across affected populations. There’s much work left to be done…

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