Utility CEO: new renewables will be cheaper than existing coal plants by the early 2020s

Energy execs sound more like wild-eyed hippies every day.

It is difficult to exaggerate just what a sea change has taken place in the discussion of renewable energy in recent years.

Oldsters like me remember when the idea that (unsubsidized) renewable energy would be able to compete directly with fossil fuels was downright utopian. As late as the early 2000s, people were debating whether it would happen this century, or at all.

But the extraordinary progress of renewables in the past two decades has moved that hoped-for future closer and closer. And now, unbelievably, it is right on our doorstep.

It’s one thing for advocates or energy analysts to say that, of course. It’s something else to hear it coming out of the mouths of energy executives. But these days, residents of the C-suite are discussing renewable energy in terms that would have made hippies blush a decade ago.

The latest is Jim Robo, CEO of NextEra Energy, a giant energy company with subsidiaries that include Florida Power & Light (America’s third-largest utility, with 4.8 million customers) and NextEra Energy Resources, which boasts of being “the world’s largest generator of renewable energy from the wind and sun.”

On a Q4 earnings conference call on Friday, Robo predicted that by the early 2020s, it will be cheaper to build new renewables than to continue running existing coal and nuclear plants. That’s … crazy.

This wasn’t some aspirational post on the company blog, either; it was a call with investors, to whom Robo is legally beholden. And it comes on the heels of other mind-boggling news from the utility sector, like a solicitation for energy bids in Colorado that turned up renewables+storage projects that will come within striking distance of existing coal plants by the early 2020s.

Let’s take a look at the startling numbers Robo mentioned and then dig a little deeper into his comments.

New wind and solar will be cheaper than existing coal and nuclear by the early 2020s

First, the headline numbers. Here are the costs Robo anticipates “early in the next decade”:

  • Unsubsidized new wind: 2.0-2.5 cents per kilowatt-hour
  • Unsubsidized new solar: 3.0-4.0 cents per kilowatt-hour
  • Variable operating costs of existing coal or nuclear plants: 3.5-5.0 cents per kilowatt-hour

If those predictions hold up, it is game over for coal (and nuclear, unless it gets support based on its low carbon emissions, as in New York). No one will ever build another coal plant in America, and the ones still running would likely shut down sooner than scheduled.

Power Plant, south of TampaAndrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images
Smoke ’em while you got ’em.

Two things fuel Robo’s optimism.

First, Congress did not mess with the federal tax credits for renewables (the production tax credit and investment tax credit), which were scheduled in 2015 to phase out over five years. With the PTC and ITC currently in place, “wind is the cheapest form of energy at 1.2-1.8 cents per kilowatt hour at high wind sites while solar continues to be priced at a discount to other forms of generation at 2.5-3.5 cents per kilowatt hour.”

Second, ongoing declines in the cost of renewables ensure that they will remain competitive even as subsidies fade out. Wind turbines are getting taller, their blades wider, the intelligence that calibrates them more sophisticated — even as they’re getting cheaper. “Over the past year, we’ve seen an approximate 30 percent reduction in turbine costs,” Robo said. “Through the end of the decade, we expect another 10 percent decline per year on average.”

NextEra thinks it will mostly avoid damage from Trump’s recent solar tariff. Most of its panels through 2020 are already purchased or contracted, and “we expect that by 2020, as the tariff steps down, the market will have adjusted to these new dynamics.”

A final intriguing note: Robo says the company is hard at work on combining renewables with storage. “We recently submitted a bid at a very competitive price for a combined wind, solar, and battery storage product,” he said, “that is able to provide an around-the-clock, nearly firm, shaped product specifically designed to meet the customers’ needs.”

Variable wind and solar are not a one-to-one replacement for “firm” capacity that can be dispatched at will (fossil fuel, hydro, and nuclear plants, mostly). But if renewables can hook up with storage to become a “nearly firm, shaped product,” they can start competing more directly with fossil fuels. They will be able to bid into energy markets as firm capacity, not just energy. Especially if costs keep coming down, that will put them head to head against natural gas — renewables’ next big target.

All told, Robo summarized, “we continue to be in the best renewables environment in our history.”

The only thing more powerful than partisanship in the US is money

Robo is not a climate change campaigner — climate was not mentioned in the call. And utility executives are not exactly known for their political liberalism. (NextEra gave $1 million to a Super PAC supporting Jeb Bush in 2015.)

But there is a lot of money to be made on renewables, and in America, when there’s money to be made, political ideology takes a back seat.

It’s possible to quibble with Robo’s exact numbers. It’s possible to disagree over exactly how fast renewables will be able to push out coal — and then, fortified by storage, push out natural gas — even after they get cheaper. (There are still all sorts of regulatory, financing, and cultural barriers.)

But there’s no arguing that the process is underway, much sooner and much faster than the most optimistic advocates would have dared hope at the turn of the century.

And if these are the numbers industry expects for the 2020s, what of the 2030s? The 2040s? We are perched at the edge of a new world.