I have a confession. As a strong citizen proponent of renewable energy, I admit that I have been naïve.
On my journey of understanding what can be done to promote the use of clean energy, I’ve learned two things.
The first is that the messaging is simple and clear. Renewable energy is clean, healthy and free. It increases our energy independence, our security, and provides good jobs. As a result, Americans largely favor renewable energy by a factor of three to one, despite the attacks on it by utilities, fossil fuel companies and climate deniers.
The second thing I’ve learned is that renewable energy is more complicated than meets the eye.
Why is this important? It’s not if you are the general public. But if you belong to any environmental organization, or you serve on any committee in these organizations that promotes renewable energy, or any industry group, then it’s very important.
Because, if you are interested in the goal of more renewable energy, it is not sufficient to simply advocate for its support in general. Cheerleading only goes so far. It is necessary to make sure public policy supports all the parts of renewable energy that drive its adoption. The whole is the sum of it’s parts.
If citizen advocates and citizen experts fail to do this, then the attacks on renewable energy by fossil fuel companies will succeed. Again, because renewable energy is the product of it’s parts, one must only attack any of the weakest links to be effective at limiting renewable energy. For example, how can renewable energy succeed if there are no good sources of financing?
What are the seven critical areas for renewable energy and the challenges we face in each that deserve our more detailed attention? Here’s my cut.
Renewable Energy Categories:
Technology is the basis for many of the advancements in renewable energy including cost reduction. But consider that there are many issues still to be resolved. Reliable supply is an example. While storage is a potential solution, improvements need to be made. Cuts to public funding of research affect energy progress. Cuts are something the current administration is advocating, though congress has resisted. Continued research and funding is essential to our long term competitive energy position.
Cost have come down drastically for solar and wind energy. They are approaching cost parity with natural gas peaker plants and are lower than coal in many cases. There is the naïve idea among environmentalists and renewable energy proponents that the race is won. That renewable energy will succeed because of costs alone. But challenges remain. Increases in tariffs on solar, steel and aluminum add unnecessarily to costs. So do the elimination or unpredictability of subsidies and tax policy.
Without good sources of finance, no one will build renewable energy plants of any size. It may turn out that inflation has a bigger impact than tariffs on the financing of renewable energy. Again, the uncertainty around subsidy and tax policy during the recent tax bill slowed and killed many financing options. The result was postponed or abandoned projects.
Wind and solar energy need to be transported from areas of generation to areas of consumption. China is investing $40B in UHV transmission over the next four years. By contrast, the US grid is piece meal, fractured and in many cases obsolete. As a matter of national security it needs to be upgraded. Local opposition to transmission due to misinformation is also an obstacle. We need a national energy policy that includes renewables and transmission.
Electrons are fungible. We buy and sell them every second. Partly because the US grid is operated by dozens of different utilities and broken into several areas. Partly because there is no overall demand plan across the country. So we build extra capacity in order to keep the lights on. Trade occurs between utilities, and between communities and private citizens and utilities. Opposition to net metering is occurring across each state. Purchase of RECs is increasing as cities attempt to move to 100% clean energy. While trade is regulated, it may be one of the areas that could be modernized and an area for increased efficiency.
Because we can not choose our electricity suppliers, we have public regulation in the form of state utility commissions. We also have state legislatures that weigh in on energy policy, whether it is wind set backs, nuclear subsidies, renewable energy goals, net metering, or permitting oil and gas pipelines. We have one political party that claims we have too many regulations and is attempting to bypass them through executive edict, whether it is the give away of public lands, or bail outs for fossil fuels or slowing renewable energy growth. Policy, legislation and regulation can provide both impediments and incentives to more renewable energy.
- Opposition and Political Lobbying
There are over 1700 fossil fuel lobbyists in congress compared to a dozen for renewable energy. They spend around $2B in order to get $38B in subsidies and regulations favoring fossil fuels. Local utility lobbying of state public utility commissions is outrageous. As an example, lobbyists spent $500,000 influencing the five Minnesota PUC members in 2016. Add to this the spending by fossil fuel companies to obstruct and slow the growth of renewable energy at the state legislative level and we have a real problem.
Renewable energy advocates will need to begin to tackle public policy, legislation and funding in each of these areas. Today many advocates are often reactive to public utilities commissions, legislatures and to fossil fuel companies. This is not a successful tactic. Being proactive and providing the right messaging in each area will be key. So will the coordinated support of environmental and renewable energy organizations.
We Are All Connected!
L. Hobart Stocking
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