Why Renewable Energy Growth is Unstoppable

When Donald Trump was elected president, the future of renewable energy felt more uncertain than ever. However, five days after inauguration, the largest power purchase agreement in American history for offshore wind was approved by the Long Island Power Authority in the form of Deepwater Wind’s South Fork plant, which is set to produce roughly the same amount of energy as a nuclear power plant for the state of New York. Still, some believe the question as to whether the fledgling renewable energy industry will catch on depends largely on the energy policies put forth by the Trump administration. Should we give up now? It seems fairly safe to say it is not likely that any policies will emerge from this White House that may overtly benefit renewables with President Trump proclaiming “I have a problem with wind,” supporting major pipelines like DAPL, and promising to bring back coal jobs.

No, we should not give up hope. It is clear that the sustainable energy growth will remain positive, even if not federally backed.  While Washington sees climate change as a partisan issue, Mike Bloomberg told Time (December 28, 2016) “climate change is one issue where cities are willing to take action and clean the air, support building modern infrastructure, save money on energy, protect themselves from extreme weather, and attract new businesses.” As Bloomberg suggests, Deepwater Wind’s South Fork plant is just part of Governor Cuomo’s ambitious plan to reach 50 percent renewable energy by 2030. In addition, foreign nations will encourage competition, business will hedge risk, and consumers stay forward-looking.

Thus, without having to be too optimistic about the current President’s allegiances, one can firmly state that clean energy investment will continue to be on the rise for the following five reasons:

  1. Momentum -- The economic wave of shutting down dirty coal will continue and investments started in the last administration, like Deepwater Wind take years to complete;
  2. Global Competitiveness – as countries like Germany, China, and India continue to invent and invest, the U.S. will need to stay on par in order to thrive in the burgeoning green energy market;
  3. Financial Incentive – no longer is there a need to sacrifice dollars for morality, as there is support extended both federally and locally, and the technology has improved to where the economics speaks for itself;
  4. Corporate Leadership – being green and setting internal renewable energy goals for CSR is no longer just greenwashing as companies are competing to run at lower operating costs to gain recognition; and
  5. Looking toward the Future – President Trump will only be in office for a maximum of 8 years (likely 4 and possibly less, but that is a debate for another blog post) so it is critical to start the inevitable transition sooner rather than later and states are already forging ahead.

For those of you looking to dig deeper, let’s review each of these points in more detail.

Momentum

“Renewables are becoming ever more central to our low-carbon lifestyles, and the record-setting investments in 2015 are further proof of this trend” -- UN Environment Programme Executive Director Achim Steiner (World Economic Forum, April 4, 2016).

In 2015, for the first time, more renewable capacity was created worldwide than conventional fossil-fuel generation. The International Energy Agency projected that renewable energy will continue to grow by 42% globally by 2021. In addition, the Energy Information Administration published that in 2015, 18GW of capacity were retired and more than 80 percent of the capacity was coal-fired. More than 27GW of utility-scale projects were projected to replace it, and much of the new generating hardware is wind and solar, which typically have a capacity factor in the area of 30 percent.

What does all of this mean? This means that three times as many wind and solar projects were put online in 2015, just to replace the coal-fired power plants that were taken offline, and that doesn’t count the extra 9 GW of additional energy brought online. Unsurprisingly, these projects were followed in 2016 by a litany of bankruptcies amongst even the biggest coal companies including the top grossing energy company in American history, Peabody Energy. These transitional steps are near impossible to reverse.

The chart below shows just how much money has been invested over the years globally. The aggregation of the investment only is greater over time. Furthermore, infrastructure projects take years to get off the ground and it is unlikely that projects that have been started will be deterred from completion, or use, simply due to potentially unfavorable national political climate or policies.

We can see that more funding has been put into solar energy in the last five years than in the prior five combined, and there is a clear reduction in investment in biofuels. This interest in solar is because of the affordability of the technology, despite not doing well initially. For perspective, Solyndra, possibly one of the worst examples of a solar technology company, went nearly defunct in 2011. After receiving $535 million dollars in bailout money from the federal government, Solyndra was in the black only three years later in 2014. Thus, albeit a hard market to get off the ground possibly, this investment by the previous administration in supporting the industry will continue to pay off as the country reaps the benefits of the groundwork laid.

Global Competitiveness

“The wealth of a nation is its air, water, soil, forests, minerals, rivers, lakes, oceans, scenic beauty, wildlife habitats and biodiversity… that’s all there is. That’s the whole economy. That’s where all the economic activity and jobs come from. These biological systems are the sustaining wealth of the world.”  – Gaylord Nelson

After the Paris Agreement last November, it is clear that the rest of the world is very interested in making promises to change their behavior and keeping them. All countries are looking to find that balance between mastering economic growth with hitting GHG targets and those that get there first are more energy secure in our world of with scarcer and more expensive resources. Thus, in much of the global economy energy has become a strategic factor to create competitive advantage. The country to corner the market on cleantech could be equivalent to the oil empires of yesteryear, but the race to a competitive advantage lies in almost every sector, including transportation, logistics, manufacturing, building technologies, construction, and engineering. Even the oil-rich Middle East knows the inevitability of this movement as the region tripled its renewable energy investment in 2015.

While the EU is also pulling back after years of generous renewable subsidies, they have interconnectivity and years of progress in their back pocket.  Germany, Spain, and the Czech Republic have all cut back on public funding and, in January 2015, the U.K. slashed subsidies for rooftop solar panels by 87 percent. Yet, as they hoped the industry is thriving as the EU has been the world’s renewable energy powerhouse. The 2001RES-E directive on the promotion of electricity from renewable energy sources constitutes the earliest most significant piece of legislation for renewable electricity in the world. The EU’s interconnectivity gives them a benefit as diverting the power from baseload plants elsewhere when the renewable energy is low has proven to be more cost effective and energy efficient than taking them offline.

Germany, one of the countries that is well positioned in the race for market share, is already gaining clear international lead in some sectors as they have a head start and can leverage competencies in energy and energy efficiency to expand their strong position on world markets. They do this by developing and testing new solutions, improving their energy productivity, pioneering new technologies in places of opportunity in the market. For example, German car-makers and their suppliers are among industry’s worldwide leaders, and those car-makers that adapt successfully can capture around EUR 325 billion total for just having energy-efficient motor systems in 2020.

In terms of overall investment, China is leading the charge towards a renewable future. Their total spent topped $100bn, which accounted for over a third of the total global investment. Other countries also saw significant increases in their green investment from 2014 to 2015. Chile, South Africa and Mexico all saw spending rise by over 100% on the previous year’s total.

If that doesn’t light a fire under the U.S. to remain on the global playing field, nothing will.

Financial Incentive

The reality of the situation is that “no longer is there a trade-off between what you believe in and what you can make money off of” -- Nancy Pfund, a founder and managing partner of DBL Partners, which made early investments in SolarCity and Tesla (New York Times, January 6, 2017)

Another argument as to why there has been so much growth is the large federal renewable energy tax credits afforded to those that make qualifying technological investments. Legislation extending the Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC) was approved by a Republican controlled Congress on December 18th, 2015, extending the 30% Solar Investment Tax Credits for both residential and commercial projects through the end of 2019, and then drops the credit to only 26% in 2020. SEIA cites the extension as the reason that the U.S. will have installed approximately 98 GW of PV and 2 GW of concentrating solar power (CSP) to total 100 GW of solar electric capacity by 2020. This is enough capacity to power more than 20 million homes.

It is widely known that the fossil fuel industry is propped up by subsidies and any (mis)understanding that the renewable energy market couldn’t be successful on its own is only because of the government thumb on the scale tipping it in favor of the competitors. According to David Hochschild, a commissioner with the California Energy Commission, “There is a myth around subsidies, but there is no such thing as an unsubsidized unit of energy.” Still, he continued, “you put subsidies in renewable energy and costs go down to the point where they are not needed any more.”

Source: What Would Jefferson Do?  DBL Investors, September 2011

Source: What Would Jefferson Do? 
DBL Investors, September 2011

Thus, government subsidies may have helped wind and solar get a foothold in global power markets, but economies of scale are the true driver of falling prices. Federal subsidies have provided wind and solar developers with as much as $24 billion from 2008 to 2014, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. "We're in a low-cost-of-oil environment for the foreseeable future," Michael Liebreich, chairman of the advisory board for Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) said during his keynote address at the BNEF Summit in New York in April 2016. "Did that stop renewable energy investment? Not at all." The 12-fold increase in installed capacity over the past decade is known to have helped lower costs at least 10 percent each year.  Based on this math, even without the government help the industry will not be dropping off a cliff.

Many states are even experimenting with a wide range of approaches to incentivize investment, innovation, and installation of renewable energy through creative legal tools in subsidies, tax breaks, and loans. States have the option to adopt many different types of financial incentives, which could be classified as:

  1. income tax incentives (personal and/or corporate; credits or deductions)
  2. cash incentives (e.g., grants, rebates)
  3. sales tax incentives
  4. property tax incentives; or
  5. financing incentives (e.g., favorable loan terms)

DSIRE charts out the options by state and by approach, allowing for easy comparison. Whether you’re a stakeholder, non-profit, or government worker the sheer variety can be overwhelming but it is incredible that so many states are attempting this work and many are learning from others who have been successful in their campaign. 

Corporate LEED-ers

"A few years ago Walmart decided to put solar panels on the roof of the store. You replaced some traditional lightbulbs with LEDs. You made refrigerator cases more efficient. And you even put in a charging station for electric vehicles. More and more companies like Walmart are realizing that wasting less energy isn't just good for the planet, it's good for business. It's good for the bottom line." – Barack Obama (Forbes, November 4, 2015)

Companies both small and large are finding renewable energy investment great for improving their bottom line, bolstering resilience, and gaining reputation. Most companies by now have realized the truth of a resource-constrained world and that to avoid basic existential risk and maintain competitiveness they must use more efficient technology and strive to rely less on water and fossil fuels. The “energy-water-food” nexus hits businesses first as the largest consumers, and smart companies are hedging their reliance as they look out for these risks not only as they see it now but as the situation is due to worsen. The companies that have analyzed and addressed the inefficiencies in their operations will thrive 10-15 years down the line and have received a reputation boost to boot.

Ladership in the corporate world is as important as ever as consumer activists speak with their dollars. Kohl’s envelopes advertise: “Kohl’s is LEED-ing the way with more than 40 million square feet of LEED certified space.” EPA honored Kohl’s in 2016, procured 1.4 billion kilowatt-hours of green power in 2015 through more than 60 long-term solar PPAs, Kohl’s-owned solar systems that generate green power on-site, and by purchasing renewable energy certificates. Kohl’s also installed three new solar trees at its Innovation Center and achieved net-zero emissions for its Scope 2 electricity use through 2015. The giant Walmart, “long time bogeyman of the left,” has also now become the poster child of energy consciousness on a commercial scale. Corporate responsibility and good P.R. go only so far in saving money, but these efforts are far from greenwashing as when you’re Walmart and your energy bill is to the tune of $1 billion per year. Kohls and Starbucks also boast to the tune of being more than 70% carbon free. Were Walmart to follow this approach it could offset its 20-million-ton-per-year carbon dioxide footprint for a mere $200 million.

Now, SolarCity has installed backup Tesla batteries which will help Walmart save even more. Bloom Energy, whose innovative fuel cells called "Bloom boxes," also use a clean electrochemical process to transform natural gas into electricity. Today 42 Walmarts in California have Bloom boxes, saving Walmart 20% compared with grid power and emit around 35% less carbon than large-scale power plants. The company said it planned to be 50% powered by clean and renewable energy sources by 2025.

With all of these innovations getting more and more affordable, there are significant opportunities for utilities and companies to rethink their business model. Every company is producing yearly sustainability reports and as less money spent on inputs, shareholders and officers alike are happy to know this means those dollars are freed up to be spent elsewhere such as growth, infrastructure, or operating costs.

Looking (Naturally) Toward the Future

“The future is green energy, sustainability, renewable energy” – Arnold Schwarzenegger

While right-wing political trends seem to be moving more and more protectionist and reactionary, businesses continue to thrive in a market that has never been more global and must remain responsive to forward-looking foreign countries, bold domestic localities, and conscientious consumers. It may seem a rudimentary argument, but progress is inevitable. 

States and cities, known to be the hotbed of experimentation, are all about the trend toward renewable energy. For example, in the United States, the EPA introduced the Clean Power Plan which went immediately to be contested. The funny thing is, that most of the retrofits the rule would require in order to have facilities comply with the new standards were already being done without the regulation. Before becoming encumbered with the legal woes that will likely be its demise due to unpopularity, the Plan would have set baseline requirements they called BSER (Best System of Emissions Reduction) at actions, technologies and strategies already in widespread use by states and utilities that cumulatively set a baseline result in reductions of carbon pollution. Environmental Defense Fund rightly demonstrate that even without the use of administrative rulemaking, states naturally are pushing for the change EPA strives to achieve. Arkansas, one of the 24 states that joined the litigation against the EPA, has already reached its 2030 compliance goal under the Plan because it already relies so heavily on renewables and natural gas. Michigan’s Attorney General is also fighting the Clean Power Plan in court even though the state “would be largely in compliance” with the rule under expected “business as usual” conditions, according to a recent report by the Electric Power Research Institute.

In conclusion, while partisanship on this issue has been fierce on a federal level, it is clear that the cities, states, businesses, and the globe are set on a path toward an ever-growing green energy future that cannot and will not be altered. Internationally, countries have come together to lookout for our collective resources, address the specter of climate change, and set goals in the hopes of avoiding existential catastrophe. Based on our evidence, rolling back any headway that we have is appears inconceivable to the point that the only real answer is to jump on board the renewable energy and sustainability train.

Republicans of the Bush era were not climate deniers, and Republicans of Nixon’s era formed the EPA and many of the baseline environmental laws like the Clean Air Act that we still use today. Hopefully, the modern Republican will see the light and not be far behind in the energy transition. They good news is, they don’t have to be for the momentum to continue. 


About the Author

Shanna Fricklas is an attorney by trade but uses her legal background to be an advocate for the environment. She has worked on the hill, as a consultant for non-profits, and has been a force to be reckoned with for various campaigns and causes including most recently, with the Pennsylvania Democratic Campaign. She graduated from Lewis & Clark Law School in 2015 with a certification in Environment & Natural Resources Law and co-authored a white paper with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation on business risks associated with the Energy-Water-Food Nexus. She appreciates this opportunity to write for the Sustainabilist on her two favorite subjects, energy and politics, and looks forward to collaborating more in the future.