Of course, there’s no contesting that
the appointments of former Texas Gov.
Rick Perry as Department of Energy
(DOE) secretary and Oklahoma attorney
general Scott Pruitt as Environmental
Protection Agency administrator have
concerned renewable-energy advocates.
Both men have argued for the abolition of
their respective departments, the policies
of which have helped foster tremendous
growth in solar- and wind-energy installations over the last eight years. Costs for
both technologies have fallen precipitously
during that time, though, leading the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC),
among others, to remain bullish on the
future of renewably generated electricity.
“We think the economics are mov-
ing utilities on their way toward clean
energy and energy efficiency, which
have expanded significantly in the past
decade or so,” said Noah Long, director
of NRDC’s Western Energy Project. “We
don’t expect those trends to change over
the next administration.”
The NRDC documented these trends
in its fourth annual energy report, “Accel-
erating into a Clean Energy Future.”
Among the highlights are the facts that
coal accounted for only one-third of
U.S. electricity generation in 2016, while
renewables (including hydroelectric
power and geothermal resources) rose to
12 percent of total generation. Additionally,
efficiency gains over the last decade have
enabled the U.S. gross domestic product to
grow by 30 percent since 2000, while total
energy consumption has remained flat.
“The costs of solar have come down
60 to 80 percent,” Long said, meaning
new solar capacity is less expensive than
traditional fossil-fuel generating plants,
Federal tax credits have provided a
major stimulus for wind and solar devel-
opers and were extended in late 2015.
Solar investment tax credits covering
residential, commercial and utility-scale
installations will continue at 30 percent
through 2019 and phase down through
2022, dropping out entirely for residential
projects and remaining at a permanent
10 percent for large-scale plants. The 2. 3
cents per kilowatt-hour production tax
credit for wind began dropping by 20
percent per year on Jan. 1, and it expires
at the end of 2019.
These credits weren’t expected to be
renewed, regardless of the 2016 election’s
results. Also, while the incentives have
been important to driving development
of renewables, green-energy optimists
also note the significant role states play
in furthering wind and solar adoption.
For example, 29 states now have
renewable portfolio standards requiring a
steadily increasing proportion of electricity generated in those states to be produced
by renewable means, said Robbie Orvis,
policy director for the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Energy Innovations.
Some of the strictest standards don’t
include nuclear or hydroelectric power.
Also fast approaching the importance
of state-driven initiatives is the influence
corporate energy buyers have in boosting
the economies of scale required to force
renewable pricing down even further.
Google, for example, promises that it
will directly purchase enough wind- and
solar-generated electricity to offset its
global demand by the end of 2017. The
Business Renewables Initiative—led by
Rocky Mountain Institute to help drive
such purchases—says its 168 member
companies (including Google) are responsible for renewable-energy deals totaling
5,889 megawatts of capacity.
The increasing cost-competitiveness
of renewable energy likely won’t be lost
on Perry’s DOE, regardless of his previously stated desire to eliminate the
department itself. (In fact, he recently
said he regrets those previous statements.) His home state, where electricity
markets are at their freest, also is home
to some of the most aggressive wind and
solar development in the United States.
“[Perry is] from Texas, which is where
wind has been booming,” Orvis said.
In addition, the Electric Reliability
Council of Texas, which manages the
state’s transmission system, now has connection requests totaling 26 gigawatts
(GW) of wind and 12 GW of solar capacity before it that are expected to come
online between now and 2020.
“That’s a market based purely on economics,” Orvis said.
President Trump’s other priorities
could drive down the demand for coal, as
well, no matter his campaign promises.
“Trump has said he wants to make it
easier [for hydraulic fracturing],” Orvis
said. The process, commonly known as
“fracking,” has driven down the cost of
coal’s leading competitor, natural gas, and
made the coal industry even less financially viable.
“A lot of utilities already are seeing
the future as being more natural gas and
renewables and less coal,” Orvis said.
Back to Reality
Have reports of coal’s return been greatly exaggerated?
DURING HIS PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN, Donald Trump said he would bring
coal back to prominence in the United States’ energy mix, a pledge many coal-state
residents took with them to the voting booth. Now, some are wondering if recent
renewable-energy gains could be rolled back in the administration’s push to boost
coal’s fortunes. Some environmentalists and energy-industry observers say that seems
unlikely because wind and solar appear to have electricity markets in their favor.
ROSS is a freelance writer and editor who has covered building and energy technologies
for a range of industry publications and websites for more than 25 years. He specializes in
building and energy technologies, along with electric-utility business issues. Contact him at
email@example.com. I S T