2011 was a boom year for renewable energy in the United States. According to the SEIA, the solar industry alone installed a record 1,855 megawatts of PV in 2011; double the previous year’s record of 887 megawatts. Wind’s success must also be noted growing 31% with 6.8 gigawatts connected to the grid from new turbines.
These installation numbers aren’t necessarily indicative of the future of renewable energy, however. In reality, there aren’t enough new renewable projects being contracted to keep pace with the installation progress we’re seeing now. In fact, the construction we’re seeing today is a result of power purchase agreements (PPAs) signed several years ago (as it takes between two and five years to complete them). Now the flow of new PPAs being signed has slowed dramatically, and new renewable projects will inevitably crawl to a halt in the next half of the decade.
There are a few reasons this is happening, one notable one being this is an election year and no one wants to appear too extreme (though the thought of Newt Gingrich getting extreme on renewable energy makes me laugh out loud). But the huge obstacle renewable energy is facing right now is natural gas and the unnaturally low prices fracking has been able to achieve. Even though the cost of solar and wind has dropped (and is the lowest it’s ever been), historically low natural gas prices make it appear as though the gap between fossil fuels and renewables is much larger than it actually is.
Policy makers don’t want to choose anything other than gas that could increase costs to rate payers, putting renewable energy advocates in a bit of a predicament–vehemently opposing natural gas in favor of renewables makes it seem like they support increased costs for the rate payers.
An article in Forbes suggests proponents for renewables should embrace natural gas because of its affordability and its clean(ish) nature (its less polluting than coal) instead of trying to argue against it. Though I think this is the route energy will ultimately take, I don’t think it’s the best course of action.
Natural gas costs aren’t sustainable, and they will inevitably rise. Relying on natural gas only perpetuates our society’s fossil fuel driven mind set and won’t help to drive down the costs of renewable energy to something rate payers across the board find attractive.
We need to achieve a clean source of energy that’s sustainable in terms of both supply and cost. Renewable energy contracts and power purchase agreements need to pick up speed lest our clean energy future gets muddled by natural gas.