Through the Looking Glass: Our Renewable Energy Future

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.

Renewable Energy Fact Sheet

It’s fairly easy to make renewable energy look like a pipe dream, and misguided attacks on clean energy is doing just that: making renewables look too costly, too sporadic; not merited because it’s not competitive with fossil fuels, or that it won’t create jobs.

These petty strikes against the renewable energy industry don’t even remotely mesh with what we know is true about clean energy, and Think Progress recently published an article pointing out what you really need to know about the value of renewable energy.

1. Clean energy is competitive with other types of energy: Renewable energy is affordable now. Not tomorrow, not next year. Now. Even with the price of natural gas being inordinately low, these cheap prices are unsustainable, like any nonrenewable resource,  supplies will dwindle, and prices will rise. But renewable is staying competitive: with the help of bigger turbines, and increased reliability, some wind developers are signing power-purchase agreements in the 3 cents a kilowatt-hour range, which is far cheaper than any other new power source. The same industry maturity is occurring in solar with California solar developers signing contracts for power costing less than that of a natural gas plant.

2. Clean energy creates more jobs than fossil fuels: Renewable energy job creation outstrips fossil fuels 3 to 1. Not only does the renewable energy sector create more jobs, they create better jobs: twice as many medium to high credentialed jobs are being created in the clean energy economy with wages being about 13% higher, and almost half of these jobs employ workers with less than a four year college degree. Aside from these facts, the clean energy industry is actually growing by a rate of 8.3% which is more than can be said about the overall economy.

3. Clean energy improves grid reliability: Yes, it’s true that if the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining then power isn’t going to be generated. But, that doesn’t mean that renewable energy isn’t a viable option for large scale power production. For instance, predictability of wind power would be easier to manage if there was more of it and energy could be delivered without interruption to the grid. Any additional costs for backup generation would be small (less than 10%) and would have little to no effect on consumer power costs.

4. Fossil Fuels have gotten 75 times more subsidies than clean energy: From 1994-2009 the fossil fuel industry received $446.96 billion in subsidies where as in that same time frame renewable energy received $5.93 billion. A study showed that in the early years of the fossil fuel industry, oil and gas producers received federal subsidies making up one half of a percent of the budget. This amount may seem small, but compare that with the one tenth of a percent of federal spending that’s used for renewables. If more subsidies were dedicated to renewable energy instead of the fossil fuel industry, clean energy would become even more cost effective than it is now.

Renewable energy could be an engine for economic growth and a pathway into a sustainable future, but false information that undervalues its potential could really set up road blocks. It’s important to realize the merit behind renewable energy, not only is it affordable and cost effective, but we can make it reliable on a large scale while creating jobs and with more investments from the federal government, we can more forward into a clean energy future.

The Lesser of Two Evils

I’m always torn between what I think should happen, and what I think could actually work. It’s a tricky situation to be in as a part of the solar industry, and as a personal advocate for the environment.

In reading articles on reactions to Obama’s State of the Union Address (specifically one in the Huffington Post) I find once more, I’m torn.

President Obama clearly laid out his energy agenda in Tuesday’s SOTU Address, “We don’t have to choose between our environment and our economy,” he said, setting the tone for his energy and environmental plans.

By planning to expand domestic drilling, Obama is aiming to keep energy production and jobs at home, and emphasized the importance of breaking the U.S.’s dependence on foreign oil. Though he acknowledged that we only have 2% of the world’s oil reserves, and we need an “all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy”, I’m concerned that we could potentially be implementing a policy that leaves us stuck between a rock and a hard place.

As Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council said, “Home-grown sources of energy certainly are preferable to imports, especially from unstable regions of the world.”

Expanding domestic drilling may indeed be the lesser of two evils, as we don’t have a system set up to run, even partially, on renewables. But by continuing to use natural gas as a main source of fuel, we may be perpetuating the same fossil fuel mindset we’ve held for the past century, instead of concentrating on expanding clean energy that we can use indefinitely.

And though I’m sure Obama meant it in a reassuring manner, his statement that we have enough natural gas to last American’s for almost one hundred years, isn’t exactly comforting to me. Are we going to be dependent on natural gas for the next one hundred years until every last drop has been put to use in our energy intensive society? Even in one hundred years, will we have implemented green energy on a large enough scale that we can survive without having to return to the dark ages when we couldn’t have every light on in the house and each plug occupied powering our X-boxes, laptops, cell phones, iPods, tables, and menagerie of other devices?

Though I remain torn, I am happy with this statement Obama made. I hope sets the actual path our energy policy will take:

“We have subsidized oil companies for a century. That’s long enough,” Obama said. “It’s time to end the taxpayer giveaways to an industy that’s rarely been more profitable, and double-down on a clean energy industry that’s never been more promising. Pass clean energy tax credits and create these new jobs.” 




As Regulations Grow…Freedoms Die. In Wyoming At Least.

As Regulation Grow Freedoms Die

Pavillion is a small town (165, according to the 2000 census) located in west-central Wyoming, and late last week the US EPA found synthetic chemicals used in hydraulic-fracturing in two deep water-monitoring wells near a gas field outside the town.

There has been a lot of debate circling hydraulic-fracturing–or fracking–from the earthquakes in Oklahoma, to the most recent discussions to chemicals penetrating drinking-water aquifers.

Fracking allows the US to get about one-third more natural gas from underground stores. It encompasses pumping millions of gallons of a pressurized mixture of chemically treated water and sand underground to fracture rock and let trapped gas vapor flow, thus increasing extraction rates.

With the EPA’s report, environmentalist groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council, are now pushing for stronger regulation…sorry freedoms.

Though the above photograph wasn’t taken in Pavillion (it was taken in a town about 2 1/2 hours away in Casper, Wyoming, where I had the pleasure of visiting last September) I’m sure Pavillion’s largest natural gas producer (Encana) hold the same, if not similar sentiments, when it comes to regulations.

I know the residents don’t, as they were the ones who asked the EPA to address water quality issues in the first place and have had to use outside drinking water sources for drinking and cooking.

Although my secret ambition is to be Erin Brockovich and expose  corporate negligence, pollution, extortion…what have you…I’ll try to abstain. But it’s difficult, very difficult indeed, when Doug Hock, spokesperson for Encana, responds to the EPA report by saying since the EPA uses terms like “likely”, it means the report isn’t definitive. Hock continues by saying EPA might be the culprit behind the well contamination when they conducted sampling.

An industry representative for Chesapeake Energy Corp, Aubrey McClendon, goes on to say, “Try not to be the 51st person to write a story about the alleged contamination of somebody’s water well from fracking.” Well Aubrey, I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume if there are so many reports of contamination, no one’s having smoke blown up their well…so to speak. If fracking is in the neighborhood, there might be a very good chance aquifers and wells are contaminated because of it.

As it is, gas companies don’t need to disclose the chemicals used in fracking. By his own admission, Hock said he didn’t know if the chemicals found were used by his company. Now I don’t know what’s worse, a company not having to disclose the chemicals being used in close proximity to drinking water sources, or the fact the spokesperson “doesn’t know” what chemicals said company uses whilst fracking.

The EPA does admit there could be a variety of reason contamination leaked into wells–faulty construction from the beginning, gaps in the rock, fractures created by drilling–but the evidence still stands, petroleum hydrocarbons were present in the water at levels well above acceptable drinking water standard.

Whichever way you look at it, regulations need to be stronger, because if drinking water contamination is present in Wyoming fracking sites, the chances of it being elsewhere is also likely.

But thanks to Encana, “likely” isn’t definitive enough of an answer to claim responsibility.