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.

Will Congress Give Renewable Energy The Support It Needs?

Between innovative technologies and years of subsidies, the cost of wind and solar power has dropped dramatically–almost to the point where these industries are close to delivering cleaner electricity at prices competitive to fossil fuel generated power.

It’s important to note, though the renewable energy industry is close to offering competitive rates, they’re not there yet and wind and solar companies are telling congress they can’t be truly competitive without a few more years of government support. With Obama giving their efforts a boost by proposing a package of tax credits for renewable power and manufacturers, you would think we’d be well on our way to aiding these industries.

Unfortunately, there is little enthusiasm for renewable energy subsidies in Washington. Concerns about the overall deficit and tax payer’s losses on the Solyndra debacle have marred images of pouring billions into the renewable energy industry.

The wind and solar industries argue that there is less risk with the tax breaks they are seeking–tax credits wouldn’t be handed out willy nilly, but taken only by businesses that are already up and running–leaving taxpayers less likely being stuck subsidizing a drowning company. These tax breaks would create jobs while increasing domestically produced, clean energy. The renewable energy industry isn’t hiding the fact without new breaks, they will be forced to scale back production and eliminate jobs in an already starved economy.

Federal incentives have helped renewable energy use to almost double, said Obama while at Buckley Air Force Base in Colorado in an effort to support clean energy projects as a way to help foster energy independence and employment. A one year extension of the 1603 tax grant (a program which allows renewable energy companies to get 30% of the cost of a new project back as a cash grant once completed), would create 37,000 solar jobs in 2012, according to EuPD Research.

Lobbyists for both the wind and solar industry are pushing for tax breaks to be passed quickly, and are trying to tack on an extension of the payroll tax cut as well (taxes paid by employees and self employed lowered from 6.2% to 4.2%), as it is coming to an end in February.

Of course it’s all up in the air what Congress will actually decide. It may end up that Republicans will use the recently postponed Keystone XL oil pipeline as a bargaining chip to approve the renewable energy credits. Which would be crafty, and most likely not appreciated by the renewable energy sector and environmentalists alike, but that’s a different story.

As it is, oil’s been subsidized for almost a century, getting $41 billion annually, with renewables ranging about $6 billion–and trust me that has not been going on for a century. It’s time to stop sinking money into a fuel supply that’s diminishing, and focus on tax breaks to increase renewable energy that will lessen our foreign fuel dependence, bring manufacturing back to the states, create jobs, and focus on getting energy from a source that’s not environmentally destructive.

Though support for subsidies is dwindling, it’s important that energy tax breaks be granted to wind and solar companies to even the playing field between renewable energy and fossil fuels. Until it is, renewable energy won’t make any headway.

Feldheim Leading The Third Industrial Revolution

Have you ever heard of Feldheim, Germany? I hadn’t til this morning. But this tiny village nestled in rural eastern Germany is the site of a revolution. Eyes from the U.S. to Japan are watching to see if Germany’s dream of having a country powered entirely by renewable energy can become a reality. Feldheim’s certainly got the hang of it, as their village of 145 residents runs solely on solar, wind, and biogas.

As it is, Germany has the most ambitious renewable energy goals with legislation passed in June to have the country produce a third of its power from renewables within the decade, and 80% by 2050. And unlike some countries, their goals are coming to fruition: Germany passed the 20% mark of renewable generated power–seems like they’re well on their way to getting to 1/3 in the next ten years–that’s more than can be said for some countries and their renewable energy “goals”.

Expanding renewables involves a cocktail of resources from government subsidies, investment incentives, and a willingness from taxpayers. Taxpayers who help shoulder the burden support research, investment, and subsidize the production and consumption of renewable energy. This allows people who have invested in renewable energy to sell energy back to the grid for above market prices, and they can break even. Some critics say this is unfair to the taxpayer, which is why a precious balance must be maintained between the federal government and the private sectors, to avoid having the task of expanding renewables placed solely on the taxpayer’s dollars. As Germany readily realizes, they’ll have to shell out billions of dollars to update its grid and infrastructure.

In addition to a cocktail of financial support, a mixture of actual renewable energy sources is used in Feldheim (solar, wind, and biogas) to not only provide electricity, but jobs. No one in Feldheim is unemployed, compared to neighboring villages which have up to 30% unemployment, and our own California which has tapered its unemployment rate to about 11.3% according to the Employment Development Department.

Creating employment is key in driving the transformation to renewable energy. The creation of jobs will encourage investment and innovation from industries and that in itself will help boost employment. Germany has already employed 370,000 people (doubled from 2004) and is projecting solid growth in the renewable energy sector in the next decade. According to the Department of Energy, the U.S. in comparison has about 100,000 people working in the renewable energy field.

Germany’s field is ripe for the picking as far as renewable energy expansion and should be looked to as an example to strive towards. Germany has been able to achieve what seems impossible in most places: cooperation between the industrial sector, political policies, and (perhaps most importantly) a heightened sense of ecological sustainability within the general public. Germany could be the first country to initiate what’s been termed “The Third Industrial Revolution”; the ability for countries to move away from fossil-fuel based societies towards renewable energies and still maintain growth and profitability.

Even though Germany as a whole hasn’t reached its goals yet, the country, the industries, people like the residents of Feldheim, are taking pointed steps to leading the way in the renewable energy revolution. It seems wise that carbon heavy countries like the US should emulate their strategies.

Renewable Energy Jobs For Returning Vets

Wind turbines

Finding a job is difficult enough in this tough economic climate without the added stresses of having just returned from tours in Iraq or Afghanistan. For vets returning to the US, green jobs may be the best solution to finding employment as well as applying technical skills acquired while they served.

While the overall unemployment rate in October hovered around 9%, the unemployment rate for vets was 12.1%, with veterans age 18-24 with a 30.4% unemployment rate, and the White House estimates an additions 1 million service members to return to civilian life by 2016–according to an article posted in the Associated Press.

It is challenging for service members to find employment after returning to civilian life becuase there is a lack of understanding between veterans and potential employers, says Lt. Guy Zierk in the AP article. Employers may not grasp that a task in the military, for instance a squad leader, can translate into an actual job position–entry-level management. It’s equally difficult for veterans to translate their skills into the civilian workforce and convey to an employer they possess the skills for the job.

Thankfully, the renewable energy sector is growing fast. The manufacturing and maintenance of wind turbines or solar arrays require similar skills that service members learn in the military, making green jobs a potentially good fit for a lot of returning vets. There is a pilot program, Troops to Energy Jobs,  which provides training and credentials to returning veterans, as well as college credits for their military training. Knowles Solar is also proud to say our panel manufacturer, SolarWorld, was one of the 70 employers at the Hiring Our Heroes job fair to support meaningful jobs for returning vets.

The solar and wind industry could be a great outlet for returning veterans struggling to find employment and help aid their transition into–not only the civilian workforce–but civilian life as a whole.

Ben Noland working on solar panel installation

Photo Credit: Knowles Solar Employee, and The Associated Press