Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Aim High, Aim Local, and Aim to Please: One Renewable Energy Advocate’s 2017 New Year’s Resolutions

By Andrea Lang Clifford, Policy Analyst
Credit: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

As renewable energy advocates, we should be excited about 2017's potential for advancing the transition to green energy. It is easy to get bogged down in all the discussion of 2016 as “the worst year ever” and to lament the rollbacks of progressive climate policy likely to occur under President Trump and a Republican Congress in the coming years. However, 2016 was replete with good news for renewable energy that advocates can harness moving forward. As I was personally reflecting on 2016 over the holidays, I settled on three New Year’s resolutions that I hope other renewable energy advocates will find both helpful and encouraging.

1.     Aim High: 100% Renewable Energy is a Reasonable and Attainable Goal

The Green Energy Institute’s mission (and mine) is to support a transition to a 100% renewable energy system, a goal which is both reasonable and attainable. Indeed, several countries actually achieved 100% renewable energy in 2016 for periods of time, illustrating that the goal is within reach. Portugal, for example, ran on 100% renewable electricity for four straight days this past summer, and Germany came very close to doing the same for short periods of time. Costa Rica performed even better, as it ran its electric grid on 98% renewable energy for all of 2016 and reached 100% renewable energy for three-quarters of the year.

Of course, these countries have different needs and different resources than the U.S., but their achievements are milestones on the path to 100% renewable energy that illustrate its attainability. While many states in the U.S. have set mandates for renewable energy procurement, Hawaii is so far the only state to set its renewable energy mandate as high as 100%. If we as advocates fail to set our sights high, we will never have the impetus to overcome the remaining barriers to achieve a 100% renewable energy system.

2.     Aim Local: Advance Well-Designed State and Local Climate Policies 

There is tremendous opportunity to drive the energy transition at the local level. While the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan stalled in the courts, many state and local governments made efforts in 2016 to combat greenhouse gas emissions and increase renewable energy deployment. For example, many states passed new legislation to increase renewable portfolio standards, commit to a certain percentage of greenhouse gas emission reductions, or incentivize renewable energy deployment.

At the same time, cities also played an active role in combatting climate change last year. Action at the city level is particularly important because, despite occupying only 2% of the world’s land, cities contribute 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. In 2016, San Diego committed in its climate action plan to run on 100% renewable energy and cut greenhouse gas emissions 50% by 2035. Likewise, in the heart of conservative Utah, Salt Lake City has committed to 100% renewable energy by 2032 and an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2040. While the incoming administration seems poised to stall federal efforts to address climate change, American cities are taking action into their own hands; following the election of Donald Trump, 51 American mayors signed an open letter asking for the federal government’s support in fighting climate change and committing to forge ahead even in the absence of such support.

In 2017, facing a federal government friendly to fossil fuels and skeptical of climate change, local action will be more important than ever. Recent state and local progress on climate policy illustrates the potential for renewable advocates to make real gains in spite of federal inaction. Renewable advocates should harness this energy moving forward and ensure that new state and local policies are well designed to achieve meaningful change. 

3.     Aim to Please: Focus on Economic Arguments for Renewable Energy

A number of reports issued in 2016 help bolster the argument that renewable energy investment is good for the economy. For example, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) issued a report showing that U.S. employment in the solar industry grew 12 times faster than overall job growth in the country, employing more than 200,000 people. For the first time, the solar industry employs more Americans than the coal mining or oil and gas extraction industries combined. Overall, IRENA reported that the renewable energy industry employed 769,000 Americans as of 2016. The potential for new employment in renewable energy is a powerful argument to make to politicians looking to create more jobs and bring down the country’s unemployment rate.

Besides creating jobs, 2016 was also a breakthrough year in terms of the cost of renewable energy. A 2016 report published by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory showed that installation costs for residential and commercial solar have decreased dramatically over the last 15 years, as shown below. In addition, utility-scale solar costs have fallen below $1.50 per watt, which is less than one-third the cost of utility-scale installations just seven years ago.  In fact, solar energy is now on track to be the cheapest form of energy within ten years.
Credit: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Renewable energy advocates can use these economic arguments to persuade individuals unwilling to hear the moral and practical climate change-related reasons for advancing renewables. Many politicians have chosen to eschew science and cling to climate denial. Scientists and advocates should not stop trying to convince politicians of the importance of combatting climate change, but renewable energy advocates also have a responsibility to find common ground with climate change skeptics. We can all agree that job creation and cheap electricity are a good thing for the U.S. economy, and renewable energy fits that bill.

In sum, 2017 is a year to build on the terrific progress made in the past year, and harness that progress and energy to keep the ball moving. I for one intend to take 2016’s lessons and apply them to help advance renewable energy and combat climate change by aiming high, aiming local, and aiming to please.

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