The upside of renewables
Clean energy advocates dispute any downside
A Commonwealth opinion piece (“The downside of renewables”) published on May 11 provided a flawed argument against renewable energy and its implications for the New England electricity grid by picking and choosing facts from European countries that are decades ahead of the US in the clean energy transition. We should learn from the successes and failures of other countries as we transition to a clean energy economy.
When Denmark embarked on a path to renewable energy more than two decades ago, the cost of deploying renewable energy was more expensive. Due to the subsequent expansion in innovation and deployment of renewable technologies around the world, we have seen an enormous drop in the cost of both renewable equipment and installations, which means the cost to deploy renewables here in New England is lower and will continue to decline. More renewables in the mix also stabilize energy prices as they are not subject to the volatility of fossil fuel prices.
It’s important to note that Denmark’s economy is thriving, thanks to smart investments in renewables and energy efficiency over the last 30 years. The country’s energy consumption has remained relatively stable, while its GDP doubled. The country plans to remove all government support for renewables in only a few years (well ahead of previous expectations) because the cost of energy generated from renewables is now competitive with conventional generation.
Sununu cites renewable intermittency as a primary cause of blackouts in South Australia. In fact, the government and electricity system operator conducted a study which found that “…variation of output with wind strength, often termed ‘intermittency,’ was not a material factor.” Instead an unprecedented impact from storms the Australian government dubbed a “once-in-50-years event” to their transmission infrastructure, followed by human error in managing the transmission system’s adjustment to the storm, led to the blackouts. This is a lesson New Englanders can learn from.
Annual investments in new renewable energy infrastructure are beating fossil fuels two to one. In the past 40 years, the cost of solar has decreased by more than 99 percent. The cost of wind has dropped by 58 percent in the past five years alone. Government incentives and subsidies helped renewables get started, but economies of scale are driving renewable energy prices lower and lower.
Conversely, the United States government has spent more taxpayer dollars to keep the oil, gas, and coal industries afloat. Between 2009 and 2015, federal subsidies for conventional sources increased by over 35 percent, to $20.5 billion annually. It’s not a wise investment. A recent study revealed that the US solar industry alone provides more jobs than the oil, gas, and coal industries combined.
Nor do conventional energy sources guarantee a stable energy grid or affordable prices. New England relies heavily on natural gas to generate electricity, creating fuel competition challenges during winter heating periods and increasing the risk of price fluctuations. A new report from the Northeast Clean Energy Council found that the construction of more renewables, driven by an increase to the Renewable Portfolio Standards in Massachusetts and Connecticut, could lead to the construction of up to 4,900 megawatts of new, incremental renewables. More renewable energy sources could save consumers as much as $2.1 billion by lowering exposure to fossil generation costs if gas prices increase significantly.
For energy users looking for unlimited, low-cost, local sources of energy and new, well-paying jobs in a rapidly growing industry, renewables are clearly the future. New England states are recognizing the value of renewable energy to our national security, economy, and taxpayers by enacting smart, forward-thinking policies. Manufacturers have discovered the enormous benefits of energy efficiency, allowing them to streamline operations, save money, and invest those savings in other areas of the company, such as self-generation of energy or new jobs. They understand that energy is a cost of doing business, and that they have options other than to be at the mercy of volatile, imported fuels.Businesses plan over multiple time horizons, and recognize the importance of smart investments, taking control of energy costs and impacts, and taking into account trends that impact resiliency and reliability of the company’s energy costs and overall business. We should view our energy future the same way, strategically phasing in renewables and investing in a modernized electricity system that enables customers to cost-effectively derive the full benefits of a cost-effective clean energy future.
Peter Rothstein is the president of the Northeast Clean Energy Council and Michael Berhmann is the director of the New Hampshire Clean Tech Council.