Driving Renewable Energy: Policies That Matter

, director of state policy & analysis, Clean Energy | February 5, 2013, 10:14 am EDT
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The year 2012 will go down as a very good year for renewable energy, with both the wind and solar industries experiencing record development. What will it take to continue the momentum in 2013? In this new blog series — Ramping Up Renewables: Clean Energy Policies to Watch in 2013 — UCS energy experts will discuss some of the most important policies that President Obama, Congress, and state policy makers can focus on in the coming months to further the clean energy transition this year and beyond.

This post is part of a series on Ramping Up Renewables: Clean Energy Policies to Watch in 2013.

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2012: A banner year for wind and solar

While many of us spent much of 2012 engrossed in Downton Abbey, the Olympics, what felt like the longest election season ever, and the fiscal cliff showdown, folks in the wind and solar industries were busy building projects and recording their strongest year ever.

Last week, the American Wind Energy Association announced that 13,124 megawatts (MW) of wind power capacity came online in 2012, smashing the previous annual record by more than 30 percent. This development represented 42 percent of all new generating capacity in the United States (more than any other energy technology, including natural gas) and $25 billion in private investment. Total U.S. wind power capacity now stands at 60,000 MW, which is capable of producing enough power to meet the needs of 14.7 million typical homes.

Wind turbines at the Forward Wind Energy Center, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin

Photo by Ruth Baranowski / NREL

The solar industry had a similarly strong year. While year-end stats have not yet been released, the Solar Energy Industries Association reported that solar photovoltaic (PV) installations surpassed last year’s record over the summer and were projected to reach 3,200 MW of capacity by year’s end, which would be a 70 increase over 2011 levels. As of September 2012, total installed solar electric capacity in the United States exceeded 6,400 MW—enough to meet the energy needs of more than 1 million typical homes.

Major energy transformation under way

The impressive growth in renewables is part of a major transformation underway within the U.S. electric power system. For decades, coal has powered America. But growing competition from abundant, cheaper, cleaner and reliable energy sources like renewable energy, energy efficiency, and natural gas are making it harder for the nation’s aging coal plants to compete.

Installation of solar PV on home, Bozeman, MT

Photo by Susan Bilo

Indeed, coal use has fallen from 47 percent of total U.S. generation in 2009 to about 37 percent in 2012. Since 2009, 51,000 MW of old, inefficient, and polluting coal generating capacity have already been scheduled for closure, with new retirement announcements being made seemingly every week. A recent UCS analysis found hundreds more uncompetitive coal generators that should also be considered for closure. Wind and solar’s track record in 2012 clearly demonstrates that renewable energy stands ready to provide clean, reliable, and affordable power as coal continues its decline.

Policies Matter

The transition toward more sustainable energy sources is not happening in a vacuum. A suite of smart and effective policies at all levels of government—including, for example, state renewable electricity standards and federal tax credits—has helped to put the renewable energy industry in its current strong position. However, building on these policies is necessary to continue the journey toward a clean energy economy that protects public health and helps avoid global warming’s worst consequences.

In our nation’s capital and all across the country, significant opportunities to expand and accelerate the clean energy transition are emerging. So are serious threats to undermine it. Stay tuned in to The Equation as my UCS colleagues and I take a closer look at some of the most important existing and new policies and regulations that are driving the clean energy transition at the local, state, and national level. We will highlight how they are successfully working and identify ways to expand or improve upon them in 2013. We will also shine on a light on the special interests behind the misinformation campaign to roll back the progress being made on renewable energy.

Renewable energy technologies have a lot going for them heading into 2013. Making sure they keep up the momentum depends a lot on the policies that are driving them forward—or holding them back.

We welcome you to join the discussion!

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  • Thanks for the comment, Janis. I’m Laura Wisland, a senior energy analyst from UCS, and I work out of the California office.

    There’s no question that in order to make a meaningful transition away from fossil-fueled electricity generation, we will need both large and small-scale sources of clean, renewable electricity. In the past, RES policies have primarily encouraged the growth of larger-scale projects, but that is changing due the declining price of photovoltaics and the growing prevalence of small-scale wind installations.

    UCS recognizes that we will need transmission lines to access some of the best clean energy resources we have in this country, but it’s also important to build renewables as close to home as possible. Next week we are planning to blog about policies that encourage smaller-scale renewable energy installations as part of this Ramping Up Renewables blog series.

    For example, we will blog about net-metering, a policy that allows consumers who generate their own electricity from renewable energy technologies to feed excess power directly back into the grid, thereby running their meter backwards and only paying for the net electricity consumed. To date, 43 states and D.C. have adopted net metering policies.
    I also plan to blog about an important small-scale renewable energy milestone that we just reached in California: over 1,000 MW of rooftop PV has been installed, which is enough clean electricity to power over 100,000 homes.

  • Janis Dappert

    It’s great to see the move towards renewable energy. But our country’s policy seems to support huge wind farms and solar installations which produce power that must be transported cross-county on gigantic high voltage “pipelines” that emit high electromagnetic radiation. Doesn’t it seem more sensible to encourage and subsidize rooftop solar and community wind turbines as in Germany right now? It is quite possible also that the present course leaves our electrical grid quite vulnerable to terrorist attack.