Clean Energy is Happening, With or Without the Trump Administration

April 17, 2018 | 11:44 am
Photo: First Solar
Sam Gomberg
Senior Analyst

Folks waiting for leadership at the federal level to drive our ongoing clean energy transition better get comfortable. It might be a while. Fortunately, one only has to turn one’s eyes outward from D.C.—in just about any direction—to find utilities, corporations, cities, and states taking the reins of our transition to clean energy.

The rationale for clean energy takes many forms

Whether it’s a sense of moral obligation to tackle the threat of climate change, the benefits of being perceived as “green”, or just economic good sense, there’s a strong argument to be made that clean energy is the right way to go. Wind and solar, increasingly being paired with battery storage, continue to impress with low costs and reliable performance. Energy efficiency continues to be our cheapest and most readily available resource out there.

And as utilities and large corporate purchasers of energy navigate our ongoing and historic transition away from coal, these clean energy resources are proving to be a cost-effective, low risk, and clean option for meeting energy needs.

Utility commitments show a desire to diversify away from fossil fuels

There’s a powerful recent wave of utility announcements to cut carbon emissions and invest in clean energy (see here or here, for example). Just in the Midwest for example, we’ve seen significant commitments from utility powerhouses such as Xcel, Ameren, Consumers Energy, and MidAmerican, just to name a few.

The great news is that the new wave isn’t limited to one region of the country. It’s not about red states or blue states. It isn’t driven by political ideology or, in most cases, regulatory or policy requirements. It’s driven by economics and a growing awareness—by utilities and their customers—of the urgent need to reduce carbon emission and avoid the most damaging effects of climate change.

Of course, these commitments aren’t necessarily binding, and there’s legitimate concerns that utilities are promising clean energy later to bolster arguments for natural gas investments now (as we’ve noted in DTE Energy’s pursuit of a large natural gas plant in Michigan). But the overall trend is unmistakable and promising for our ongoing clean energy transition. More work lies ahead to hold utilities accountable to these commitments and ensure clean energy investments are prioritized in the near term.

Corporate purchasers choosing renewables to power our economic growth

Another area where key players in our energy future are taking clean energy matters into their own hands is in the world of corporate purchasers. These large energy users are increasingly looking beyond their local utility to procure low-cost renewable energy to meet sustainability goals and ensure long-term price stability.

Unlike fuel-fired energy sources, renewable energy prices can be locked in for 20 years or more because the cost of that energy is not dependent on sometimes volatile prices for fuels like natural gas and coal.

According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s 2018 Sustainable Energy Report, corporate purchases of renewable energy took off in 2014 and have been a significant player in the renewable energy development growth ever since. Forty US-based companies have signed on to the RE100 Initiative and pledged to source 100 percent of their energy consumption from renewable energy.

Source: Bloomberg New Energy Finance 2018 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook

While current corporate commitments still make up a small share of overall energy use in the United States, the trend, once again, is unmistakable and a strong signal that our clean energy transition continues to advance despite what happens in Washington DC.

Cities and states continue to take climate change seriously—and demand clean energy solutions

I started this blog by saying that you only had to look outward from D.C. to find progress on clean energy, but yes—even the District is onboard with a clean energy future. In 2016, it strengthened its renewable portfolio to achieve 50 percent renewable energy by 2032. The new law also included provisions to ensure that everyone would have access to clean energy by funding provisions that would increase access for lower-income households.

The District’s progress on clean energy is just one example of state and local government forging their own clean energy future. At the end of 2016 we saw Illinois and Michigan strengthen their clean energy standards. California is now considering joining the ranks of Hawaii in pursuit of 100 percent clean energy. And just last week, New Jersey strengthened its renewable energy standard to 50 percent by 2030.

We’ve also witnessed direct action against President Trump’s stated intention to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Agreements. States and cities across the US have pledged that they’re “still in” on meeting the goals of the international Paris agreement, despite President Trump’s intention to withdraw the US from this landmark agreement.

State members of the US Climate Alliance and city members of the Climate Mayors

Source: Bloomberg New Energy Finance 2018 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook. Sixteen states have committed to reducing carbon emissions, covering more than 40 percent of the US population.

As utilities, corporations, states, and cities step in to fill the leadership void left by President Trump and his administration, clean energy’s future remains bright. Economics and the moral imperative to address climate change continue to be driving forces behind our ongoing transition.

As our collective commitment to clean energy continues to grow, the federal government will have a harder and harder time turning a blind eye.