SEJournal Online is the digital news magazine of the Society of Environmental Journalists. Learn more about SEJournal Online, including submission, subscription and advertising information.
|Wind energy is the fastest-developing renewable energy source, and an explosion of offshore wind construction is expected off the East Coast of the United States. Above, heavy seas engulf the Block Island, R.I., offshore wind farm on Oct. 1, 2016. Photo: U.S. Department of Energy. Click to enlarge.|
TipSheet: The Renewables Revolution — A Renewable Source of News for Year Ahead
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is one in a series of special reports from SEJournal’s Joseph A. Davis that looks ahead to key issues in the coming year. Visit the full “2019 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” special report for more.
In a volatile world, here’s one trend you can count on — the renewable energy revolution will continue to be news in 2019.
Forget all the political consternation over energy, the clean-coal con jobs, the earnest deregulation and the dark money. Wind turbines and solar panels will continue to eat the lunch of most other energy sources (except natural gas).
One reason we know this is true is because it has already been happening for several years now, despite political, er, headwinds.
So here a few handy hints for finding the stories in 2019.
First up: Early next year we are going to see the “Annual Energy Outlook“ for 2019 from the Energy Information Administration. Don’t listen to us — get it and read it. The EIA, even in the Trump administration, is still the most gimlet-eyed and reality-based source of energy numbers and data.
Next year’s outlook will likely look like this past year’s, which shows use of natural gas and renewables growing as energy sources, and use of coal and nuclear slowly declining.
Right now, it is wind energy — the large three-bladed turbines — that is developing the fastest. And while land-based turbines have been growing almost as fast as corn stalks in the Great Plains and Midwest in recent years, we are expecting a new explosion of offshore wind construction off the East Coast in the next few years.
Also, as the price of photovoltaic panels has continued to drop, the use of solar energy has grown apace in recent years, both on people’s rooftops and in utility-scale solar farms.
Possible bumps in the renewable road
While the path for these U.S. renewables will likely be upward in 2019, do not expect it to be smooth. Some points of contention are likely to include:
- Tax incentives. There is a complex array of tax incentives for both small- and large-scale renewables. Fossil energy companies lobby hard to curtail them, but many continue to survive. Democrats in the House are likely to preserve them in 2019. The important one for utility-scale renewables is the Production Tax Credit, which probably won’t be an issue in 2019, but will phase out in years after that.
- Transmission grids. Renewables are useful only to the extent that electricity can move from where it is produced to where it is consumed. Wind and solar are often produced in remote locations, so bottlenecks and inadequate grid capacity are perceived as limiting for both. Whether the perception is accurate has been a matter of argument. Renewables also offer an opportunity to decentralize a grid built for big coal and nuclear sources.
- Permitting. Building a wind or solar farm often requires some kind of state, federal or local permit. States and localities do vary in their friendliness to renewables. Check with state environmental and utility regulators to see the prospects for proposed projects near you.
There’s more. Many states today are setting “renewable portfolio standards,” which require utilities in that state to supply a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable sources. These are changing, state by state, all the time.
In 2019, following shifts in party control in legislatures and governors’ mansions, we will likely see more change.
Also, a likely arena of conflict in 2019 will be the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC. The Trump administration, via Energy Secretary Rick Perry, has been trying to get FERC to subsidize coal and nuclear electricity by allowing rate hikes. FERC so far has resisted (subscription required) this. It would tilt the playing field against renewables if it happened.
With the Trump appointment of a new FERC commissioner, Bernard McNamee, a proponent of the subsidy scheme, it is likely that FERC will revisit the issue (subscription required) in 2019.
Trade, ‘Green New Deal’ are also factors
In addition, trade and tariff issues have affected renewables, and may continue to do so in 2019.
President Donald Trump shocked the solar industry in January 2018 when he slapped a hefty tariff on some imported solar panels. The U.S. solar industry lost the benefit of lower-priced panels and did feel some significant losses.
But the U.S. solar industry did not feel as much hurt as some predicted, and is still booming because the overall cost of solar is still low. The tariffs will still be there in 2019.
One political force likely to affect renewables
is the so-called ‘Green New Deal’
[that calls] for the United States to switch to
100 percent renewables within a decade.
One political force likely to affect renewables in 2019 is the so-called “Green New Deal” (subscription required), a leftish, youth-based wing of the environmental movement that is trying to pressure and radicalize the incoming House Democrats on climate issues.
Expressing the urgency of recent reports on the looming climate crisis, the Green New Dealers have called for the United States to switch to 100 percent renewables (subscription required) within a decade. At issue is whether they can unleash the money and political will. Even if House Dems were to endorse the goal, it would be hard to get it through the GOP-controlled Senate in 2019.
There’s a lot more to the renewables conundrum that we don’t have room to discuss here.
For instance, hydroelectric power is a renewable source, and is important in places like California and the Pacific Northwest, but can have its own negative environmental consequences. It is a small (less than 5 percent) part of total U.S. production, but is not expected to grow much.
And energy storage technology such as batteries is seen as a key to unlocking the potential of renewables, since it can help shift supply to peak demand periods. Watch for advances in storage capacity and cost as a sign of renewables’ future in 2019.
One good reporting source on wind energy is the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group. Its members have access to a database showing most existing and upcoming wind projects. Other good sources on wind include the Energy Department, the Energy Information Administration and the private entity Renewable Energy World.
Useful information sources on solar include the Solar Energy Industries Association, the Energy Information Administration, the Energy Department (here, here and here). The National Renewable Energy Lab is a good source for all kinds of renewables.
You will also want to touch base with your state’s public utilities commission, or equivalent, on issues specific to regulation of electric utilities in your state.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 46. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.