Many of us enjoy a good social media-inspired “Throw Back Thursday,” a time to revisit amusing photos or memories of a past age when we were young and naïve, so to speak. Not many of us take it quite as literally, however, as the Koch-backed Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) did recently, when they published an anti-renewable energy hit piece in The Hill titled “Renewables are incapable of replacing hydrocarbons at scale.”
Really? What is this, the 1990s? Read the facts – last year, wind and solar accounted for 67% of all new electrical generating capacity in the United States. If TPPF really wants to reminisce about the good ol’ days, maybe they should just stick to selfies.
Coming off the annual National Renewable Energy Policy Forum, this is actually a pretty convenient time to remind clean energy skeptics of just how far the industry has come in the past few years. Renewable energy has become a huge part of our economy. If we’re talking about competing with “hydrocarbons” – oil and gas to you and me – the solar power industry alone employs more people than the oil and gas extraction industry and more than the oil and gas pipeline construction industry, according to The Solar Foundation. Notably, the American solar industry also employs double the number of coal industry workers. So when offering up a “dose of reality,” maybe TPPF should start with the facts here in America.
Looking past booming employment, renewables are also driving major private sector investment. New figures from Bloomberg New Energy Finance puts investments in 2015 at a record-breaking $286 billion worldwide. This translates into 134 gigawatts of renewable power added last year, compared to just 87 gigawatts two years ago. And in fact, clean energy investments were more than double the estimated $130 billion invested in in coal and natural gas-fired power plants in 2015. As these figures show, it’s one thing for a think tank to complain about their own grievances with clean energy technologies, but it’s something else entirely when the full force of the free market has already picked a clear winner.
But don’t take my word for it. Corporate America has made their position on clean energy clear too. In the last few years, there has been a tremendous growth in corporate demand for renewables, specifically. Why? It’s simple. Renewable energy makes good business sense. With over 150 companies having signed the White House’s American Business Act on Climate Pledge – covering $4.2 trillion in annual revenue and a combined market capitalization of over $7 trillion – Corporate America's commitment to clean energy is undeniable and growing rapidly.
But what about this claim that renewables are “incapable?” Renewable energy is clearly popular, good for the economy, and the top energy choice for the biggest businesses in America – but still, is it capable? The answer is yes, absolutely. Take wind power, an increasingly large part of America’s energy mix. In 2015, it was the country’s largest source of new electricity, representing 35 percent of all new generating capacity, more than even solar or natural gas. Today, Iowa generates over 30 percent of its electricity with wind, and a dozen states use it to create at least 10 percent of their electricity. ERCOT, the main grid operator in Texas (where TPPF is located), has reliably supplied up to 45 percent of the state’s electricity with wind at times, and the main grid operator in Colorado has exceeded 60 percent.
Wind also helps improve grid reliability while saving consumers money. Whereas conventional power plants can go offline suddenly and without warning, removing large amounts of power from the grid, changes in wind output are gradual and can be predicted many hours in advance. This gives grid operators ample time to adapt. And we’re not considering reliable, baseload hydropower and geothermal. The capability of renewables is fully confirmed by a wonkish 2015 study from the experts at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which concludes that the western power grid is perfectly capable of handling large amounts of wind and solar energy.
So you be the judge: can renewables compete with fossil fuels? It’s a trick question – they already are.
It’s unfortunate to see the innocuously-named Texas Public Policy Foundation going after a growing sector of the economy like renewable energy with such a blatant attack piece. Renewables have had to earn their spot in our nation’s energy mix, and have done so through innovation, cost reductions and old-fashioned American perseverance. But in an economy that rewards competition, perhaps it’s no surprise to see renewables coming out on top.
Kevin Haley is the Communications Director at the American Council On Renewable Energy (ACORE). He is also a fellow at the Clean Energy Leadership Institute.