Tulsa, OK -- Power Engineering's Lindsay Morris hosted this year's Renewable Energy Executive Roundtable with five executives in the clean energy sector: Matt Burkhart, vice president of electric and fuel procurement, San Diego Gas & Electric; Rhone Resch, president and CEO, Solar Energy Industries Association; Karl Gawell, executive director, Geothermal Energy Association; Jim Ivany, president of Bechtel's Renewable Power business group; and Rob Gramlich, Senior Vice President of Public Policy, American Wind Energy Association.
Renewable energy in North America has experienced unprecedented growth over the last few years, and that maturation has the potential to progress uninterrupted. For example, over the last four years, solar energy has seen an 11-fold increase in the number of megawatts installed. Wind energy has consistently provided 35 percent of all new generating capacity over the last five years. And now, with the Obama Administration set to remain in place through 2016, renewable energy proponents are anticipating four more years of growth. However, policy instability is still an issue, and the industry continues the fight to establish a long-term Production Tax Credit for wind energy as well as subsidies for other clean energy technologies.
Power Engineering: How do you foresee the outcome of the presidential election affecting renewable energy growth over the next four years?
Rhone Resch (left): The election confirmed the fact that our nation wants to move in a new energy direction. President Obama included a strong message on renewable energy in his platform. He continually talked about solar, wind, geothermal and other technologies. Although it may not have been the top priority in his agenda, energy was certainly one of his top three or five items. The fact that he was reelected shows that the public is strongly in support of greater use of renewables, and that’s what our polling shows. Over the last five years, we’ve consistently found that 9 out of 10 voters support greater use and development of solar energy in this country. And they believe government has a role to play: 78 percent feel government should support growth of solar with incentives. So having a president who is aligned with that message is extremely important.
If we continue to build upon the success that we’ve had in the last four years, the re-election of President Obama will prove to have a significant impact on renewable energy development. For example, the solar industry installed about 280 megawatts of capacity four years ago. This year, we’ll install a little over 3.2 GW – an 11-fold increase just in the last four years. Much of that increase can be directly attributed to the policies and priorities of this president. From our perspective, having the president with the largest bully pulpit in the world, promoting clean energy, has had a significant impact on our markets. And we expect to see them continue to grow through 2016.
Karl Gawell (right): Rhone, I think we all agree with you. The question is now, does Congress get that message? Because the hangup here is getting things like tax credits extended. We’ve all seen growth in the last four or five years, and federal policies have helped make that happen. But we’re not going to see sustained growth unless there is really a convergence. Let’s have some bipartisanship on renewable energy and have longer-term incentives for all of our technologies to really see the growth and potential that’s out there. That’s what we need to see happen next.
Rob Gramlich: The election was clearly positive for clean energy. One prominent D.C. energy trade publication said the second biggest winner was the wind energy tax credit (PTC). There were certainly some examples, looking at the map where clean energy came up. The president made the Production Tax Credit an issue in Iowa and Colorado, and he won those swing states, those battleground states. There were other races, Angus King in Maine, was one of the first declared winners, and he’s actually a wind developer and very supportive of renewable energy. A lot of the supporters of renewable energy tax credits did win Senate and House races.
One other point about the administration’s focus is that energy is one area considered by many an unfinished business item for the president, despite the rapid growth of wind, solar and other renewables. There wasn’t comprehensive energy policy put in place. Carol Browner, who used to be the president’s head of all energy and environmental policy, has said that it is one area Obama views as unfinished business to get to in his second term. I think these are all signs that clean energy did get a strong endorsement on Nov. 6, and there should be opportunities going forward.
Jim Ivany: There’s a direct correlation between a continued positive policy on renewable energy and jobs. Bechtel has been building power plants of all kinds for over 60 years but never have we had more activity in the renewable space than right now. We have almost 3,000 highly paid construction workers today working on renewable projects in the U.S. We’re looking forward to increased activity in the area – not only regarding energy policy, but also with respect to job creation.
Matt Burkhart: It remains to be seen what the continuing divided Congress will do with respect to more than a meaningful fix on the PTC. The future of the industry over the medium and long term will have as much to do with technology development, markets and state-level policy. We’re deep into implementation in California. New policies out of Washington won’t have much effect incrementally at least on the western part of the country, which is to a certain degree feeding the renewable appetite of California, because we’ve already moved a long way toward meeting a 33 percent renewable standard. A big effect of the federal government will be whether or not the 49 other states will be incented or put on a path that would be comparable to what California is going through.
PE: How has political campaigning throughout 2012 affected renewable energy’s public image, and what can the renewable energy industry do to better communicate the message and benefits of clean energy?
Resch: Original discussions in this election focused on Solyndra, and Solyndra became synonymous with the administration’s policies on clean energy, though inappropriately so. The solar industry got caught in the crosshairs. We spent a lot of resources creating a firewall between Solyndra and the rest of the industry – to show the real positive stories that were occurring in the solar industry, specifically the growth of real jobs. As Jim pointed out, the job creation that’s occurring at Bechtel is fantastic, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing across the entire solar industry. In the last four years, we’ve gone from about 25,000 U.S. employees to 119,000 today. I think the renewable community and the political community spent a lot of time correcting the record, since a lot of these misstatements were made during the campaign. While our efforts helped prevent renewable energy from becoming too much of a political football through the campaign, obviously we had to do a lot of work correcting the record.
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