Isaac Newton had it right: for every action there is a reaction.
Over the last few years, clean energy has been where the action is. In 2012, more wind energy was added to the grid than any other form of power generation. Solar energy, while a smaller player nationally, is also growing by leaps and bounds, with leading states such as California, New Jersey, Arizona and Massachusetts now getting a significant and rising share of their energy from the sun.
Other clean energy technologies are emerging. Solar thermal power – which uses vast fields of mirrors in desert areas to heat water used to produce electricity – is about to have its moment in the sun, with the addition of 1.2 GW of new generating capacity from solar thermal plants scheduled by the end of 2014.
America’s clean energy revolution – which has been enabled by smart public policies as the local, state and federal level – has had real benefits for the environment. This week, we released (in partnership with Environment America Research and Policy Center) Wind Energy for a Cleaner America II, which found that wind energy currently averts nearly 85 million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution each year – as much as is produced annually by the entire economies of Maryland, South Carolina or Washington state. At the same time, America is increasingly tapping its most readily available source of clean energy: energy efficiency. Two Frontier Group reports released this month – Stepping Up to Bigger Savings and Ohio’s Clean Energy Success Story, Year 4 – document the continued and growing benefits of state energy efficiency and renewable energy programs in Maryland and Ohio, respectively.
Renewable energy and energy efficiency have clearly hit the big time and are delivering benefits that can be measured on a national, if not global scale. Renewable energy and reductions in energy consumption, for example, have been responsible for a greater share of the decline in U.S. carbon dioxide emissions since 2007 than the much ballyhooed switch from coal to natural gas in power production.
All of that is great news, of course, but the action in the clean energy sector has provoked a recent reaction from some of America’s biggest utilities. Across the country, utilities are leading a series of attacks designed to slow the clean energy revolution, if not stop it in its tracks.
In Arizona, for example, an outpouring of citizen support for solar energy managed to (partially) stop a well-funded effort by the state’s biggest utility to eliminate “net metering” – the key public policy that makes it financially feasible for many American homeowners and small business owners to “go solar.” Meanwhile, in Ohio, utilities have been working to undermine that state’s landmark Clean Energy Law, despite the dramatic benefits the law has delivered for Ohioans. Similar attacks, on both net metering and state renewable energy standards, have taken place across the country.
Renewable energy has reached something of a moment of truth. The past decade has shown that with strong public policy support, renewable energy and energy efficiency can make a meaningful difference in reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and lowering carbon dioxide emissions without breaking the bank or the electric grid.
The logic and reality of global warming alone, however, suggest that we must quickly take the next step, making clean energy the central player in our energy system.
The potential exists. The technical issues, while challenging, are surmountable. The question is one of political will. Let’s hope that policy-makers pay attention to the benefits renewable energy and energy efficiency are delivering to America’s environment and communities – and not to the well-funded, short-sighted, self-serving campaigns of utility and fossil fuel interests – and redouble their commitment to clean energy .
Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.