The rising solar wave

Published October 21, 2014

By Rob Schofield

by Rob Schofield, NC Policy Watch, October 20, 2014.

Despite the right wing’s cynical sabotage efforts, the momentum for solar energy keeps building

Looking for some good news on what can seem at times these days to be a rather bleak public policy landscape? Well, here’s some that ought to keep you going for a while and maybe even renew your faith that the construction of a happier, healthier, more equitable and more sustainable planet is actually possible: The prospects for solar and other forms of renewable energy continue to get brighter and brighter.

That’s the only conclusion that one can draw from a recent series of news developments, government initiatives and reports from those who know best. To make matters even more hopeful, North Carolina is at the forefront of many of these positive developments. Naturally, however, the carbon-fuel-industry-funded conservative “think tanks” are doing everything within their power to scuttle the progress and momentum.

The good news

A new report from the Solar Energy Industries Association holds up the following fast facts about the rapid growth in photovoltaic (PV) solar power:

  • The top 25 companies for solar capacity have more than 569 megawatts (MW) of solar PV at 1,110 different facilities as of August 2014 – preventing the emission of an estimated 550,000 metric tons of damaging carbon each year.
  • The average price of a completed commercial PV project in the second quarter of 2014 has dropped by 14 percent since last year and by more than 45 percent since 2012.
  • For commercial users, average electricity rates have increased more than 20 percent in 10 years, moving from $0.08/kWh to more than $0.10/kWh.
  • The top 25 companies for solar capacity as of August 2014 have installed 28 percent more solar capacity since last year’s report and more than doubled the amount in 2012’s report.
  • Wal-Mart remains in the top spot, adding another 15 MW in the past year. Target moved from 16th to 8th with the addition of 15 new solar systems.
  • The top 25 companies completed solar installations in in 33 states and Puerto Rico, including three new states over the past year – Delaware, Rhode Island and Missouri.
  • In total, 129 million people – 41 percent of all Americans – live within 20 miles of at least one of the 1,110 commercial solar installations analyzed in this report.

Meanwhile, this is from a new report released recently by the Pew Charitable Trusts:

“North Carolina has emerged as a clean energy leader in the Southeast because of its high-caliber academic institutions, robust public and private investments, and policies such as the renewable energy and energy efficiency portfolio standard. The state has climbed nationwide rankings in the solar industry and attracted companies working in smart grid technologies, which use digital communications to allow electricity providers to detect and react to changes in usage.”

The report goes on to paint an enormously hopeful portrait of the rapid progress taking place on the ground in North Carolina in such varied areas as transforming worn-out farmland to solar farms, advances in “smart grid” technology and even progress with solar-powered vehicles.

A helpful boost from the Feds 

Much of the rapid progress in renewable energy is driven by the age-old phenomenon that propels most economic developments in our capitalist economy – the desire to make money. Notwithstanding the kneejerk claims of the right that there’s something inherently “socialist” about renewable energy, the simple truth is that hundreds of capitalists are making lots of money in renewable energy (and stand to make a lot more) because they have, in effect, built a better a mousetrap. By fashioning better and better ways to deliver, safe, reliable, clean and increasingly affordable electricity to millions of people who’d prefer not to drown in their own effluent, the industry is fast-approaching the point at which it will make a significant dent in the longstanding virtual monopoly of the carbon and nuclear industries.

That said, the industry has also clearly benefitted greatly from the wise – if often far-too-modest –efforts of government to help prime the pump. North Carolina’s “renewable portfolio standard” (which mandates that a growing percentage of the state’s electricity be generated by renewable energy) is a classic example. Another one is the new “Clean Power Plan” from the Obama administration.

Last week, advocates at the advocacy group Environment North Carolina held a press briefing touting the Clean Power Plan in which this encouraging symbiosis between public environmental protection and sustainable capitalism was highlighted. This is from a release that accompanied the event:

“28 solar businesses, including 49 from North Carolina, issued a letter to the White House today, endorsing limits on carbon pollution from power plants and advocating that solar energy become a focal point of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan.

‘As solar power installers, manufacturers, designers, aggregators, product suppliers, and consultants, we welcome the EPA’s unveiling of the Clean Power Plan,’ reads the letter, organized by the advocacy group Environment North Carolina. ‘This plan is a critical step toward transforming our energy system to one that protects our health and environment, and that of our children.’

In June, the EPA proposed its Clean Power Plan to address the growing threat of climate change. The plan would require power plants in North Carolina to cut carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030. This proposal is open for public comment until December 1st, and could be finalized by next year.

States will have the flexibility to meet the limits introduced by the Clean Power Plan. Businesses signing the letter said the proposal should dramatically accelerate the development of clean energy across North Carolina.

‘All North Carolina residents and businesses should support the Clean Power Plan,’ says Ryan Miller, executive director of North Carolina Building Performance Association and one of several signatories from across North Carolina. ‘This plan puts money back in our pockets and improves the home and buildings we live and work in every day.’”

In other words, the Clean Power Plan is good for the planet and good for precisely the kind of innovative, forward-looking entrepreneurial industries that the country desperately needs.

Debunking the critique from the naysayers 

Not surprisingly, the right-wing think tanks are doing their worst to undermine this hopeful news. Scarcely a week goes by of late in which the denizens of the Pope and Koch-funded groups don’t attack renewable energy and the public initiatives that have helped spur its rapid development as corrupt and/or unfair public subsidies for a favored industry.

I raised this critique with the solar entrepreneurs participating in the Environment North Carolina press event last week and to say that they could barely conceal their contempt for the attack and the people behind it would be an understatement.

As multiple participants quickly pointed out, electric generation has always been one of the nation’s most heavily-regulated and subsidized industries. Most of the main energy providers (e.g. Duke Energy) are regulated monopolies. Add to this the enormous public subsidies funneled to the carbon and nuclear industries in the form of direct subsidies, tax breaks, rights-of-way, military protection and, for heaven’s sake, our massive public outlays to clean up air and water pollution and treat the millions of humans sickened by it, and the claim becomes truly preposterous. It’s as if Karl Rove were complaining about political dirty tricks.

But more to the point, even if it were true that the government was favoring the renewables industry, so what? Critiquing such a situation is like claiming that the World Health Organization should leave the Ebola crisis up to the “genius on the market.”

Earth to the far right: We’re talking about the survival of the planet here. If anything, let’s pray our elected leaders are doing everything within their power to favor renewables and bring about the full deployment of a renewable energy infrastructure ASAP. If ever there was an area of debate in which the market economy needs to be the servant of the citizenry rather than the other way around, this is certainly the one.

Indeed, if we could pull off such a feat, it’s hard to imagine better news anywhere or anytime.