December 30, 2018

Year-End Reflections and Predictions From a Solar Veteran

Vote Solar’s Adam Browning offers up his picks for the most important trends of 2018.

In 2002, when solar was $9 a watt, I co-founded an advocacy organization to bring solar into the mainstream. Solar’s made a lot of progress since then, and 2018 feels like a crucial year in many ways, with some key successes and pivotal developments.

Here’s my list of the most important stories in solar in 2018, and predictions for 2019.

1. 100% is the new black
Hawaii did it first, but California’s SB 100, committing the world’s fifth-largest economy to 60 percent renewable energy by 2030 and 100 percent carbon-free by 2045, is the biggest and most important climate action taken to date in the U.S.

It’s big because California is big, and important because it sets the bar higher for what’s possible. Since then, Xcel Energy, a major utility serving 3.3 million customers, announced its own decision to go 100 percent carbon-free by 2050, New York Governor Cuomo pledged to work with lawmakers to pass 100 percent carbon-free legislation in 2019, and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy is backing a target of 100 percent clean energy by 2050. Washington, D.C. (the city, not the federal government) also just passed its own bill to go 100 percent carbon-free, topping the list of 101 cities that have already committed to that goal.  

2. There are votes in solar 
While politicians have long given a nod to pro-renewables sentiment, in 2018 this phenomenon reached a new level of precision and power.

The League of Conservation Voters counted 1,400 candidates on the November ballot that committed to a 100 percent clean energy platform, including eight winning governors. That’s amazing and is already having an impact. Xcel, which voluntarily committed to 100 percent clean energy in December, operates in eight states. Five of those states have new governors signed onto 100 percent clean energy. Elections matter.

3. Old coal and new nukes did not have a good year 
Coal usage has fallen to its lowest since 1979, retiring about 14 gigawatts this year. And what happened in South Carolina drove another nail in the coffin of the nuclear industry’s future prospects.

For those who didn’t follow the Post and Courier’s excellent coverage of the demise of the VC Summer nuclear plant: After the $9 billion project was abandoned while only 40 percent finished, and ratepayers were paying $27/month for a boondoggle that may never produce a single kilowatt-hour of electricity, the South Carolina House voted 107-1 to fire the regulators who approved construction-work-in-progress payments, and the regulators, in turn, threatened to claw back money from utilities.

I can’t think of a commission in the country where there are three votes to sign up for that ride. To have a future going forward, nukes will have to get radically cheaper and try a business model that isn’t political suicide for policymakers. And it’s not just me who thinks so. An executive of Exelon, the largest owner of nuclear assets in the U.S., said he doesn’t think new nuclear, including small modular reactors, will be built in the U.S. due to high costs and performance of renewables and storage. This is definitely a turning point and reinforces my belief that the future of carbon-free energy is renewables.

4. Peak peaker?
Solar-plus-storage is emerging as a gas killer. Lithium-ion battery prices have improved 85 percent in the past eight years, per Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Over the past several years utilities have signed solar-plus-storage deals at increasingly competitive terms. What’s new and different this year is that solar-plus-storage bids are winning all-source RFPs (such as this 50-megawatt battery deal with Arizona Public Service) — and the trust of regulators to rely on these clean solutions as replacements for gas peakers.

Calpine tried to make an end-run around the California Public Utilities Commission to get reliability-must-run status for some of its peakers. The CPUC was not amused, and now we have approval for the world’s largest batteries replacing three gas plants. Notably, both NextEra CEO Jim Robo and AES CEO Andres Gluski have said they don't expect to build a peaker past 2020. Why not start the stopping now and save us the future stranded assets?

5. New dawn for new utility regulatory and business models 
Distributed energy resources have the potential to more efficiently deliver services and reduce costs for everyone. But as long as regulated utilities’ revenues are linked to deploying more capital, there’s a structural barrier to success that needs to be addressed.

The growth of community-choice aggregation in California is one model for more local control. Hawaii, which just passed a crucially important law introducing performance-based regulation to the state, offers another model. The premise is to pay for — and therefore incentivize — results, not capital deployment. Rhode Island and Vermont have initiated exploratory dockets, but having an actual example of how this can work in Hawaii will be enormously helpful for replication.

6. Solar on new home construction
The California Energy Commission has a mandate to include cost-effective energy saving measures in building codes. Their last revision to Title 24, which underwent years of public input and scrutiny, found that requiring solar as a part of new housing construction is a clear net economic benefit to owners.

Starting in 2020, new homes built in California will come with solar. Because installations on new construction are cheaper than retrofits, our calculations show that energy savings will exceed marginal increases in mortgage payments upwards of $60 a month for an average home. Scaling this nationally would add 203 gigawatts of solar and cut CO2 emissions by 9 percent by 2045, and polls well with 63 percent support.

Time to start building like we plan to stay on this planet for a while.

Predictions for 2019

Here's what I see happening over the next year to accelerate these trends.

1. Multiple new states will pass major new renewable portfolio stan​dards

Maryland, New Mexico, Nevada and New York top the list, with many more contenders in play. Other states will lift major new renewable goals through integrated resource plans or equivalents.

2. The Green New Deal resets t​he conversation

Kudos to the new generation of activists who have really forced the climate crisis on the next Congress’ agenda and are doing a masterful job framing the conversation around the benefits to people’s lives, not wonky acronyms or clunky policy pathways (as the saying goes, there are only two problems with carbon tax messaging: carbon and tax).

At the same time, let’s be clear: This is welcome mojo, but the states are where the deal will actually get done.

3. Federal government headwinds 

The Trump administration’s 30 percent tariffs on solar panels resulted in the cancellation of about $8 billion in solar projects in 2018, eliminating about 9,000 jobs. And while efforts at both the DOE and FERC to blow up competitive energy markets and provide billions in subsidies to out-of-market coal and nukes on unsupported reliability grounds haven’t yet come to fruition, the new FERC Commissioner Bernard McNamee’s history of radical antipathy toward renewables is really concerning.

The fight over whether the U.S. energy markets will go full oligarchy will heat up in 2019.

4. Building electr​ification 

The real savings come from not having to build fossil infrastructure in the first place, and the push to electrify everything will boost renewable generation further. With solar on the roof, induction cooking and heat pumps, we’re going to see new communities increasingly pass on gas.  

5. Footholds for equity and a​ccess

California’s 100 percent clean law would not have happened without the leadership of environmental justice activists, full stop. Energy justice and community-based organizations all across the country are on the frontline of the fight to make the clean energy economy work for everyone.

This year, the NAACP partnered with justice, industry and advocacy organizations (including Vote Solar) for the Solar Equity Initiative to bring jobs and bill savings where they’re need most. Groups like GRID Alternatives, Power52 and others have done great work expanding job training and opportunities to disadvantaged communities. Policymakers from New Jersey to Illinois to California are increasing focused on developing programs that ensure equity and access in energy.

The industry is catching on to that leadership: SEIA has made a commitment to diversity in the solar industry, and The Solar Foundation is now publishing important benchmarking studies to track its progress. This country has a long way to go, but I’m excited about the possibilities and believe 2019 will be a pivotal year in this transformation.

6. Heartland he​ats up 

NIPSCO, a municipal utility in Indiana, made headlines when it announced that after crunching the numbers, shutting down all its coal plants and replacing them with largely renewables would save ratepayers $4 billion over 20 years. Math combined with a real consideration of ratepayer interests can be a powerful thing.

There’s been a lot of groundwork and progress in the region — the Illinois Future Energy Jobs Act; PURPA progress and Consumers Energy's integrated resource plan with plans for 6 gigawatts of solar in Michigan; and Minnesota’s renewable portfolio standard and community solar program. With a bevy of new governors committed to renewable progress, I predict it will be one of the hottest regions for new solar growth.

That’s my take on the highlights — your mileage may vary. What’s indisputable is that it’s an exciting time to be alive as we aim to transform one of the largest and most politically entrenched industries. Best to you all in the new year, and may solar shine in 2019.

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