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’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.
Power Engineering: How do you foresee the outcome of the presidential election affecting renewable energy growth over the next four years?
Rhone Resch: 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: 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 he 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.
We also polled around the country and found that across party lines, 92 percent of likely voters support greater deployment of solar. We got that information into the hands of both of the campaigns, making sure they had the facts about how the public feels about renewable energy – so attacking clean energy is not a winning strategy. All in all, I think that the political attacks appeared worse in the beginning of the campaign. The industry spent a lot of time correcting the facts and getting the information out that the public strongly supports solar, which I think minimized solar’s role as a political issue in this campaign. Because at the end of the day, we’re not an issue; we’re a $93 billion global industry.
Gramlich: Rhone is right: We were all caught in the crosshairs. The presidential election was really driving a lot of the discussion around renewable energy, so there were political points being sought at our expense in many cases. The election’s over, so that objective is passed, and now we can all look forward. Generally, a lot of renewable energy policies retain strong bipartisan support, as they always have, particularly tax incentives, on which we all rely. Those have historically had strong support from both Republicans and Democrats. Republicans in particular have supported reducing the tax burden on private companies using private capital and hiring private sector workers, and consider those different from other programs where maybe government officials are picking specific companies or projects. So the main policies on which we rely survived the attacks of 2012, and I think are in good standing going forward.
Ivany: This onslaught of negative stories during the election campaign unfortunately dominated campaign coverage despite a record number of successful installations in the renewable sector. Solar jobs are up significantly from 2011, PV capacity nearly doubled in 2011, we have a surge of CSP (concentrating solar power), and wind capacity has experienced a significant increase in terms of new generating capacity since 2007. Those are the kind of successes that have to be touted by the industry. We as constructors have to tout our successes as well. At Ivanpah, we have over 2,000 workers building the largest solar thermal facility in the world. It’s about 70 percent complete. It’s going to be generating electricity in 2013. We’ve installed dozens of miles of piping, assembled and installed tens of thousands of heliostats and pylons. President Clinton visited the site this past summer and was amazed at the size and scale of the installation at Ivanpah. Then we’ve got other jobs, California Valley Solar Ranch and Catalina for NRG and EDF, that are putting megawatts on the grid this year. I think we’ve got to tout the successes of the industry instead of the isolated failures.
Gawell: I think we all recognize that there was a fairly concerted effort of disinformation funded by people who stand to lose when renewables win that really was not effective. When you look at the states in the presidential campaign where energy became an issue – Iowa, Colorado – those states were carried by the President. The elections do tell us there is, in a sense, an energy constituency out there. Now the “losers” in the clean energy battle are gearing up to fight us. ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) put out a notice about they’re reinvigorating to go after state renewable portfolio standards. That says to me we have to redouble our efforts to get a clear message about what is really happening in these industries to make sure we counter the kind of disinformation we’ve seen in this election.
Burkhart: Perhaps one of the lasting effects of the campaign in 2012 will be the federal government being involved less as a venture capitalist, less in direct funding, and more in terms of productive, lasting tax incentives that create a more level playing field.
PE: How have renewable energy developments faced the challenge of low natural gas prices over the last year? Do you foresee that low natural gas prices will be a continued threat?
Resch: Broadly speaking, when you look at the growth of our industry, low natural gas prices have had a limited impact on solar. The biggest impact that low natural gas prices have had is really on the coal industry. If you look back at January 2010, 47 percent of our electricity was generated by coal at that time; it’s now down to 39 percent – a significant drop in a short amount of time – I would argue primarily due to low natural gas prices. What we found is that solar and natural gas complement each other very nicely. Though we’re not a peaking generation technology like natural gas, it aids a utility to have peak generation using solar with natural gas either as a backup in the shoulder hours or in the evening. We found that many utilities are actually replacing some of their old, simple-cycle peaking units with new and improved peakers along with solar, which is an interesting complement overall. Today’s low natural gas prices are not going to last. If you talk to the producers of natural gas, this is not the boom; it’s the bust. They’re not making as much money as they would like or had planned on when they were drilling these wells, and the expansion of fracking has opened up a huge amount of natural gas to the industry.
When you look at the EIA (Energy Information Administration) forecast, you see natural gas prices doubling in the next couple of years. That gets us to a more sustainable price – in the $5 to $6 per mcf level. It’s sustainable not only for the producers but also for the industries that use natural gas, and I think that’s where the market is leading. At that level, this creates some challenges for renewables, but what we’ve seen in the last two years is the cost of installed solar has come down by over 50 percent. And we continue to make advances both in technology efficiency as well as construction costs. If we anticipate that natural gas prices will be in that $5 to $6 price range in the next couple of years, that sets a goal for solar – to lower our costs so we are cost-competitive with peaking units for natural gas. I think the other key piece of natural gas is, prices will be very different in 10 or 20 years. When you’re building new facilities for natural gas, no one’s going to give you a 20-year contract for $2.50 or $3/mcf. A long-term contract now is maybe 12 to 18 months, so the fluctuations of natural gas always exist. The benefit of renewables is you have no additional fuel costs over that lifecycle. You really need to look at the levelized cost of energy over a 20-year lifespan of all of these projects in order to understand the impacts of natural gas. Solar is on track to being cost-competitive with natural gas in the near future.
Ivany: Bechtel stands ready to build renewable projects as well as nuclear, coal and gas. What we see in the renewable space is that especially in states with strong renewable portfolio standards, a solar PV plant is really not competing directly with fossil fuel or nuclear technologies; they’re competing with other renewable technologies to fulfill the portfolio requirements. In that sense, gas is not necessarily a direct threat, but I do agree that the LCOE (levelized cost of electricity) for solar is starting to get comparative with the LCOE for peaking gas units. As was said, these plants last 25 years, the fuel is free on these facilities, and they’re steady. Is gas a threat? No, I don’t think it’s a threat. It’s an element of the portfolio. Utilities can’t place all their bets on gas, whether high or low, and they can’t place all their bets on renewables. I think we’re going to see a portfolio approach by most utilities in terms of supporting load growth or replacement generation needs over the coming years.
Burkhart: I’d add a short-term view that the price decrease in natural gas has been a boon to the renewable energy industry, especially to SDG&E in our implementation stage, both today and over the next year or two. It has and will mute the rate effect of integrating large amounts of new renewables. Here at least in California, and that is a good thing for public acceptance and policy acceptance of these added renewables.
Gawell: I want to go back to something Rhone brought up. When you look at building new projects, I don’t think most of the solar, wind, or geothermal projects being built are being compared to the short-run cost of gas. We’re dealing with state utility commissions that are looking at the long-run cost of gas and most states are assuming that gas prices are going to go back up to a sustainable level. The near-term effect on renewable energy companies has been on the existing producers because many operators have power contracts that are tied to the short-run cost of power, and that means the price of natural gas. So we’ve seen geothermal companies, as I’m sure is true with other technologies, really have a cut-back in their revenue, because the price they’re receiving has gone down. That’s hurt the health of these companies at a time at which the industry is still very economically troubled. The other aspect of gas that I think needs to be recognized is that low gas prices help the economy. One of the things that has held back all of the renewable technologies has been the slow economy. There is a sort of ‘chicken-and-egg game’ going on here; if we can get back to a strong, growing economy, these industries will grow that much faster. Having cheap gas at the moment is actually helping sustain some of that, so it’s kind of a mixed blessing.
PE: What do you foresee being some of the biggest challenges for the construction of new renewable power in North America going forward?
Gramlich: The wind energy industry is sort of the poster child of policy instability. I have to say policy stability remains the number one challenge. We are looking for an extension of the PTC in the lame duck session at the end of 2012. Typically what happens in lame duck sessions is that short-term extensions get passed, and they may or may not take up longer term policies in the next Congress. So we still need to work on policy stability.
Ivany: The challenges are greater now than they’ve ever been and not unique to renewables. Projects have to be permitted and sited. Despite the fact that these projects generate clean energy, environmental concerns come to the top of the list. The cost of environmental compliance is significant, and we need to balance the need for renewable energy and the impact to the environment to maintain good environmental stewardship. We take care of tortoises at Ivanpah, we take care of kit foxes at California Valley Solar Ranch. I’m a builder, an EPC contractor, but I’ve learned a lot more about animals and botany than I’ve learned in my 30-plus years in the business in the last couple years. Transmission lines are a big challenge – getting the power to where folks are. I think we need to figure out a way as an industry to get transmission permitted and built. The size of these projects is getting larger, and Bechtel builds large projects. Financing large projects in today’s economic environment is also challenging. We bring certainty of outcome to the project finance community, but it still takes a reasonable rate of return. Bechtel’s association with projects helps secure financing, but still, the money’s got to be there. So there are a number of challenges to getting complex projects built at the scales we’re talking about.
Resch: I would echo the comment of both Rob and Jim. Obviously, policy is critical. At SEIA, I represent small, mom and pop companies all the way up to the biggest developers and EPC contractors. It really doesn’t matter the size of your company; without having a long window of certainty with respect to market access and the rules, if you will, it’s impossible to win. To really hone in on a point that Jim made, project finance is ultimately the most challenging barrier. That comes in the form of tax equity in respect to large projects, but also the debt financing. Some of these projects cost billions of dollars, and if you have new or emerging technologies, then there’s some uncertainly on Wall Street about the performance of these technologies. This means you’re facing either a much higher interest rate to borrow or you may not be able to borrow it at all. So programs like the loan guarantee program have been critical in building these new technologies in the solar space. In the long run, financiers will become very comfortable with the technology. We’ve already seen some of that with photovoltaics. But ultimately, making sure that you have a diverse set of companies and organizations providing finance for these projects is absolutely critical. I think that goes for all renewables and clean energy technologies. Look at the nuclear guys – they have had an incredibly difficult time financing their projects, even when they have large utilities behind it.
Gawell: I think that if wind is the poster child of policy uncertainty, then policymakers both at the federal and state level need to understand that the rest of us are in the same picture. I think that’s what the rest of us are alluding to. They can understand what happens when the wind industry faces its tax credit going away at the end of the year, when suddenly you get suppliers and equipment manufacturers starting to shut down operations and lay people off. Well, we’re all facing the same types of policy cliffs at the federal and state level. Policies don’t support the type of continuous development and growth of these industries that you need, and if you want to achieve the potential of these industries, you need longer time frames both at the state level with contracts going forward for new projects, and for federal incentives supporting project development and capital investment. That’s a fundamental message that’s been said in Washington for a decade or more, but the message doesn’t seem to get through to the policymakers and law writers who develop policies and laws. So, it’s a policy roller coaster for these industries trying to survive, which are growing and still fairly young industries.
PE: Is there anything renewable energy proponents can do better to encourage utilities to integrate more renewable resources?
Gawell: I think there are some issues here which the utilities may not be totally responsible for, but have a huge impact on what they can do. We need to have better transmission policies that really lay out what’s going to happen with transmission interconnection over time so that people who are developing projects can bid knowing whether or not they can get their power to market. And state policies on procurement have got to be harmonized with longer term policies on transmission. I think that probably affects most of our technologies. I think that transmission policies and state procurement policies need to be addressed as problem areas right now that create real limitations on what people can do in terms of bidding and supply. What we’d like to see from the geothermal perspective, and I think would help everybody, is for the states – who are really the drivers in the power policies – look at developing a full portfolio of renewable technologies. Picking one technology over the other I think is the wrong approach. Utilities should want to see growth in all of these technologies. It doesn’t have to be equal one-to-one, but I think we’re going to want to see all of the clean power technologies that we can build moving forward if we’re going to achieve the kind of goals that for instance California has set with respect to climate change. And I expect at some point, we will have a national climate change policy to achieve as well. So policies that support a portfolio of renewables, clean technologies, and policies which fit together transmission and the need to get this to market are critical to expanding what utilities can do.
Gramlich: The main thing renewable energy proponents can do is to show the hedge value and insurance value that renewables can offer utilities. There is great value in the certainty, as a number of us have discussed today – being able to lock-in 20 year + contracts with no fuel price variability is of great value to utilities and their end users that they serve. But that value has not been very well integrated into public policy around the country, particularly in traditional states with vertically integrated utilities, with public utility commissions who regulate the reliability and rates of that service. There’s certainly economic value that utilities should be incorporating because it’s of great benefit to consumers and rate-payers, but it’s generally not incorporated. And the utilities may want to buy or build more renewables, but their PUCs (public utility commissions) don’t give them any clear pathway to take that value into account.
The second issue is the power system operation area of integration, where it’s striking the amount of difference between some of the advanced power grids in the country and very antiquated systems elsewhere in the country. We have 120 different balancing areas, many of them are very small, where the system is very balkanized, there are 500+ owners of the transmission grid and the coordination is highly imperfect. So when a power system operator is trying to keep generation and load in balance in real time 24/7, many of them have very limited tools to be able to do that, and those tools need to be improved to be able to integrate more renewables.
Burkhart: I’d only emphasize, in addition to what’s been said, the importance of least-cost renewable solutions, market outcomes that end up favorable to rate-payers, and those things which lead to lower-cost renewable portfolios. Today that might mean disproportionate amounts of photovoltaics out here in the West. That will ultimately be best for the renewables industry, because that will mean the most public acceptance.
PE: How has competition from solar and wind manufacturers outside the U.S. over the last couple years challenged renewable energy momentum? What lessons have been learned?
Gramlich: In the case of wind energy manufacturing, the growth has been steady and strong here in the U.S., with nearly 500 manufacturing facilities, going from nearly 25 percent to 70 percent domestic content. So those are pretty strong numbers for an industry that suffers from policy uncertainty. It does illustrate the opportunities and the great market and wind resource we have in this country, that manufacturers are so willing to bring their technologies and their know-how to this country and build wind turbines, towers and blade here in the U.S. So the only problem for those manufacturers is the uncertainty, and if they want to build and at this point, reopen some of the shuttered facilities, they need to see what the market looks like.
Resch: In the last few years, solar has seen a significant ramp-up in manufacturing, in the photovoltaic industry in particular. As we’ve increased manufacturing in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, the industry overbuilt itself, so we had excess supply, which led in large part to the significant decline in prices that has occurred in the photovoltaic industry. The benefit to solar energy deployment in the U.S. is that our product is significantly less expensive than it was two years ago, as I pointed out – down by 50 percent on an installed cost basis, which is something that took us almost 15 years to achieve previously. So the scale of manufacturing that’s occurred globally has greatly benefitted the deployment of solar.
It also had a significant impact on manufacturing in the U.S. We were a net exporter of solar products up until last year; now we’re an importer. Again, this is looking at the full value chain, not just the finished product. Clearly, manufacturing in China has put significant pressure on U.S. manufacturers, thus we’re seeing the anti-dumping, countervailing lawsuit, which the ITC just supported with a vote of 6-0. This will increase tariffs on Chinese product coming into the U.S. I do not think this will have an impact on the price of solar or the deployment of solar going forward, simply because those tariffs will not become a barrier towards bringing foreign product into a global market where there’s such surplus. I would say that the competition from outside manufacturers has certainly benefitted the price of solar, although it’s had a significant impact on manufacturers in the U.S.
Gawell: I wouldn’t limit this question to just solar and wind. I think that one of the important messages for people to recognize in the policy arenas of Washington is that all of the renewable technologies are growing as global industries, and we have to understand that if the U.S. wants to be the leader not just here but around the world, we need to compete on a global scale in the renewable power areas. I think the Obama Administration with its initiative on renewable exports began to recognize that in the last couple years. And hopefully as Congress moves forward and looks at renewable policy, they’ll realize that these are fast-growing, global industries, and there are opportunities for America to benefit if we approach them with that kind of an understanding and realizing global competition is something we can deal with if we just understand it’s there and take it on.
PE: What renewable energy development completed in 2012 are you most proud of?
Ivany: Bechtel’s renewables business line is a relatively nascent business line for us considering we have a 114-year old history. That said, in the last year, there are a lot of accomplishments we are really proud of. We are building Ivanpah, which will be the world’s largest CSP plant; we are building California Valley Solar Ranch, which will be one of the world’s largest PV plants; we are building the Catalina solar project, including a seven-mile transmission line, which is a supplement to existing lines. We’re building more transmission lines in Canada to accommodate their interest in wind power generation and growth in the region, and hope to build more in the U.S.
Bechtel also recently announced a joint agreement with Subsea 7, one of the world’s largest subsea contractors, which we hope will open doors to offshore wind prospects both in Europe and the United States. Bechtel has a lot to be proud of in terms in renewables in 2012.
Resch: There are a lot of great projects that are the icons of the solar industry today because of their scale, complexity and low cost. What I’m most proud of is the overall growth of solar as a source of American power. As I pointed out, annual installations have grown from 280 MW to 3.2 GW in the last four years. We will grow by more than 100 percent this year as an industry, which makes solar one of the fastest growing industries in the U.S. We have increased jobs by over 13.2 percent in the last year alone, six times faster than the growth of jobs throughout the U.S. Overall, we employ 119,000 Americans at 5,600 companies in the U.S., and many of those companies are small businesses. That’s double the amount of companies we had in this industry in 2009. So when I step back and look at 2012, it’s really the growth of the industry in all market segments, including residential growth and commercial ramp-up by some of our most successful corporations, including Walmart, FedEx, General Motors, Walgreens, and Google, who have embraced solar and are deploying it literally hundreds of times.
Then there are the utility-scale projects, as Jim had pointed out, and it’s not just PV, but it’s also concentrating solar power. Also, some of the projects that Bechtel and others are building include storage options, which will allow solar to operate through the peak demand hours and into the evening. That’s something we haven’t really had in this country before. So I would say it’s the growth of the market overall, as well as how companies have responded with innovation, both in technology and in their business models that I’m most proud of.
Gramlich: In terms of wind, I’m proud of the aggregate amount of development where we’ve sustained our position of providing 35 percent of all new generation capacity over the last five years. But another exciting development that I think is really important is with the new technologies for lower wind speed turbines that can be deployed in states not typically thought of as great wind resource states. Our developments have been strong in surprising places. Tennessee Valley Authority is buying quite a bit of wind. A couple of Southern Company’s subsidiary companies are buying significant wind energy in the South. In the Midwest, there’s been a lot of development in states like Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, and Indiana that had not been thought of as great opportunities not very long ago. But now with the low-wind speed turbine technologies, those opportunities exist.
Gawell: I would say, for geothermal, we’ve been rebuilding this industry from a period where we had almost no power projects built in the U.S. for a decade, but in the last six years, we’ve put 28 new project online in the U.S., and built as much geothermal capacity as was built in the first 20 years of this industry. The rebuilding is definitely happening, and with that, technology is advancing. We’re seeing totally new designs for high-temperature, flash power plants, we’re seeing existing power operations being redeveloped for much higher outputs, and efficiencies with better equipment, better technology. We’ve seen the first hybrid geothermal solar power plant built, and we’re seeing distributed generation with geothermal occurring in a number of states in the West, and people are looking at beginning to produce geothermal from other sources, like hot water from oil and gas wells.
In terms of where we can go, I tell people I think geothermal is a few years behind wind and solar in terms of our market development, but I think there’s a lot of potential going forward. I think it’s also important to recognize that in the last few years we’ve seen U.S. companies doing business around the world, selling power plants that are built in California to Turkey, selling power units that are built in Nevada to Germany, building new, major power plants in Kenya and Nicaragua. The U.S. industry has been re-building itself not just in the U.S., but around the world. I guess the answer to the question is, I would find it hard to pick out one particular thing and say, this is the most outstanding. But I think in general what’s happening in the industry itself is a real tribute to the people who have made the commitment to make this technology grow.
Burkhart: I feel like the others; there’s no single development I would mention, but rather the development of our contract portfolio that’s now about 2,000 MW, either in construction or in some stage of development. We’ve made a major contribution on the buy side to a lot of projects, some that have been mentioned today. For example, Catalina is in our portfolio.
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