Even Amidst Drama, RFS, Utility Survey Shows Strength of Renewables

The continuing drama taking place in Washington this week over the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) underscores a basic truth in the energy world: Certainty of policy generates growth and benefits consumers.

After more than four months, the nomination of former Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey to a key USDA undersecretary position was finally released Tuesday and then was immediately sent to the Senate floor where it was rapidly approved by a voice vote.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) was using the procedural hold on Northey’s nomination in an effort to force revisions that would weaken the RFS, a policy program adopted by a widely bipartisan vote of Congress in 2007.

Iowa Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, along with lawmakers from other ethanol states, have been successful in fending off the assaults on the RFS from Cruz and other senators with strong oil refinery interests. Cruz released Northey’s nomination just as he, Grassley, Ernst and other parties in the dispute met with President Trump, a strong ethanol supporter, and key cabinet members at the White House to discuss the conflict. Nothing definitive came out of the meeting, though ethanol and oil industry representatives are reportedly being called to the White House today to form a task forces in an effort to find some resolution.

But paramount among the sentiments that are emerging after months of debate is the certainty of a biofuel policy that has served as a strong driver for the rural economy, created new markets for farmers, generated new jobs in rural America, given consumers more fuel choices, and improved national security and our nation’s air quality.

Of course, not all policies that have pushed this country towards a clean energy future are free from potential disruption. Still, a wide range of renewable energy resources continue to be put in play by interests that recognize the long-term, economic advantages they hold over their fossil-fuel counterparts.

A good example of that growing faith in clean energy is a new survey of North American utility executives undertaken by the trade publication, Utility Drive. It shows that while utilities are wary of the administration’s energy policy reform agendas, they remain unmoved in their commitment to a cleaner energy future and overwhelmingly dedicated to moving to a lower-carbon, more distributed electricity system.

The survey was conducted in December of more than 600 U.S. and Canadian electric utility professionals. It showed utilities across the continent expect to install more solar, wind and distributed energy resources over the next decade, and modernize their grids to accommodate them.

The survey also shows that electric utilities are largely opposed to key administration energy priorities, including rolling back carbon regulations and altering wholesale power markets to benefit coal and nuclear plants.

This year is the fifth in which Utility Dive has canvassed the sector, and while in each of the previous four surveys executives said they expected to add more solar, wind and other clean energy sources, utilities appear more bullish than ever this year about that growth.

The survey shows more than 90 percent or more of executives across the country expressed a high level of confidence in the growth of utility scale solar and distributed generation combined with storage. Some 85 percent of those responding were firm in their expectations of grid-scale energy storage, which can optimize the use of renewables. More than three out of four said they expected more utility-scale wind generation.

Meanwhile, the optimistic outlook for renewables and distributed energy resources contrasts with what Utility Drive calls “an increasingly tepid view of natural gas generation,” noting that just two years ago, nearly three out of four said they expected “moderate or significant growth in gas” – a share that dropped to a little more than one out of two this year. The survey also shows utilities all across the nation expect to continue retiring coal-fired generation, and virtually no one expects to add more coal capacity to their systems in the next decade.

While utility executives may be uncomfortable with the federal policy turmoil evolving alongside renewable energy development, they join states, cities and corporations in pursuing energy solutions that not only save them money, but create jobs for their communities, boost the economy and make our world a better place to live. This is an important point that policy makers at all levels of government should take notice of and respect.


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