Sustaining Strong Renewable Energy Growth

The renewable energy community has undoubtedly faced some adversity over the past year or so, what with an assortment of production tax credits (PTCs) expiring at the end of 2013, legacy energy interests attacking state Renewable Portfolio Standards (unsuccessfully, we might add) and EPA putting out some unfortunately shortsighted proposals for Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) blending requirements for this year.

But that same community is strong in its response to these hurdles. Efforts are starting to mount to urge Congress to extend and strengthen the PTCs, and EPA received thousands of heartfelt comments from real people and real businesses in the biofuels sector making clear that the agency’s RFS proposals will have real economic and energy security consequences.

The strength of this response is not at all surprising because it reflects some rather strong performances by the various sectors within the renewable energy community over the past year. Wind energy, solar power, advanced biofuels, geothermal energy and other technologies experienced solid – and in some cases, huge – growth in 2013.

After a sluggish start to the year when Congress allowed the PTC to expire at the end of 2012, the American wind energy industry responded to the eventual extension of the 2.3-cents-per-kilowatt-hour credit in 2013 by starting construction on an historic and unprecedented number of new wind farms. At the end of 2013, more than 12,000 megawatts (MW) of new generating capacity was under construction, with a record-breaking 10,900 MW ‑ the equivalent of 3.5 million American homes, or all the households in Iowa, Oklahoma and Kansas ‑ underway in the fourth quarter alone. U.S. manufacturing production capacity has ramped up dramatically ‑ there are now more than 5,600 MW of turbine orders placed, with major manufacturing facilities active in places such as Colorado, Kansas, Iowa and South Dakota.

Last year’s National Solar Jobs Census found that the U.S. solar industry employed 142,700 Americans as of November 2013, a figure that includes the addition of 23,700 solar workers over the previous year, representing 19.9 percent growth in employment since September 2012. The census, which is conducted annually by The Solar Foundation, showed solar employment grew 10 times faster than the national average employment rate of 1.9 percent. And solar employment is expected to grow by 15.6% over most of this year, or about 22,240 new solar workers.

The advanced U.S. biofuels capacity for 2013 was 1 billion gallons gasoline equivalent and capacity for 2015 is expected to be between 1.4 and 1.6 billion gallons gasoline equivalent, says the clean energy advocacy group Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2). The group’s study shows 160 commercial scale facilities planned, under construction, or complete from 159 companies, with private investment in the sector totaling more than $4.85 billion since 2007.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance says that 2013 was the most successful capacity-building year for biomass energy since 2009, with 230 MW added to the nation’s electricity grid. The Biomass Power Association says the $1-billion industry currently has 80 facilities in 20 states and provides more than 15,500 jobs. Power plants are predominantly located in rural communities, where thousands of jobs are created and millions of dollars in revenues are generated. Biomass, which represents about half of all renewable energy produced in the United States, is expected to grow, specifically in southeastern states that lack sustainable access to wind or solar power. And biomass production, through thinning, pruning, residue management and other practices, continues to be a key part of healthy forest management.

EPA’s AgSTAR program estimated that as of November, 2013, there were approximately 220 anaerobic digester systems operating at commercial livestock farms in the United States, nearly 30 more than the number of systems online at the same time in 2012. Producing energy, fertilizer and biogas from agricultural waste and manure, these systems are expected to grow significantly in number over the years ahead through an agreement renewed this year between USDA and the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy to accelerate the adoption of innovative waste-to-energy projects and energy efficiency improvements on U.S. dairy farms, a move that will help the dairy industry reach its long-term goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020.

U.S. geothermal growth contributed to a global expansion in 2013 that has now reached more than 12,000 MW of geothermal power operational, with about 600 MW of new geothermal power coming online globally, including that in Oregon, Nevada and Utah. An estimated 30,000 MW is headed for development throughout the world, with U.S. companies playing a large part in 70 nations moving forward with nearly 700 geothermal power projects (compared to 46 countries developing or actively considering geothermal power projects in 2007).

It cannot be emphasized enough that all of these renewable energy sectors deliver multiple contributions to reduced greenhouse gas emissions, economic growth and further improvements in national and energy security.

So, while the renewable energy sector continues to experience strong growth and offers obvious benefits, there is more work to be done to ensure a clear path to a clean energy future. State Renewable Portfolio Standards are already coming under renewed attack in this new legislative year. Stakeholders must continue their defense of the RFS and renewable energy interests must vigorously remind Congress of the need for PTCs and other funding mechanisms that can enable these relative new energy sources to fulfill their role as critical pieces of a national energy strategy. 25x’25 urges all renewable energy advocates to do their part in sustaining the growth achieved in 2013 through the years ahead.

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