This week, the Trump administration put Daniel Simmons, who comes from a Washington think tank opposed to government support for renewables, in charge of the Energy Department office that supports renewables (or did). It’s a reminder of why we need to pay attention—to the economics that really underpin our energy choices, to the regulations and subsidies that set the field of play and to the progress being made toward a cleaner economy even as the president tries to turn energy policy 180 degrees. Here’s our third edition of Clean Economy Weekly. As always, I welcome comments and suggestions. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And thanks for reading.
The price and pace of U.S. solar
We hear about solar prices coming down, but a new analysis of the cost for consumers who are putting photovoltaic (PV) panels on their rooftops brings it home (pun intended). EnergySage, operator of a website where consumers can get quotes for solar installations, found that the U.S. gross cost per watt—before rebates or credits—dropped 6.25% in the second half of 2016 from the first half, the fastest price decline since the group started compiling this data in 2014. At an average of $3.36 per watt and a typical installation size of 7.6 kilowatts, the investment is still hefty, more than $25,000 (before tax credits). But the amount of time rooftop solar takes to pay for itself continues to drop and now averages 7.4 years, according to the EnergySage report.
The bigger picture for U.S. solar is that, after a blockbuster 2016, installations are expected to slow this year. The Solar Energy Industries Association annual market report forecasts a 10% decline from the record 14,762 megawatts (MW) of solar panels installed in the U.S. last year, of which more than 10,000 MW was built by utilities. The report, prepared by GTM Research, says the annual pace of utility solar installations is unlikely to top 10,000 MW again before 2021. The 2016 “Solar Market Insight Report” can be found here.
The vagaries of government incentives are the main reason for both the surge in solar last year and the expected drop-off this year, according to an article in PV Magazine. Plans for many installations had been set based on the concern that the credit might lapse at the end of 2016. So, even though a multi-year extension of the credit was passed in December 2015, projects were in motion and schedules set, and a lot of that work was completed by the end of last year.
KEY QUOTE: “I think if the industry does it right, it can grow dramatically faster than it has been doing so far.” —Vikram Aggarwal, founder and CEO of EnergySage
A total eclipse of the … grid
On August 21, a total eclipse of the sun will put much of the U.S. in shadow, creating a challenge that the electric grid has never faced before and a bit of dread among system operators, the Financial Times explains. During the last total eclipse in the U.S., in 1976, photovoltaics played no role in our power supply. The story is here.
KEY STAT: The California grid operator predicts that some 70 MW of solar generation could drop off the system every minute as skies darken, for a deficit of about 6,000 MW at the peak of the event.
Renewables outstrip coal in India
Credit: AFP / Stringer
We hear a lot about renewables in China, but the next-largest developing economy has progress to report, as well. For the first time, India installed more solar and wind power capacity than fossil fuel generation in the past year, according to government data. A report from CleanTechnica is here. The Indian government’s National Electricity Plan is here.
KEY STATS: India installed 14,140 MW of renewables and 6,990 MW of coal generation during its 2016-2017 fiscal year, bringing renewables to 17.5% of its total generating capacity.
And U.S. coal export plans die
Usually, journalists avoid writing about things that are not happening, but the demise of plans to export coal from the U.S. West Coast seems to merit an exception. Just a few years ago, investors believed surging Asian coal consumption would rescue American producers. Now, China’s demand is weakening and India’s imports are falling, according to a report in the Seattle Times, and the one lingering proposal for a giant Columbia River export terminal isn’t viable—it got a thumbs down from state regulators last week, too. The newspaper piece, by Clark Williams-Derry, an energy analyst at the Sightline Institute, is here.
KEY QUOTE: “The economic prospects for West Coast coal exports have collapsed.” —Clark Williams-Derry
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Offshore wind comes on
In case you missed it, InsideClimate News on Monday profiled the first U.S. offshore wind project, which started feeding power this week to Block Island, about 10 miles south of the Rhode Island mainland. Reporter Phil McKenna describes the potential for offshore wind along the New England coast and the high price, so far, compared to Europe, where greater scale has brought prices down. The story is linked here.
MUST-SEE: Phil includes a great NASA promotional video from 1980, showing an experimental wind turbine installed on Block Island in 1979.
A new wind turbine every few hours
Wind power expanded in the U.S. at a fervid pace in the first three months of this year, with a new wind turbine coming online every two and a half hours. The InsideClimate News story, with an explanation of what’s driving the surge in turbine construction, is here. The American Wind Energy Association release is here.
And, finally, the story of wind power for Block Island reminded us of a recent comment by Lyndon Rive—cousin of Elon Musk and co-founder of SolarCity, now part of Tesla. An inflection point has been reached, Rive said: Any island that depends on diesel generators (as Block Island did until a few days ago) can now get cheaper power from a system of solar plus batteries. That story, from Greentech Media, is here.
KEY QUOTE: “It makes perfect sense to convert every island out there right now to solar and storage.” —Lyndon Rive