Renewable energy under attack, but advancing steadily (via Agri-Pulse Communications)

“In Iowa, a state that just became the first in the nation to generate over 30 percent of its power from wind energy, we’ve seen the economic success story behind renewables up close and personal. There are more than 6,000 good wind jobs in Iowa, and the clean energy opportunity is available to every state in the country.”

This praise for renewable energy and the jobs it creates came from Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, at last week’s National Renewable Energy Policy Forum hosted by the American Council On Renewable Energy (ACORE).

Also at the ACORE forum was Marsden Hanna, Google’s principal for energy, who said the company is seeking to power 100 percent of its operations from renewable energy “through long-term fixed-price contracts that help us smooth our financial planning, while insulating ourselves from fuel price volatility.”

Demand for renewable energy including wind, solar, and biofuels could climb even faster than Grassley and Hanna expect if the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan overcomes the legal challenges that have blocked EPA from implementing the plan until there is a final court ruling.

The renewables industry is confident that it’s well enough established to keep growing dramatically even if the courts or a new administration were to reject federal climate initiatives, including the Clean Power Plan, to limit power plant carbon emissions.

One sign of renewable energy’s strength is that while reduced demand for coal and a worldwide glut in crude oil have reduced investment in fossil fuel projects, renewable energy continues to attract new financing, cut costs, and create jobs.

Despite these developments, renewables remain under attack by the fossil fuel industry which charges that renewable energy could drive energy prices higher, threaten reliability, and “devastate” the U.S. economy. These charges have been highlighted in GOP presidential candidates’ speeches, in congressional hearings continuing this week, and in the American Petroleum Institute’s “Vote4Energy” print and TV ads. The ads picture ordinary consumers saying that “Producing and refining more domestic oil and natural gas will mean more abundant energy – and that means more affordable energy for American families.”

Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) President and CEO Bob Dinneen isn’t impressed. He sees the oil industry’s ads and the other attacks on renewables as a sign of desperation. In an Agri-Pulse interview, Dinneen said that despite the oil industry’s advertising and lobbying campaigns, “we’ve got something they don’t have, and that is the public support for energy security, for rural economic development, for addressing climate change.”

Dinneen points out that the renewable fuels industry has been hurt along with the petroleum industry by the plunge in oil prices, now around $40 a barrel compared to 2014’s peak of over $100. But he says the two industries have responded very differently. “When oil prices collapsed throughout last year, the oil industry retrenched,” he says. “They cut 80,000 jobs, they slashed rig counts. And they have moved out of rural communities in North Dakota and Texas where fracking operations had provided a very temporary boom. Those communities now are suffering from the oil bust.”

In contrast, “Given the very same economics with low energy prices, the ethanol industry increased jobs by 2,000, we invested in new technologies that would make us more efficient and provide value-added markets,” Dinneen says. “We invested in infrastructure so that we could expand higher-level blends. So our industry, when faced with a tough situation, continues to invest in the communities that we care about. The oil industry picks up and runs.”

Whether oil prices stay depressed or recover, Dinneen expects renewable fuels to continue gaining both market share and public support because “we have continued to provide consumers with savings at the pump” – savings which he expects to increase as the RFA continues its efforts to increase biofuels use by increasing the availability of higher-level blends, boosting exports, and pressing EPA to raise its Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) volume requirements.

Scott Sklar, president of The Stella Group, which promotes renewable energy, and an adjunct professor at George Washington University, tells Agri-Pulse that renewables are under attack “because they’re doing so well.” He notes that the U.S. solar industry now “employs more people than the coal industry” and that solar and wind now add more electric generation capacity in the U.S. every year than natural gas.

After Congress extended renewable energy tax credits for another five years in December, Sklar says “That’s really all we need from the federal government.” He says the focus now is on support at the state level where “over 30 states have renewable energy portfolio standards requiring a mix of renewable energy, with solar and wind as the lead choices.”

Sklar says almost 209,000 people now work in solar jobs in the U.S., more than twice the number for coal, adding that he doesn’t see the states giving up those jobs. “The reason the tax credits were extended was the vast number of jobs being created by these (renewable energy) industries,” he says.

While the renewable industry suffered a setback recently in Nevada – which reversed itself on net metering, reducing payments to solar panel owners for their excess electricity – Sklar sees a silver lining. He predicts the result there will be what he’s done with his own buildings in Virginia: batteries will be installed, empowering homeowners and businesses to use more of their own power. Sklar says renewables’ opponents like the Koch brothers may slow but can’t stop growth in this industry.

“This is an innovation as powerful and as disruptive as cellular telephones on the traditional telephone grid,” he says. “Just like communication closer to the customer, this is electric power closer to the customer.”

Republican governors rather than major utility companies are leading efforts to overturn the Clean Power Plan, Sklar says, “because most utilities think they can meet the plan.” He adds that with widespread support for state renewable energy requirements, states were supporting renewable energy “even before the Clean Power Plan.” Despite renewable energy’s well-funded opponents, Sklar expects renewables to continue gaining ground.

National Biodiesel Board (NBB) CEO Joe Jobe tells Agri-Pulse that after doubling biodiesel production from 1 billion gallons in 2012 to a forecast 2 billion in 2017, biodiesel producers are on track to more than double U.S. production again by 2022. He says biodiesel’s rapid growth since 2012 happened despite EPA’s falling three years behind in setting RFS volume requirements. “Even with all that policy uncertainty,” he says, “the biodiesel industry continued to produce record volumes year after year.”

Jobe takes the continuing attacks on renewable energy and the RFS very seriously. He knows how hard it has been to create new fuels “when the incumbent fuel that you’re displacing is the largest, richest, most mature industry in the world” which has “made it a top priority to kill the RFS.” But his good news is that “it has been their top priority for many years and they have not gotten it done.”

NBB’s own priorities are increasing EPA’s RFS volume requirements, extending the biodiesel tax credit, turning it into a producer’s tax credit so the benefits go only to domestic production not imports, and delivering the message that “biodiesel offers perhaps the most immediate and effective tool for the nation to meet its carbon reduction goals.”

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