The US Green Energy Movement Is Red, White, And Blue

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Originally published on Fortune.
This article as co-authored by Dr. Raj Pannu, the CEO of Emergence Creative.

The energy might be clean, but the work is rooted in all-American dirt, sweat, and hard labor.

The Pope just took a stand on climate change. One of the fastest cars in the world is electric. China is the world’s leading market for solar. So why does it feel like America is stuck in the sixties when we talk about energy?

Clean, renewable, alternative: take your pick. Clean energy in the United States has been defined by earnest environmentalists who, to their credit, embraced it wholeheartedly, but, to our collective detriment, spun an ideological, naïve story divorced from the reality of the energy economy transformation actually taking shape around us.

The result is that clean energy is mistakenly seen as a passive and precious solution for a future society—a delicate sunflower waving in the face of a muscular coal miner, a pristine field of green and sky of blue set against a dirt mound penetrated by a fracking rig. It feels more utopian than aspirational, more luxury than necessity. In short, it doesn’t feel American.

American is can-do, right-now, yes ma’am. Luckily, the actual transformation of the energy economy is as American as the Hoover Dam or the interstate highways, and even more earth-shaking. If only the discussion among politicians, media, business leaders, and—most importantly—the American public reflected that reality.

Unfortunately, the clean energy conversation is profoundly and unnecessarily polarizing. Like climate change itself, it’s become part of a larger culture war that fits neatly into the media’s all too predictable tendency of false equivalence, pitting workers against activists, businessmen against academics, and common sense against idealism. As a result, according to recent surveys, public sentiment about the urgency of action to prevent climate change is split along party lines between “LET’S DO SOMETHING!” and “meh.”

So what’s the real story? The solar industry is raising and deploying over $20 billion every year in the United States and has created one out of every 80 jobs since the financial crisis. It’s bringing people out of the economic devastation of the home building industry and into gainful employment, with meaningful careers that involve building, making, and creating. Wind energy will reach 5% of total electricity in the U.S. next year. Three miles off New England’s Block Island, below grey Atlantic waters, steel and concrete anchor this country’s first offshore wind farm, which will provide power for 17,000 homes. Midwestern winds in Iowa will provide 40% of its electricity by 2020.

The energy might be clean, but the work and the jobs are as rooted in dirt, sweat, and back-breaking labor as any American endeavor, and even more lasting.

We need to change the conversation to align with the deep emotional and aspirational narratives that speak to the American public. Clean energy could feel as all-American, cutting-edge, rugged, reliable, resilient, and tough as fracking. The same American ideals of independence, freedom, self-sufficiency, and opportunity can bring together green advocates and Tea Party stalwarts, labor and entrepreneurs, main street and Wall Street.

Independence is the heart of American identity. Clean energy is independence turned into electrons: the application of cunning, sweat, and ingenuity to harness the restless power of the American landscape.

By rebranding Clean Energy, we can empower all Americans to work together for a stronger future. It’s time to get down and dirty.

Reprinted with permission.

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Jigar Shah

is a co-founder at Generate Capital and the author of Creating Climate Wealth: Unlocking the Impact Economy, 2013 Icosa Publishing. Shah unlocked the multi-billion-dollar worldwide solar industry with a business model innovation (Power Purchase Agreement), not a new technology. This model created SunEdison, once the largest solar services companies worldwide. Jigar Shah has shown that business model innovation applied to the biggest challenge of our lifetime – climate change – will unlock a $10 trillion new economy. After SunEdison was sold in 2009, Jigar served through 2012 as the first CEO of the Carbon War Room — the global organization founded by Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Unite to help entrepreneurs address climate change. SunEdison and Carbon War Room proved that we could make positive change through business and financial model innovation in many industries. Today, as CEO of Jigar Shah Consulting, he works with global companies in a multitude of industries to deploy existing clean energy solutions fueled by new business models.

Jigar Shah has 9 posts and counting. See all posts by Jigar Shah

51 thoughts on “The US Green Energy Movement Is Red, White, And Blue

  • The future of renewable energy is not going to made by the conservationist minded thinking smaller. that less is better. It will not be created by those hoping that human ambition will transmute itself into a religious like aesthetic that worships living small.

    Nope the future of energy and power is going to be created by people thinking big. In the near future <20 years all people not just Americans but the entire worlds population will be consuming more,much more energy per person.

    Now this will be really hard for energy conservationist to wrap their heads around but it will growth in the energy market and not contraction that's going to bring renewable energies to market dominance over fossil.This is not about winning a zero sum game its about out competing in an expanding market until renewable tech supersedes fossil fuel as superior in every metric. The market not politics or morality will sink fossil. It's with an expanding energy market that renewable leverage their advantage most over Fossil energy and create future reality where fossil is seen not just as inefficient or dirty but rather as completely and utterly inadequate way forward to meet the ever INCREASING energy needs of advancing human civilization.

    • People in the developed world will almost certainly be using less energy.

      Look at the diagram below. Look at how much energy America throws away as waste heat. The gray area is energy use, but don’t use. It’s the heat generated in power plants that doesn’t get turned into electricity and the heat generated by internal combustion engines that doesn’t create motion.

      To that add the fact that our ‘stuff’ is getting more efficient and will likely continue to get more efficient. And our manufacturing processes will likely continue to become more efficient as they make that more efficient stuff. Finally, add in our buildings which will become more efficient, requiring less energy for heating and cooling.

      In the developing world energy use may rise some, but could easily be offset by higher efficiency. There could be little or no growth in energy use in this sector. Even a drop.

      Where energy growth will grow will be the underdeveloped world. The people now living without electricity and running water. Their energy use will rise but probably won’t offset the drop in energy use among those who now use lots of energy.

      • Hey efficiency is great but you can’t evaluate efficiency without accounting for cost because the price of energy determines if efficiency measure are really efficient in term of the final arbiter, cost. We are entering a bubble of transition that may last a generation but on the other side of it the energy will look more like high tech consumer goods meaning that the cost per kilowatt hour is going to start to dramatically decrease, This diminishes the cost effectiveness implementing efficiency for efficiency sake, efficiency as a end unto itself. Cheap power will simply change the entire game.

        Remember how much software engineers used to obsess about memory and processing how the considerations of bottle necked hardware constituted starting,middle and end point of any program design. Cheap memory cheap processing changed entirely the relevancy of efficiency. When that happen other concerns come to the forefront now it more important to reduce the human design time per routine, up the novelty factor or make an application functions accessible through multiplicity of pathways. All these consideration come first now and often at the expense of pure electron and hardware efficiency. In the end efficiency is about conserving the component that is most limited. In the future I don’t think energy is going to be nearly the limiting factor it is today and so our perception efficiency will also change.

        • “efficiency is great but you can’t evaluate efficiency without accounting for cost”

          The cost of electricity from a new coal plant would be more than 15c/kWh. That’s before one adds in the external cost of coal.

          The cost of wind and solar will both soon below 5c/kwh.

          One reason for the price difference is that we won’t be paying for fuel and then discarding much of that energy.

          EVs are on track to having lower purchase prices than ICEVs. Then add in the lower maintenance costs and likely longer lifespan.

          LEDs cost more to purchase than incandescents but generally repay that extra cost in less than one year while lasting over a decade.

          Cheaper power and more efficient use of that cheaper power will mean that energy will become a much smaller portion of our personal and corporate budgets.

          Cheaper/more efficient might mean an eventual increase in our energy use but in what way for the developed world? Will people build more rooms onto their houses so that they can install a couple more TVs and have more unoccupied rooms with lights on and TV blaring? Will people go out and circle the block in their EVs for a while since their EV is cheap to drive?

          I suspect few in the developed world cramp their lifestyle much due to the cost of electricity.

          • LEDs are now cheaper then Edison bulbs, just because they last sooo long and you have no need to buy them again and again.

          • Correct.

            I was breaking apart initial purchase price and cost to operate.

        • I will not guess what the world will look like in 2121, but if we want people to be living there then we have some steps to take now.
          If you are going to say “can’t evaluate efficiency without accounting for cost” then you have to get the market to show true cost. The Harvard study put coal electric externals at 3x-5x the current retail cost. If we did a carbon fee and equal distribution (yes WTO approves tariffs at boarder), then we could do true accounting. It would impact both the market for efficiency and for RE.

          • That tarrif wouldn’t have a long lasting financial impact, cause all that fossil stuff would quickly get replaced.

      • I think he meant if you look at the residential slice only.

        The G20 largely controls all commercial and industrial outputs in the global economy. The 2nd and 3rd world don’t really have any commercial or industrial presence yet by our energy standards.

        The question that remains to be answered is :

        Can renewable energy alone run a modern industrialized economy?

        Germany / California are the closest.

        • No, Iceland,Norway and the American/Canadian pacific northwest are the first, first by a long long ways. Their are often enormousness seasonal energy gluts in these markets where electrical energy is practically free, The cost being the wear on bearings. This is the future for the rest of the world when solar and wind bring hydro and geothermal like plenitude to the rest of humanity.

          • It is not about current numbers, it is about a process. Germany is now on the path where they build 2-3 GW/year (in 60-80 GW electricity consumption area) of coal/nuclear baseload equivalent in wind and solar while reducing overall energy consumption. Right now, they are starting to catch up with heating demand reduction and EV support.

          • Just for clarity: above numbers are for total final energy consumption. So not just electricity, but also heating and transport. In 2014 renewables delivered 27 % of consumed electricity in Germany.

    • I’m with Bob on this. There is so much waste today that cutting it will not be difficult. On paper Jason’s scenario could cut in after the transition, as renewable energy keeps getting cheaper. But I don’t think we will revert to conspicuous waste. There are non-economic reasons for going for efficiency: a well-insulated house is quieter, low-consumption machinery and appliances will last longer, high-speed trains are less stressful as well as less energy-using than planes. Your 1 watt smartphone processor is as powerful as your 200 watt PC of five years ago.

      • Will it become popular to replace all the thin skins on the glass box office buildings and apartment towers being built from Moscow to Dubai right now? The heat gain and loss from 100% glass buildings is ridiculous. Retail stores by the millions prop open their front doors during winter and summer. People park for hours in their running vehicles with AC blasting while they are texting.
        Cutting needless waste would be like shutting down all the coal plants.

        • Dubai imports gas and that’s why they are moving on solar and efficiency. The problem with that region of the world is that they are scared of showing weakness, which is what they equate efficiency to. You have to pitch them on being tech forward which is why they like solar and advanced materials.

      • “But I don’t think we will revert to conspicuous waste.” LOL, we don’t have to “revert” to anything – to reach conspicuous waste.

        • Good call! 😀 I don’t really think it matters actually. Costs will shut down fossils as renewables will economically squash them. Ed Begley once said he didn’t care if you use a MW a day, as long as it’s generated with renawables, who cares?

      • There have been studies on this. I forget the proper term but lowering costs invariably leads to increased consumption. So when costs are free why even worry about it? Look at the car market now, low gas prices mean the top three selling cars are pick up trucks. SUV’s are flying off the show room floor.

        • I suspect you’re thinking about Jevons Paradox or the Jevons Effect.

          Increased consumption happens when cost drops but that holds only when there is unmet demand.

          Do you think most Americans are depriving themselves electricity? How many are turning off their TVs or sitting in the dark because they need to cut back on electricity use?

          I’m not talking about people living on the edge, but the larger population in total.

          The average monthly electricity bill in the US is $109. I suspect at least 80% of all households would use another $10 of electricity right now if they felt a need.

          • Yes, that’s the effect. There are a number of areas that use wood stoves rather than run their central heat so yes there are a number of homes that would use much more if it were cheap or free. Can’t quote numbers though.
            That $109 seems VERY low. Even when I had only 10KW of solar and propane heat I was running over $75/mo. and that with 6.5 cents/KWH cost. That’s with no AC either. I have friends and family all over the country and I don’t know of any that aren’t spending $300-500/mo.
            I think it’s all moot though, if solar on rooftops continues to grow by 50% year over year, that will far outstrip any efficiency gains we could possibly achieve.

    • It is always the economy, the economy, the economy, period. Nat gas didn’t replace coal for environmental reasons, it was the economics of fracking. The free market will sort this out no matter what else is going on.
      Renewables must win in the end because energy cost is zero. Nothing can compete with that long term. Once wind/solar/EV’s became commodities it was only a matter of time before cost forced a transition. It may take a decade or three but it will happen, purely for economic reasons, regardless of politics.

      • “Renewables must win in the end because energy cost is zero. ”

        And the installed cost is low. Roughly the same as NG, much lower than coal and nuclear. And continuing to drop.

        • The funny thing is it’s the governments own red tape that makes our costs twice what Germany’s is. Our ‘balance of systems’ cost is now higher than the panels themselves!
          We should be able to get a permit for $10 in one day, not for hundreds and not taking weeks or months.

          • I was looking at utility scale wind/solar/NG.

            I expect we’ll see very strong pressure to reduce the permitting costs for residential solar once the federal subsidies are gone. Installers are likely to push very, very hard to get their costs down and keep their businesses healthy.

  • For a European like me it is very strange that there is a need to discuss how American or un-American something is. With the risk of being accused of a Godwin: it reminds me of nazi Germany where culture and even science were divided in Arian and “entartet”, or the Soviet Union where things were divided into proletarian or “western decadent”/bourgeois. Although the US should be this broad multi-cultural melting pot, the definition of Amerian-nes also seems so narrow and based on some mythical founding fathers. Come on guys, step out of the red-neck frame that fox news has implemented in the brains of everybody, even of the far left*, and see renewables what they are: a technological fix for a complex socio-economic-environmental problem.

    * At least as far left as you have, your supposedly far left still looks very similar to a European conservative .

    • Yep, our far left looks just like German neo-Nazis and Hungarian fence builders. Pretty much like the folks opposing wind turbines in the UK.

      Yep, that’s our far left in a nutshell….

      • “Yep, our far left looks just like German neo-Nazis and Hungarian fence builders”

        That is not what I said, and certainly not what I tried to get across. What I did try to say is that looking from the other side from the pond it is a bit strange that you Americans seem so obsessed with your cultural identity that everything has to be labelled “american” or “unamerican”. This need to categorise everything in such a binary way indeed has some similarities with nazi-Germany and the Soviet Union. What makes this even weirder is that in practice you cannot speak of one American cultural identity. You are a very diverse country with many cultures and subcultures. Yet you seem to act like that there is one true American identity and you let the “Murica” shouters determine what that identity is. So that is why I say: step out of this simplistic frame and just look at renewables in a rational way.

        • Here’s one thing you said –

          “your supposedly far left still looks very similar to a European conservative”

          • And is that incorrect? I think Angela Merkel would fit better in the left part of the democratic party than in the republican party.

          • There’s a lot of space between the Republican party and the left part of the Democratic party. We could fit Merkel in there somewhere.

          • From a European perspective this space is not that big.

          • You could be having trouble seeing detail when viewing from a distance….

          • So you admit the differences are only in the details? 😉 Putting hyberbole and friendly teasing aside for a moment, you will probably agree that the political spectrum in the US differs from that in Europe and tilts more to the right.

          • Which part of Europe? There are parts of Europe which are fairly liberal and parts that are quite conservative.

    • No offense intended Hans. I have been around the world spreading solar policy and no one is trying to be “Germany”. They might decide to put in place a Feed-in-tariff but there is a reason that the vast majority of dominant renewable energy companies in developing countries are American.

    • You have no business analyzing us than we have analyzing you. The problem is this topic has been politicized and by definition, once anything is, battle lines are drawn. At America’s core IS a “Let do this” Or as Larry the Cable Guy puts it “Git’er done!” 😀 attitude. You’ve witnessed this in WW1, WW2, the cold war, the moon landings, the space station, the shuttle, Tesla, Intel, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, the internet, solar panels, etc.
      Somehow we have to walk back the politics and view this as a great opportunity. In the end, though, the power of free market capitalism will make the decision inevitable as it has with every other innovation. The cost curves will cross over in the not too distant future regardless of politics or anything else and that will be that.

  • Jigar, I’d say that the rebranding has been underway for some time. We’ve seen legislatures in conservative states turn back (Koch backed?) attempts to halt wind via legislation. We’ve seen Republican governors from conservative states lobbying for continued wind subsidies. We’ve seen the emergence of the Green Tea party with its support for solar energy.

    We’re now seeing utility scale wind and solar making their appearance in the very conservative Southeast states. We’re seeing very conservative Walmart covering rooftops with solar panels.

    Now, I’d agree that we would be well served by speeding things up. We need more media coverage of jobs created and local economies revitalized. Failing communities in the South should start thinking about boosting their job count and local government revenue by hosting wind and solar farms.

    • Looks like the solid “deny climate change” Republican Congressional stance has broken. A group of at least ten Republican representatives led by Rep. Chris Gib­son (R-NY) has signed a resolution stating that human activity contributes to climate change.

      This is very unlikely to pass in the Republican controlled Congress but it’s another sign of eroding “denial” and with that will likely come more support for renewable energy.

      • I would say again, politics is irrelevant. The free market is resolving this despite politics. Conservative Texas has been #1 in wind for some time now, Iowa isn’t far behind. Illinois is still running on coal. Despite what goes on in the political theater we call DC, zero energy costs must win economically. You can’t compete with zero.
        Even denial is irrelevant, it’s economics that has the final say.

  • “Clean energy in the United States has been defined by earnest
    environmentalists who, to their credit, embraced it wholeheartedly, but,
    to our collective detriment, spun an ideological, naïve story divorced
    from the reality of the energy economy transformation actually taking
    shape around us.”

    I think this a strawman made by the right wing and the fossil fuel lobby and you are swallowing it. There is not one story about renewable energy, there are many. There is the story of people looking for a practical technical solutions instead of forcing a behavioural change, there is the story of engineers and scientists ever improving the technology and thinking in a rational way about feasibility, costs and the pathways for transformation in an early stage, there is the story of individuals and communities who built wind turbines and solar energy systems not because of profit, because they did not want to wait for governments to finally do the right thing, there is the story of investors and manufacturers who are in there for the profit.

    • We are speaking to ourselves here. The vast electorate in the USA sees renewable energy as fragile like a Sunflower blowing in a breeze. Fracking is viewed as all American. We need to change that.

      • I think you misunderestimate the American electorate. The problem is not with the electorate, but with your indirect voting system that allows a conservative minority get a majority in congress.

        • And where did you get the idea that conservatives are a minority? From liberals? 😀 We have always been a center-right country, always will. We value the individual here, not the commons. Our entire constitution is written with individual rights, not commons rights. That actually makes most Americans libertarians, though few would admit it. That is, socially liberal, fiscally conservative. It is only the fringes on both sides that seek purity.

          • I should have formulated that more accurately. You congress and senate are much more right wing than the population. Because of how your voting system works a minority of wingnuts and corporate interests determine the political agenda. Simple example of how your voting system distorts things: Al Gore won the popular vote, but still lost the election.

            But you bring up a nice new issue: Individual rights vs. common good. Often this is a false dichotomy. Environmental pollution is a nice example. Pollution is a “common bad” as well as an infringement on individual rights. To put it in libertarian terms: the polluters apply a form of violence to pollution victims. Libertarians don’t like this idea, because it means that economic freedom cannot be absolute, so they mostly turn to denial regarding the negative effects of pollution.

          • The more you post the more clueless you prove to be. We have something called an ‘electoral college’ that determines the presidency. That means politicians need to completely ignore the popular vote and concentrate on a complex formulation of those votes instead. If we didn’t have that system and just had a popular vote the politicians would concentrate on that. We are NOT a democracy, we are a constitutional republic.
            Pure democracy is two wolves and a sheep discussing the dinner menu. It’s called they tyranny of the masses. So, UNDER THIS SYSTEM Gore won the popular vote and that is completely irrelevant. If it were a pure democracy the Bush team would have changed strategy and likely still would have won. Bush simply had a better team.
            You have no idea what the US general public thinks, few pundits honestly do. I will say again the US is a center-right country.
            Individual rights vs. the ‘common good’ is NOT a false dichotomy. If you had the slightest clue about libertarianism you would know the old saw ‘The right to swing your fist stops at my face’. That fist is also pollution. When your pollution enters my air, water, soil, you have NOT stopped at my face, you have slapped it! 😀 Libertarianism has nothing to do with economics being free, it has everything to do with individuals being free, economics SHOULD be free to the point that it supports my individual freedom, but that includes not being assaulted by other peoples pollution.
            What are the commons? They are a group of individuals. If you do not respect the individuals within the commons, you are not for the good of the commons. The commons are just an evil way handlers have of making people surrender their individual rights and sacrifice. Invariably those sacrifices do not go to the commons but to the oligarchs and do not play by the rules.

          • Seems I stepped on your toe.

            I agree with you that the US is more leaning to the right as the average European country. See my discussion with Bob.

            I agree with you that the US is not a true democracy. However your negative idea of a direct democracy is BS. I come from the Netherlands and there we have a direct democracy and I do not recognise your wolves/sheep story there. However, I do see it in the US where a minority of wolves (the very very rich) determine the political agenda.

            The way your election system is organised means that the population of rural states are overrepresented in congress and senate. Rural populations tend to be more conservative than urban population. Draw your own conclusions.

            You are also right that if you take libertarianism seriously you would need to include the effects of pollution. However many, if not most, people calling themselves libertarians cherry pick the ideas from the ideology that they like (not wanting to pay taxes, no government regulation) and they ignore the rest, or turn to denial to the negative effects of pollution to keep their simplistic world view intact. Just look at the climate change denial coming from a range of ‘libertarian’ ‘think-tanks’.

            The libertarian way of dealing with pollution would that victims would sue the polluters. But this can be impractical. For example: fine dust increases the changes of asthma. So when you live in the neighbourhood of a coal power plant and a highway and have asthma: who do you sue? The power plant owner, the car manufacturers, the individual car drivers? How do you prove that your asthma is the result of pollution and not from your genetic make-up? Maybe it would be easier to just forbid the fine dust pollution or at least limit it by regulation.

          • Just a small point –

            “The way your election system is organised means that the population of rural states are overrepresented in congress and senate.”

            The US Congress has two ‘divisions’, the House of Representatives and the Senate.

            Members of the House (Representatives) are proportional to population size in a state, each state guaranteed a minimum of one. The states with the least population have at least one Representatives, above that the number of Representatives increases with the size of the population. California, with the largest population, has 53.

            Each state has two Senators, members of the Senate. Those positions are very nonproportional. When our constitution was written there were 13 colonies and populations were fairly similar. There’s no way the ‘Founding Fathers’ could have foreseen the US takeover of the vast empty spaces of the West and Alaska. Alaska has about three quarters of a million people and two senators. California has over 39 million people and two senators.

            We have a system of government designed over 200 years ago when there weren’t many models of self-governing available. In some ways we need a reboot, but I can’t find a system in another country that I’d call greatly superior. It seems to me that the governments that seem to work best are often in countries with the most homogenous population. If most of the people think similarly then it’s easy to govern.

            We need some major fixes, but they could be done with the governmental structure we now have. Campaign financing is at the root of most of the evils that plague us. We need nonpartisan districting for Representatives so that we don’t get these weirdly shaped congressional districts cooked up to make it a sure win for one party. We need to decrease the power of the ‘two parties’, they aren’t written into the Constitution.

            The rest of our problems seem to be not due to our governmental system, but to differences between people. We’re a rapidly evolving society, changing our attitudes about race and gender identification very rapidly. And some people change much slower than others, or never change. We’ve long needed to change our approach to health insurance and probably would be better off going to single payer, but that’s difficult due to how our campaigns are financed.

            I’d say that a good hunk of our problems come from libertarian thinking, from both those who call themselves libertarians and to the extent that libertarianism is a dominate theme in the right wind in general. It basically comes down to greed and selfishness. “I’ve got mine. Screw you!”

            It feels like many European countries have less of this selfish thinking and are able to work to improve their social programs where we tend to spend most of effort trying to stop the libertarians from destroying social programs.

            Humm…. A short comment turned into a ramble.

        • Maybe, but I am not spending any time to change that.

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