At a time when Trump attempts to recreate the US as an autocrat-run petro-state like Putin’s Russia, renewable developers are beginning to build gigawatt-scale projects globally. One response? Russian military threat.
A gigawatt-scale offshore wind project near Russia’s border in the Baltic Sea had to be stopped in its tracks in December, because of a stepped-up Russian military threat in the region.
(A gigawatt (GW), or 1,000 MW, is a typical capacity for a nuclear plant, so these are much bigger solar and wind projects than even a few years ago when a good-sized utility-scale solar or wind farm was just a tenth of that, at 100 MW.)
Military Threat Against the Clean Energy Future from Rusting Petro-state
The Swedish government denied the permit for the 2 GW Blekinge Offshore AB wind farm in the Baltic Sea in December, after an eight-year development process, because Sweden must now keep the region for military exercises to protect its airspace from a new Russian military threat.
Russia has paraded nuclear warships off the coast of the Russian exclave of Kalingrad — just two hundred miles from the proposed site — and since 2015, has repeatedly flown military jets through Swedish and Finnish airspace.
Russia has also used warships to try to disrupt construction of a new power cable under the Baltic Sea to Lithuania, that will connect three former USSR states — Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — to Sweden’s cleaner grid.
Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are now EU members. They need to meet their Paris Agreement limits on carbon emissions, but they can’t do that as long as they remain primarily reliant on Russia’s dirty grid.
Russia still has virtually no solar or wind, and much of its grid is supplied by aging Soviet-era power plants. This is why the three Baltic nations are trying to connect across the Baltic Sea to Sweden. Russia tried to forcibly stop them from leaving by disrupting the connection.
So it is at the Baltic Sea intersection between the technologically advanced EU nations and Putin’s oil-fueled autocracy that the rise of renewables faces a military threat from a petro-state economy.
Russia Not the Only Petro-state Hard Hit by Oil Price Slump
As with the petro-state nations like Russia and Saudi Arabia, which are reeling from the last few years of low oil prices, all of the US states similarly reliant on an extractive economy are reeling. North Dakota’s oil crash caused an 8.4% drop in GDP. Wyoming’s coal-dependent GDP has shrunk 6.3%.
Texas and California have big oil production, but both have healthy diversified economies and embrace renewable growth, Texas with wind and California with solar.
Texas saw almost no impact from oil decline, while California (which attracts 57% of all US investment in sustainable industries) has seen only growth, and after the UK Brexit, is now the fifth-largest economy in the world, with a healthy budget surplus.
But some US states are clinging to the extraction model, and fighting to preserve it. Similar to the Russian military intimidation aimed at preventing three former Soviet states from joining the clean energy world, in the US, Wyoming has proposed to tax wind energy in what amounts to a smaller but more focused war to prevent the rise of clean energy there.
As Dirty Energy is in Decline, Clean Energy is Growing — to Gigawatt-scale
Even as fossil energy experiences this diminishment, individual renewable energy projects are increasingly being built at a very large scale.
MidAmerican Energy is building a gigawatt-scale wind farm, a 2 GW facility in wind-pioneer Iowa. The Power Company of Wyoming has final permits for its 3 GW Chokecherry Wyoming wind farm and the transmission needed to sell its power to California.
Solar Reserve is developing a 2 GW dispatchable thermal solar plant in Nevada, also to sell power to the enormous California market and is working on another at 1 GW in China. BrightSource is also developing a 1 GW CSP project in China, where the Chinese firm Minsheng New Energy has completed construction of the first half of a 2 GW PV project.
DONG Energy’s first US project, the Bay State Offshore Wind Farm is to be 1 GW and its Hornsey II offshore wind farm already permitted in 2016 was 1.8 GW. In Oman, Glasspoint Solar built the first ever 1 GW solar steam project to replace more expensive natural gas used in Enhanced Oil Recovery.
Image Credit: Glasspoint
Dirty Energy Fighting for Customers as Clean Energy Wins Price War
The momentum of renewable energy is now established. Globally, progressive policies helped renewables reach today’s tipping point. Given initial support by the Obama administration to get new technology to market, including making investment attractive through the ITC. Market forces have taken over in the US as well.
Utilities will choose the cheapest option, and in many places that is now wind and solar. Because utilities can purchase renewable energy in 25-year PPAs at a pre-set prices, they only need gas to fill in the gaps until storage becomes mainstream.
Clean energy’s low LCOE (Lazard 10th annual report) mean that developers can now sell clean power at the lowest prices. The result is that solar and wind accounts for an increasingly large share of new energy added to the grid. Iowa is now 35% wind powered in 2016, up from 31% in 2015, as one example of this growth rate. In Chile, without subsidies, solar is beating fossil fuels in competitive auctions.
The momentum is apparent when you see that for example, over 20 GW of land-based US wind power capacity is now under construction or in advanced development on top of 75 GW cumulatively installed. And offshore wind in Europe has reached a total of 12.5 GW as prices have rocketed down from 21 cents to just 5 cents per kWh.
All of the above factors add up to unstoppable momentum for renewable energy, not just in the US, but globally. In this context, Russia’s military maneuvers that threaten clean energy progress on its border looks like bucking the tide of history.
Russia has been reduced to literally clawing back energy customers through actual military intimidation. But clinging to the volatile extractive energy economy of the past will never provide economic security. Not for the new US autocratic petro-state Trump envisions, and not for the original model in Russia.