President* Trump campaigned on the promise of bringing back coal jobs, but so far coal miners, their families, and their communities have little to show for it — and meanwhile, the US renewable energy sector continues to pick up steam. In the latest development, the organization REBA is already off to a running start on its goal of helping private companies develop 60 gigawatts of renewable energy in the US by 2025.
That’s a pretty ambitious undertaking, and last week CleanTechnica sat down on the phone with a REBA partner organization for some insights into how it’s all coming together.
Coal Vs. Renewable Energy: The State Of Play
Before we get to the interview, let’s take a quick measure of just how high REBA has set the bar.
As of the end of last year, utility-scale coal power plants in the US totaled a hair over 279 gigawatts. So yes, from that perspective 60 gigawatts of renewable energy really is an ambitious goal.
To make matters worse for coal, its share of the power generation market has been shrinking while renewables are growing.
Our friends over at The Economist called out the Commander-in-Chief last September for not following through on his campaign promise (emphasis added):
Data from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) show that around 17,000 Megawatts (MW) of coal plant capacity has been retired between January 2017 and June 2018… In Mr Trump’s first year of office 6,300 MW was retired, and in the first six months of 2018 retirements have already totalled around 10,650 MW. Between 2012 and 2016 around 43,800 GW of coal capacity was retired, so the fall seen since 2017 represents a continuation of this trend, despite the more positive policy environment for the coal-fired power sector.
Unfortunately for US coal miners, it gets worse. Earlier this week, Utility Dive updated the year-to-date remaining coal capacity in the US to just 246 gigawatts. The outlook for the future is gloomy:
U.S. power providers will close more coal-fired generation capacity in 2018 than any year before…
The U.S. will retire 15.4 GW of coal capacity this year…By 2024, an additional 21.4 GW of coal capacity will go offline, and that number will likely rise as generators announce more retirements.
The Sierra Club also notes that simply maintaining the average rate of coal power plant retirements (measured in megawatts) would completely phase out coal by 2035.
To be clear, there is not a one-to-one correlation between adding renewable energy gigawatts and subtracting coal gigawatts. Natural gas is another significant factor in the coal power plant retirement trend, and it, too, is facing competition from renewables.
Nevertheless, the main point is that coal that the US energy landscape is rapidly shifting underfoot, Trump or no Trump.
Then there’s that whole thing about rolling back mine safety standards and other health protections for coal communities, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms.
Hey, What About That Interview?
So, REBA. The partnership involves four familiar clean power names on the CleanTechnica circuit: the Rocky Mountain Institute, World Wildlife Fund, World Resources Institute, and Business for Social Responsibility.
Alex Klonick, who works with the Business Renewables Center at the Rocky Mountain Institute, explains how the REBA effort is fostering the acceleration of renewable energy development (comments edited for clarity and flow):
CleanTechnica: How are companies responding to renewable energy opportunities?
Klonick: Even with the new tariffs, growth is speeding up. We’re consistently seeing new entrants from every sector.
For example, we had AT&T make their first announcement with a big splash. Fifth Third Bank and Swiss RE are also both new this year.
It’s also it’s definitely gone beyond the early adopters. We still get IT companies like Intuit and Adobe, but now we’re seeing companies like Groupo Bimbo, Smuckers, Etsy, Nestle, Nike, Novartis, Merck, Ingersoll Rand, and Kohler.
It’s an impressive diversity of companies. We have had 19 new buyers this year. These are major purchasers and multinationals from every sector. It is really reassuring to see that it’s not a flash in the pan, it’s not just one sector.
A lot of companies are also getting into this from the corporate social responsibility angle. Their customers are asking for this.
There’s also a business case to be made. Renewable energy can be a financial benefit and a hedge against power prices in certain areas. It’s not tied to fuel prices, so volatility in the fossil fuel market can be an opportunity for some corporations.`
CleanTechnica: What are some of the differences you’re seeing over time?
Klonick: A change we are starting to see in corporate social responsibility is that companies are looking to go beyond scope 1 (emissions related to direct operations like on site power plant) and scope 2 (emissions related to grid). They’re going on to scope 3: emissions related to supply chain.
As companies start meeting their direct renewable energy operational goals they start looking at their supply chains, which can account for 80% of their emissions
On site renewable energy is a great way for companies to experience procurement in a relatively low risk way, but on site does not address at scale their overall energy needs and their emissions needs. So, they are turning to offsite development.
Fifth Third bank, for example, met 100% of their energy needs in one purchase.
The Magic Happens In The Supply Chain
Did you get all that? The main point is that in the early days, a lot of renewable energy development involved on-site facilities that, in most cases, could only provide for a limited amount of energy use by a company.
As corporate buyers seek to reach a 100% goal they have to venture offsite, and the impact of those large scale, grid-enabled purchases can ripple out to benefit the renewable energy profiles of other users on the grid.
Klonick noted that corporate buyers can wield a lot of influence with utilities that are on board with renewable energy, and a recent CleanTechnica interview with GM’s global manager of renewable energy, Rob Threlkeld, underscores that point. Here’s the money quote from Threlkeld:
Utilities are beginning to respond to the demands that customers have. We need to scale that up.
We’ve had some success with power purchase agreements but we want to integrate with utilities, and have constructive conversations with them.
Utilities really are the natural aggregator. Renewables are lowest cost solution but the challenge is how to make them accessible to all, not just the large companies but also the supply chain.
In other words, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
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Image: via Business Renewables Center Deal Tracker.
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