If you needed one last piece of evidence to convince you that President* Trump’s professions of support for coal miners are all hot air, take a look at the 2019 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook released today by BloombergNEF and the Business Council for Sustainable Energy. In among the facts is a long, painfully detailed obituary for the US coal industry.
It’s also a love letter to the natural gas industry, which gets slipped into the “sustainable” category for ramping up the nation’s energy efficiency profile. That’s not particularly sustainable, to say the least. Even if you say it’s sustainable, it’s not sustainable. Nevertheless, the Factbook sets the stage for a precipitous drop in both natural gas and coal over the next few years.
1. Energy Efficiency
The energy efficiency wallflower really deserves a lot more attention, in terms of pushing fossil fuel out of the picture. The Factbook delivers. It observes that investment in energy efficiency hit a new record high of $15 billion in 2017, and that’s just for starters. Pennsylvania, Virginia, Connecticut, and Florida all passed new building energy codes last year, and the impact of the stronger codes on building efficiency — one of our new favorite topics — should show up in 2019.
Interestingly, all four of these states are either quickly losing their grip on coal, or they don’t have much of a grip left. Energy efficiency improvements could push them right over the edge.
Pennsylvania, for example, lost about one-third of its coal power generating capacity between 2010 and 2017. The pain isn’t over yet. At least two more coal plants are slated to close within the next ten years, and those two account for 30% of the state’s remaining coal capacity. One of them is the largest one left in the state, the Bruce Mansfield coal power plant in Beaver County.
Coal is already toast in Virginia, accounting for just 12% of electricity generation, and it barely registers in Connecticut.
In Florida, coal made up 1/3 of electricity generation until 2003, when it began losing ground to natural gas. As of 2017 coal was down to 1/6, and a fresh round of coal power plant closings is on the table.
2. Renewable Energy
If you caught that thing about losing ground to natural gas, that’s the problem right there. The Factbook underscores the natural gas trade-off. Last year the nation set a record pace of additions for natural gas generating capacity, and the Factbook also notes that natural gas technology is driving an increase in energy efficiency for electricity generation. Nevertheless, greenhouse gas emissions are creeping up again.
Clearly a gas-driven economy doesn’t hold water, and now the pressure is on to accelerate renewable energy. Here’s the good news:
Renewable energy continues to grow. Installations of renewables hit 19.5 gigawatts in 2018. Solar accounted for a combined 11.6 gigawatts last year followed by wind at 7.5 gigawatts. In 2018, hydro added 142 megawatts, biomass and waste-to-energy added 103 megawatts, and geothermal added 53 megawatts.
That’s the good news. Now let’s hear from Ethan Zindler, BloombergNEF’s head of Americas:
However, the overall jump in CO2 emissions during 2018 is a clear reminder that technological advancements on their own cannot address the climate challenge. Strong, supportive policies are needed at the local, state, as well as federal level.
State-level policy on renewables is a familiar refrain here at CleanTechnica. One interesting example is under way in Massachusetts and California. Both states are leveraging their strong renewable energy profiles to encourage building owners to electrify their heating systems rather than depending on natural gas or oil.
The building electrification trend has barely begun to take off. That could be another significant factor to weigh in over the next few years.
The Factbook also notes that California, Nevada, New Jersey, and New York are among those ratcheting up their renewable energy standards, and that makes a significant difference:
Although one year of energy consumption and emissions data does not signify a trend, the statistics in this year’s Factbook do point to the importance of policy. Smart federal, state and local policies should support and leverage private sector investment going forward to ensure these gains continue, especially in the industrial and buildings sectors that can be more challenging to decarbonize.
3. Business Hearts Renewable Energy
Speaking of businesses and buildings, the Factbook draws attention to the importance of corporate policy making in pushing the renewable energy transition:
Retailers, major technology firms, and even an oil major contracted record volumes of renewable power through direct contracts. Others pledged to double energy productivity or to green their vehicle fleets, with electric, fuel cell and renewable natural gas power vehicles.
The Rocky Mountain Institute’s Business Renewables Center is a good place to go for a look at the future. BRC has been instrumental in connecting major companies with large scale renewable energy buys, and it is just beginning to focus on the smaller end of the market.
That effort to engage smaller-demand ratepayers is also evident in a first-of-its-kind solar aggregation deal in North Carolina. The deal hooked up Bloomberg, Cox Enterprises, Gap Inc., Salesforce, and Workday in a collaborative venture, aimed at establishing a model for other companies to follow.
The basic idea would be to scoop up the many major companies that don’t have a particularly high-demand energy profile. Individually they have less incentive to chase renewable energy deals. Dangling a turnkey aggregation model in front of them could help motivate action.
Speaking of aggregation, the community choice aggregation model is another trend on the cusp of breakthrough. Community choice allows ratepayers to negotiate with their utilities for more renewable energy. Typically, though, ratepayers have to opt in because the deal involves a premium.
San Francisco has already signed up thousands on an opt-in model, and it’s going to the next level this spring by converting to an opt-out model. The city expects to end up with 360,000 ratepayers on its aggregation plan.
San Diego might be next to go full on aggregation, and the city doesn’t anticipate having to charge a premium now that the cost of wind and solar is competitive.
Only a handful of states currently have enabling legislation on the books for community choice, but success in San Francisco and San Diego would ramp up the pressure on other state policy makers to climb on board.
The bottom line is that the next few years are shaping up to be a knock ’em down, drag ’em out brawl between natural gas and renewable energy, while coal continues to wilt away — Trump or no Trump.
Later today we’re heading over to the Bloomberg Sustainable Business Summit in New York for the inside scoop from the business perspective, so stay tuned for more on that.
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Image: via BloombergNEF.
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