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Renewable Energy Review: United States

Developers, manufacturers, investors and other renewable energy industry stakeholders need to know where the next big market is going to be so that they can adjust their business decisions accordingly.

Election Polarizes Energy Debate

The results of the presidential election were always going to play a significant role in shaping the future of the renewables sector in the US. The issue of energy — hotly debated throughout the election campaign and catalyzed by Hurricane Sandy-emerged as a highly divisive topic. President Barack Obama favored an “all of the above” approach in which clean technologies play a starring role. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, relegated renewables to the bench in favor of more traditional fuels, making clear his intention to remove subsidies on clean energy and help the oil and gas industry make the US energy independent by 2020.

The re-election of Obama on 6 November is inevitably, therefore, a huge relief for the country’s clean energy sector. Electricity generated from renewables has increased by almost three-quarters since Obama took office, and in the nine months to September, renewable installations represented 43.8% of all new generating capacity in the country.

However, Obama’s victory does not hide the fact that energy policy remained a polarizing issue throughout the campaign, perhaps reinforced by the 50:50 split in the popular vote. There is therefore no reason to expect a dramatic turnaround in the Administration’s ability to pass energy legislation. Notwithstanding the pivotal role of the election, however, it may be public opinion itself, and not just in the polls, which turns out to be the real driver of the country’s energy sector.

Nationwide polls have increasingly suggested that Americans in favor of a reduced dependence on oil and the development of a sector with the potential to generate new jobs. In the face of the most widespread drought since 1956, there have been calls to increase focus on clean energy sources such as wind and solar that require less water than conventional power. The recent devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy is also likely to bring the issue of climate change to the forefront of public opinion; while rebuilding the infrastructure across the worst hit areas will inevitably be the focus in the short term, the medium-to long-term implications of the disaster may empower US citizens in re-shaping the country’s energy policy.

However, there is still some way to go. In August, the Obama Administration and the Environment Protection Agency suffered a significant defeat when the US appeals court overturned a ruling forcing coal power plants to reduce harmful emissions. In September, the Republican-led House of Representatives passed the “No More Solyndras Act,” which blocks federal loan guarantees for clean energy projects, and the “Stop the War on Coal Act” which seeks to remove regulations on the coal industry. While neither bill is likely to pass through the Democrat-led Senate or escape a White House veto with Obama at the helm, it has undoubtedly given a boost to those factions backing traditional energy sources.

Mixed Renewables News Elsewhere

The Office of Management and Budget has announced it will expedite the approval of seven solar and wind energy projects across four western states, totaling almost 5 GW. Projects such as the 3 GW Chokecheery/Sierra Madre wind farm in Wyoming and the 750 MW McCoy solar park in California will benefit from “a government-wide effort to make the permitting and review process ... more efficient and effective.” 

Q3 also saw the US army issue a Request for Proposals for its initial procurement of US$7 billion (€5.4 billion) worth of renewable energy capacity via a series of 30-year contracts. 

However, international relations this quarter looked less rosy. In late August, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce concluded that six renewable energy projects in the US are in breach of World Trade Organization rules as a result of illegal subsidies, and has threatened to take legal action if these are not removed.

Uncertainty Over Wind Tax Credit Remains

The election debates have revealed very different views on the extension of the PTC, a wind-specific tax credit that has played a key role in driving growth in the sector. Obama sees wind energy as a key economic driver and is openly backing the extension of the PTC beyond 2012, while Romney opposes the credit and believes the wind sector is mature enough to survive.

The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) has forecast that the US wind industry could lose up to 37,000 jobs if the PTC is not extended, and claims 10,000 posts have already disappeared as a result of the uncertainty. Indeed, Vestas has already cut a fifth of its US jobs this year. 

In August, the US Senate Finance Committee passed a bill extending both the PTC and the investment tax credit (ITC) by a year, the latter supporting offshore wind projects. However, a full Senate vote will not take place before the election and passage through the House will be more tricky. 

The bill also amended the eligibility criteria for the ITC, with projects qualifying from the start of construction rather than service commencement. This is expected to be a big boost to the offshore sector if passed. In other offshore news, Q3 saw the country’s first offshore wind farm, the 468MW Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound, receive crucial planning approval that should enable construction to begin next year. 

Early October saw the US entangled in yet another legal dispute with China, this time over the President’s decision to block the acquisition and development of a wind farm by Chinese-owned Ralls Corp. due to the site being near a US naval facility. The decision, which is being challenged by Ralls, is the first foreign investment to be blocked on national security grounds in 22 years.

For more information on renewable energy development in the United States, contact the report's authors Michael Bernier and Dorian Hunt.

Lead image: US flag via Shutterstock

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