The World's #1 Renewable Energy Network for News, Information, and Companies.
Untitled Document

2014: The Maturation of Clean Tech

As a new year begins for the clean tech industry, maturation is a theme that comes to mind. And if we think of clean tech not only as a growing global industry, but as a fundamental global transition — as so many of its leaders and participants do — we can chart its progress along Gandhi’s oft-cited dictum of other transitions in history. I’m not suggesting that the growth of clean tech is an exact analog to India’s struggle for independence from Great Britain; that would be quite presumptuous on many levels. But with renewable and distributed energy as a metaphorical threat to decades-old entrenched ways of doing things, there are parallels to be made.

The U.S. solar power industry, I think, offers the best example of Gandhi’s progression. It was virtually ignored for years, except among a small number of devotees, and perhaps rightfully so; for a long time, solar PV technology was relatively inefficient and prohibitively expensive. That brought ridicule too, but the real ridicule phase came much later, with the 2012 bankruptcy of Solyndra. I hesitated to even write that name, thinking that the distorted spin sparked by that very old news should be dead and buried by now, but 60 Minutes dragged it out again in its Jan. 5 segment called “The Cleantech Crash.”

Ridicule indeed. Ridiculous is a better label for the original Solyndra controversy, when an election-fueled political agenda disparaged the entire solar industry — and often all of clean tech — after the failure of one government-backed PV manufacturer. This conveniently ignored the game change within the solar industry, as prices fell 50 to 60 percent in less than three years, squeezing margins for panel makers but sparking the deployment boom that industry analysts (including ourselves) had long predicted. Plummeting prices, along with the solar leases and power purchase agreements pioneered by SunEdison, SolarCity, and others, made solar PV the affordable mainstream energy choice it is today.

Which brings us to 2013, and the “fight” stage. Utility-backed efforts to roll back or eliminate net metering laws sparked battles in a dozen U.S. states, some quite contentious. The nastiest one, in Arizona, even included attack ads from out-of-state political groups calling SolarCity and SunRun “the new Solyndras.” After this fight, did the solar industry win? Sort of. Arizona regulators in November voted to preserve net metering but added a 70 cent-per-kilowatt charge for rooftop solar users (utility Arizona Public Service had sought roughly an $8 charge).

Solar advocates don’t like the precedent-setting fixed charge for solar customers (Virginia-based utility Dominion also has one) and we will see this type of fight play out in a number of states in 2014. At GTM Research’s U.S. Solar Market Insight Conference last month in San Diego, Dominion VP David Shuford bluntly explained, “We make money when we build things.” And if solar rooftops generate enough juice to cut into the two percent load growth that Dominion needs in order to build things, the investor-owned utility needs to protect its bottom line. But just-departed Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chairman Jon Wellinghoff, on the same conference panel, countered that such fixed charges for distributed solar are “nonsensical” and “wouldn’t be sustained on appeal” in court.

Solar power’s maturation has clearly reached the “fight” stage; it’s big enough to be taken seriously. There’s a wealth of statistics to choose from to show solar’s growth in the boom year of 2013. In the first 10 months of the year, utility-scale solar accounted for 21 percent of all new generation capacity in the U.S.; in the month of October, it was 72 percent. And in an unprecedented court decision in the first week of 2014, a Minnesota judge ruled that utility-scale solar is a better investment for Xcel Energy’s expansion plan than new natural gas capacity.

Wind power, of course, has been big enough to be taken seriously for quite a while. The U.S. wind industry now finds itself in a new stage of its maturation: life without the federal production tax credit (PTC), which expired at the end of 2013. The industry has been there before, with disastrous results, but this time is different from the past boom-and-bust cycles of the 1990s and 2000s. I don’t think the PTC will ever return in its previous form; the industry will likely lobby for some type of tax subsidy as part of a more comprehensive federal tax reform package. Hopefully, that will include the long-overdue opening of master limited partnerships to investments in renewable energy projects, which would most likely be wind farms. Rather than its own PTC, that would allow wind power to enjoy at least some of the same treatment as fossil-fuel energy sources, which is just as it should be. 

As noted above, I don’t view Gandhi’s struggles as an exact analog for clean tech. It’s not that clean tech will reach a “victory” stage over other energy sources; it’s part of a long-range transition away from coal and nuclear power to a future mostly fueled by natural gas, renewables, and efficiency.

One sign of an industry’s maturation is the movement away from venture capital and government funding. It’s easy to point to the losses of VC dollars in clean tech (Tesla and SolarCity’s successes notwithstanding) and declare the sector a failure — and 2014 may bring winning IPOs from Opower, Nest Labs, and others. But that misses the much bigger picture of an industry growing up. Up-and-down business cycles are part of that process; it is not a simple matter of a boom that went bust.

In 2014, clean tech is seriously challenging the centralized utility business model (be on the lookout for our U.S. Clean Energy Utility benchmarking report with Ceres later this year which is attempting to track this clean-energy shift). It has established the first new successful U.S. car manufacturer in more than half a century. It’s a critical part of any legitimate conversation about energy choices at the local, state, and national level in most of the world. Clean tech will still be ridiculed and fought, but its days of being ignored are long in the past.

Lead image: Lightbulb and wind via Shutterstock

Untitled Document

Get All the Renewable Energy World News Delivered to Your Inbox

Subscribe to Renewable Energy World or email newsletter today at no cost and receive the latest news and information.

 Subscribe Now

RELATED ARTICLES

Solar water heating

California Regulators Propose Expansion of Eligibility Requirements for Solar Water Heating Program

Jennifer Delony The California Public Utilities Commission has proposed expanding the eligibility requirements for customers seeking ...
Solar

Florida Supreme Court Takes Up Solar Question

Wayne Barber Because Florida remains one of only four states where current laws expressly deny citizens and businesses the freedom...
solar net metering

Lithuanian Net Metering Hits Snag from Outset

Linas Jegelevicius The much anticipated net metering in Lithuania has hit a major snag from the very start – the introduced network oper...
Solar energy

Colorado PUC Orders No Changes to Solar Net Metering

Vince Font In what is being lauded as a “fair outcome” for consumers, utilities and the solar industry alike, the Colorado Publi...

PRESS RELEASES

Canadian Solar Wins Five Solar Power Projects Totaling 185 MW in Brazil

These power projects were won under a 20-year Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) with the B...

$100 Off of 5-day Advanced PV Project Experience. Download a Topic Schedule.

Assemble, ground, energize, and commission a complete grid-tied SolarEdge system from s...

Intersolar AWARD „Solar Projects in India“ – Applications being accepted until September 18

The Intersolar AWARD in the category Solar Projects in India honors projects in the fie...

National Thought Leaders to Present on Today's Clean Energy Issues & Trends During IREC's 3iForum at Solar Power International

"An encore to the standing-room-only sessions the past two years, IREC again brings som...

FEATURED BLOGS

Washington, DC Bridges the Solar Gap

The District of Columbia has enjoyed 15 years of strong economic growth. But prosperity is spread unevenly across the...

Sell Through Hypothesis

You first learned to hypothesize, or make educated guesses, in grade school science class. Now it’s time to ref...

Cronimet / THEnergy study: In solar for mines size does not always matter - Reducing CAPEX with energy efficiency and load shifting

Munich, September 2015. Mining companies are constantly gaining interest in solar solutions because frequently solar ...

Final Program Now Available for GRC Annual Meeting & GEA Geothermal Energy Expo

GRC Annual Meeting & GEA Geothermal Energy Expo - Final Program from

FINANCIAL NEWS

CURRENT MAGAZINE ISSUE

Volume 18, Issue 4
1507REW_C11

STAY CONNECTED

To register for our free
e-Newsletters, subscribe today:

SOCIAL ACTIVITY

Tweet the Editors! @jennrunyon

FEATURED PARTNERS



EVENTS

Successfully Integrating Solar: A Proactive Approach

•      What does the increasing solar penetrati...

Doing Business in Europe – in partnership with GWEC, the Global Win...

There is now 128.8 GW of installed wind energy capacity in the EU (appro...

Doing Business in South Africa – in partnership with GWEC, the Glob...

Wind Energy in South Africa has been expanding dramatically, growing fro...

COMPANY BLOGS

Sell Through Hypothesis

You first learned to hypothesize, or make educated guesses, in grade sch...

Vacancy? No Problem!

Have you ever tried to sell an efficiency product or service to a prospe...

Final Program Now Available for GRC Annual Meeting & GEA Geothermal...

GRC Annual Meeting & GEA Geothermal Energy Expo - Final Program f...

NEWSLETTERS

Renewable Energy: Subscribe Now

Solar Energy: Subscribe Now

Wind Energy: Subscribe Now

Geothermal Energy: Subscribe Now

Bioenergy: Subscribe Now  

 

FEATURED PARTNERS