Co-director of ILSR and Energy Democracy initiative director John Farrell and research associate Marie Donahue sat down before the winter break to reflect on what they are describing as the “Year of 100” — a landmark year for 100 percent renewable energy commitments in 2018.
In this special year-end episode of the Local Energy Rules podcast, Farrell and Donahue recap the many ambitious renewable energy commitments made by states, utilities, and cities, this year. The two discuss what we can learn from these resolutions and how to ensure benefits from the clean energy transition remain both local and equitable.
Tune in for highlights from 2018 and a lively discussion about what is on horizon for local, renewable energy in 2019. Find a transcript and summary of the conversation below.
States Push for 100% Renewable
In 2018, California joined Hawaii as the second state to set a 100 percent renewable energy commitment, Farrell explains. Hawaii’s goal had been approved by regulators in 2017. In addition, five new governors have indicated moving forward such commitments in Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Nevada, and Maine.
As the economics of energy shift in favor of renewables, Farrell points to just how competitive wind and now solar have both become in an increasing number of states. This trend has enabled more residential and commercial customers to shift to solar in California. Donahue explains how the sum of individual decisions from these customers will help keep California on track to reaching its new target.
As illustrated in the animation below, almost 800,000 individual solar installations have come online in California over the last decade, through the second quarter of 2018.
Learn more about this map of growth in California’s solar market here. Read about another landmark policy California passed in 2018, which will require solar on new residential developments starting in 2020, here.
In the coming years, more states will follow California and Hawaii’s lead. Donahue argues the states to watch, like in Minnesota with its burgeoning #100PercentMN campaign, are those with grassroots efforts that will push state legislatures and leadership to set commitments that center equity and promote distributed generation that will keep benefits local.
Yet, there remains a “dirty secret” that Farrell and Donahue discuss regarding statewide goals and how they define what counts as “renewable” or “clean” energy. Pointing to a new report by ILSR published earlier this month, Donahue explains how costly and dirty waste incineration has been subsidized by existing renewable energy goals.
“We have 23 states that … are classifying waste incineration as renewable,” explains Donahue. “It’s a cautionary tale of how we can think about the definitions of renewable and how important it is to get into some of the nitty-gritty details when these commitments are made.”
Read ILSR’s full report, “Waste Incineration: A Dirty Secret in How States Define Renewable Energy” to learn more about the costs of waste incineration and our recommendations for alternative solid waste and local energy practices.
“We have 23 states that… are classifying waste incineration as renewable,” explains Donahue. “It’s a cautionary tale of how we can think about the definitions of renewable and how important it is to get into some of the nitty-gritty details when these commitments are made.”
Investor-owned Utilities Follow Suit, But Are They Serious?
In December, Xcel Energy became the first investor-owned utility in the country to commit to reaching 100 percent carbon-free generation by 2050.
While acknowledging how “monumental” it is for a shareholder-owned utility to make such a commitment, Farrell points out that this story was in fact years in the making and largely enabled by aggressive and forward-thinking state legislation in Minnesota and Colorado. In addition, while Xcel received much praise for its announcement, municipally-owned public utilities like those in Georgetown, Texas, and Rock Port, Mo., have been operating on 100 percent renewable energy for years.
“It’s going to be pretty hard to be 100 percent carbon-free in 2050, if you have a gas plant you’re still operating,” Farrell points out about Xcel Energy’s recent commitment.
Farrell and Donahue discuss three important questions utility customers and state leaders should ask of investor-owned utilities like Xcel, as more start making commitments to carbon-free or renewables in the coming years: 1) Who carries the risk? 2) Does this impact the company’s perspective on distributed, customer-owned energy? And 3) Are they serious?
Read the blog that John Farrell wrote following the announcement by Xcel Energy to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050, here. Learn about and watch a parody video released by ILSR in March 2018, that lampooned Xcel Energy’s ask for a “Blank Check” from the Minnesota Legislature, here.
Farrell asks whether Xcel Energy is serious about their carbon-free commitment. He notes how at the same time that Xcel made its commitment, the shareholder-owned utility has been in the process of buying a new natural gas power plant that could be in operation for decades.
“It’s going to be pretty hard to be 100 percent carbon-free in 2050, if you have a gas plant you’re still operating, unless you make some pretty generous assumptions about the ability to do carbon capture,” Farrell notes, “What are you gonna do with that carbon? We don’t really have an answer to that.”
City Voices Take the Lead on Funding an Equitable Transition to 100% Local, Renewable Energy
As 2018 comes to a close, an astounding 100 cities across the U.S. have made 100 percent renewable energy commitments.
Farrell and Donahue discuss the stories behind novel ways in which cities — including Minneapolis and Portland, Ore. — are helping fund a transition to local, clean energy. They also highlight ILSR’s ongoing Voices of 100% podcast series, which interviews local leaders to understand how communities plan to reach their goals.
In Portland, Ore., specifically, the recent Portland Clean Energy Initiative, which passed in the November 2018 elections, will generate as much as $30 million per year for equitable, local investments in clean energy. This story was also highlighted in a recent Voices of 100 episode interview with Alan Hipólito: “Will Portland Voters Opt for New Equitable Clean Energy Fund?”
Locate places that have made 100 percent renewable energy commitments and explore local and state strategies to advance clean energy goals, using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map. Learn more about the Sierra Club’s instrumental Ready For 100 organizing effortsto pass 100% renewable energy commitments in cities across the country.
In addition to funding, Donahue notes how important an equity framework, which includes the lenses of racial and economic justice, has been to many of these commitments at the local level. Cities are uniquely positioned to broaden who is involved in energy decisions and who stands to benefit, she argues.
“Because cities… deal with this day to day, they’re working on understanding communities across their cities who are benefiting from decisions made at the municipal level [and] who is involved in those decisions,” Donahue notes.
Looking Forward to 2019
To wrap up their discussion, Farrell and Donahue discuss what is on the horizon for local, renewable energy — and their work with ILSR’s Energy Democracy initiative — in the new year.
One area that Donahue thinks will be ripe for growth is in shared or community renewable energy programs and related funding mechanisms. As ILSR continues to track programs in leading states like Minnesota, regulators will continue to “fine-tune” how solar developers finance these projects, with implications for future expansion, Donahue explains. In addition, a new year may bring creative financing strategies for local and cooperative ownership, which the team will track. ILSR will also continue to highlight new community solar and shared renewable policies in states, via our Community Power Map.
In addition, Farrell highlights two developments that he believes will be important to follow into 2019 and beyond. First is the continued growth of energy storage — soon to be economical everywhere, as highlighted in ILSR’s recent Reverse Power Flow report and the map below.
Second, due to increasing risks associated with the volatility of fossil fuel prices, Farrell predicts electrification — including through heat pumps and electric vehicles — powered from renewable energy will be increasingly important in our local energy systems.
“We can make our economy more resilient to volatile fuel prices by electrifying things because our electricity subsystem is increasingly reliant on resources, solar and wind, that have no fuel costs, that have no volatility,” Farrell explains. “We have a really interesting opportunity there and that’s something that we’re definitely gonna be looking at in 2019 and beyond.”
Indeed as we close out this “Year of 100” with a growing number of states, utilities, and cities taking the plunge to all-in on renewable energy, electrification and local distributed generation have a bright future.
“We can make our economy more resilient to volatile fuel prices by electrifying things because our electricity subsystem is increasingly reliant on resources, solar and wind, that have no fuel costs, that have no volatility,” Farrell explains.
Want to hear more stories of local, clean energy in the New Year?
Stay-tuned for new episodes of the Local Energy Rules podcast every three weeks throughout 2019 — including new episodes in our Voices of 100% series and the rollout of a new series of episodes on how cities can take control of their energy future by implementing community choice energy programs.
For concrete examples of how communities can meet their ambitious renewable energy goals locally, including setting 100 percent renewable energy commitments and using community choice aggregation, explore ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.
Locate places that have made 100 percent renewable energy commitments and explore local and state strategies to advance clean energy goals, using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map.
Photo Credits: Marie Donahue (featured image)
John Farrell is the Director of Democratic Energy at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and widely known as the guru of distributed energy.John is best known for his vivid illustrations of the economic and environmental benefits of local ownership of decentralized renewable energy.John Farrell can also be found on Twitter @johnffarrell, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.