While the past year can be summed up, in the way Time Magazine put it, as a “year to forget” for renewables, it can also be characterized as a “watershed year” for large-scale clean energy projects.
Sure, the delay of comprehensive energy legislation in Congress was disappointing, and sure, negotiations in Cancun were anti-climactic, and absolutely, the Republican vow to continue to discredit climate science is downright depressing in its scope of irresponsibility, but the past 12 months have been very constructive for the wind, solar, biofuels, smart grid, and electric vehicle markets.
Back in the spring, Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar gave the go-ahead for the Cape Wind offshore wind farm off the coast of Massachusetts. The project had faced challenges for almost a decade before it was ultimately approved in the initial days of the BP Gulf Oil Spill. Since then, it appears as though the Cape Wind project was the beginning of a series of economic and political changes that ultimately will bring offshore wind development instead of offshore oil drilling to shoreline communities up and down the Atlantic coast. The Cape Wind project will roughly generate 500 MW when it is completed; to put that in perspective, an average coal-fired power plant is 1000 MW and powers around 250,000 homes; but Cape Wind is just one of several wind projects along the Eastern Seaboard being developed. Developers are envisioning a string of offshore wind farms from Maine to Florida connected by a system of transmission wires whose cost for construction is shared by the states that benefit from the resource.
Solar power also saw a transition towards large-scale utility-sized projects. 2010 saw nine large-scale solar projects approved by the BLM in several southwestern states with a combined generating capacity of over 4,000 MW. So, as offshore wind is making inroads with power companies along the Atlantic Coast, a solar trend within the utilities sector is also developing in the southwest and is catching on.
2010 also saw the release of commercial electric vehicles in the U.S., as Nissan and Chevy released the Leaf and Volt respectively; modest forecasts for the development of an EV market have been made, but wait until gas inches toward $5 gallons again.
The military announced its commitment to developing biofuels (made from algae, specifically) for jets and ships as a matter of national security. Documents from German, British, and American governments were leaked showing officials planning for a peak-oil world.
The year also saw an $8 billion initiative, begun by the U.S. government but matched by utilities’ money to retrofit the power grid to meet society’s growing 21st Century needs; the beginning of power grid 2.0, a project that will take decades to complete as it creates millions of jobs over the course of the retrofit.
Policy-wise, 2010 was a disappointment; the U.S. Congress couldn’t seem to get free from the proverbial monkeys (literal lobbyists) on their backs. Business, utilities, the military, and the government, however, appear to have begun the long transition away from reckless fossil fuel consumption and toward the development of energy policies and strategies based more upon long-term sustainable principles than short-term gain.
The EPA is scheduled to push forward with regulating emissions from oil refineries and power plants this year, making the long-term viability of petroleum, natural gas, and coal questionable economically speaking.
The BP Oil Spill made crystal clear the risks associated with deepwater drilling, causing a rethinking of the recently lifted moratorium on offshore drilling along America’s shorelines. In addition, 2010 saw the price of oil return back to the $90-100 bbl level, as well as the widespread comprehension of the process of natural gas hydraulic fracturing and the risks associated with allowing the industry to continue along with its Clean Water Act exemptions. The building of coal-fired power plants was put on hold, probably not to return without either emission regulations or limitations placed upon the mountaintop mining process or both. The gap in subsidies doled out to the fossil fuel and renewables industries respectively was documented and brought to the G8’s attention, with participating members vowing to make subsidies more equitable in the future. Even the Securities and Exchange Commission got in on the act, giving companies guidelines on how to report climate risks to investors, setting the markets up to let investors decide whether fossil fuels or renewables are “the future” when the energy playing field is leveled.
All in all, even the most pessimistic environmentalist or the staunchest energy conservative would have to admit that the trend for energy in the next decade became starkly clear in 2010; a vibrant renewables industry is in the process of being born and no amount of disinformation or denial can remove it from every corner into which it has grown. Energy will become more expensive; the twist is that it will become cheaper over time with renewables and that the price of energy will continue to rise forever until they collapse if our societies remain reliant almost solely on fossil fuels into the future. Environmental problems both manmade and natural will continue to plague the fossil fuel industry. Atmospheric regulations of some kind are not going away, and so the coal and oil industries will continue to have expensive retrofits coming their way. Further, other environmental regulations seeking to protect water sources from coal and natural gas mining are inevitable.
Critics of renewable energy can continue to waste their time tilting at windmills, or recognize the trend and jump the bandwagon at the beginning and help build a cleaner energy policy from the ground floor up. The next ten years should be exciting.
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Battle Brews Over EPA’s Emissions Regulations, TIME
DOI Salazar gives Cape Wind go-ahead, EXAMINER
Frequently asked questions, CAPE WIND
Salazar Signs Agreement with 10 East Coast Govs to Establish Atlantic Offshore Wind Energy Consortium, DOI
Obama Administration Paves Way for Offshore Wind Power to Take Flight Off Atlantic Coast, NRDC
Crystalline PV and concentrated solar compete for utilities’ attention, EXAMINER
Secretary Salazar Approves Ninth Commercial-Scale Solar Energy Project on Western Public Lands, BLM
A Watershed Year for Solar Energy and Electric Cars, SOLAR HOME & BUSINESS JOURNAL
Year in review: Big wind and solar farms get approvals, face critics, SIGN ON SAN DIEGO
Fueling the Future Force: Preparing the Department of Defense for a Post-Petroleum Era, CNAS
What the Smart Grid Needs in 2011, REUTERS
Obama Sets Aside $3.4 billion Stimulus to Jump Start “Power Grid 2.0″ in US, INHABITAT
Utilities Seek Fresh Talent for Smart Grids, NYT
The cellular smart grid grows up, GIGAOM
EPA announces plans to regulate power plant, oil refinery emissions, WASHINGTON POST