Renewable Energy Debate

March 15, 2019 – Volume 29, Issue 11
Can alternative sources replace fossil fuels? By Matt Mossman

Current Situation

Green New Deal

Demand for renewable energy among consumers and businesses continues to grow, according to polling by Deloitte, a global professional services network based in London. Seventy percent of businesses surveyed by the firm last year said their customers are demanding that they obtain a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable sources — up 9 percentage points from 2017. And 48 percent of businesses said they are working to rely more on renewable sources for electricity.96

Deloitte noted that significant shares of consumers are not yet making lifestyle changes that reflect their increasing support for renewable energy, but the firm said young adults may change that.

“Millennials, who are largely greener and ‘techier’ than previous generations, could soon tip this scale,” the firm said. “As Millennials make up a larger proportion of the workforce and wield greater purchasing power, they are demanding environmentally responsible products and services from companies, and those demands are echoing throughout the supply chain. As a result, more and more businesses are finding that energy efficiency and expanded use of renewables are no longer optional; they have become essential to satisfying a wide range of stakeholders.”97

Growing demand for renewables is reflected in the Green New Deal pending in Congress. The sweeping proposal combines calls for action on climate change — including dramatically increased reliance on renewable energy sources — with a promise that such action will provide jobs and economic security for Americans on the low-income side of the country's widening wealth gap.98

The plan calls for “meeting 100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable and zero-emission energy sources” by 2030, and for building new renewable energy power plants and a national “smart” power grid.99

“Such a national grid would enable companies at various locations to buy and sell electricity to each other across long distances to take advantage of different weather patterns across the country,” said William Holahan, an economics professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and Charles Kroncke, retired dean of the university's business college.

They also said a smart grid might charge customers higher prices for using electricity during high-demand periods. If customers responded by, for example, charging their electric cars at night rather than during the day, total energy capacity needed to meet demand would drop.100

The Green New Deal also proposes:

  • Investing federal research and development money in renewable energy technologies and industries.

  • Making all buildings in the country energy efficient.

  • Working with farmers to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural operations.101

“Climate change and our environmental challenges are one of the biggest existential threats to our way of life, not just as a nation, but as a world,” said Ocasio-Cortez, the liberal Democrat who introduced the Green New Deal resolution in the House in February. “In order for us to combat that threat we must be as ambitious and innovative in our solution as possible.”102

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. (Getty Images/Bloomberg/Pool/Al Drago)
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., announce their Green New Deal resolution on Feb. 7 in Washington. Supporters describe the proposal as a bold action plan for keeping carbon emissions in check, but Republicans and some moderate Democrats see it as unrealistic, and some critics have attacked it as environmental socialism. (Getty Images/Bloomberg/Pool/Al Drago)

But the resolution does not mention a funding source, leading conservatives and other skeptics an opening to bash it as financially reckless. Critics also have attacked the plan for going beyond issues directly related to climate change to address “systemic injustices,” including “anti-labor policies,” income inequality and “historic oppression” of minorities and others.103

“This Green New Deal … would be a raw deal for American families as the cost of energy skyrockets under their leftist plan,” said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.104

Some Democrats also have criticized the plan as too ambitious. “I believe that setting a 10-year goal to go totally carbon-free … does not set us up for success — particularly given the range of energy sources that communities and industries rely on,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich.105

As a nonbinding resolution, the proposal does not have the force of law, and it stands little chance of passing as long as Republicans control the Senate.

Storage Challenges

Experts also say the Green New Deal's renewable energy goals will remain unachievable without major advances in storage battery technology.

“We need to find a way to store massive amounts of solar and wind power to be distributed upon demand to make renewable energies viable,” said Ellen Wald, an energy consultant and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.106

The energy storage industry is dominated by lithium-ion batteries, but engineers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are working on a new approach. Their battery would use tanks of molten silicon to store heat generated by excess electricity from solar or wind farms. The light from the glowing silicon would then be converted into electricity when needed, using special solar cells.107

“In theory, this is the linchpin to enabling renewable energy to power the entire grid,” Asegun Henry, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, said of the molten silicon idea.108

The researchers say molten silicon would be a cheaper way to store renewable energy than the current cheapest method, in which excess hydroelectric energy is used to pump water from one reservoir to another at a higher elevation. The higher-level water is then released through turbines at times of peak electricity demand.109

Trump's 30 percent tariff on imported solar equipment, meanwhile, is suppressing growth in the solar industry, experts say. The import tax is scheduled to last four years and decrease by 5 percent a year.

After Trump announced the tariff last year, renewable energy companies froze or canceled more than $2.5 billion in major solar installation projects. The industry lost almost 8,000 jobs last year, and the Solar Energy Industries Association, the national trade association for the solar industry, predicted the tariff will eventually cost more than 23,000 jobs.110

Consumer Demand

But in at least 29 states last year, the number of solar jobs increased, with Florida in the lead. Experts say the tariff, as well as Trump's actions reversing Obama-era environmental programs, will do little to slow the country's increased reliance on sustainable power sources.

“More and more corporations and consumers are saying, ‘We want 100 percent renewable energy,’” said Susan Nickey, managing director at Hannon Armstrong, a firm in Annapolis, Md. that invests in renewable energy projects.111

Such sentiments are especially strong in California, the world's fifth-largest economy and a national leader in adopting policies to expand the use of renewable energy. California's commitment to going carbon-free means it has the most ambitious clean-energy goals of any state besides Hawaii.112

Those goals do not focus exclusively on renewable energy, however. Of the 100 percent clean-energy total that California aims to reach by 2045, at least 60 percent would come from renewables, but the rest could come from nonrenewable sources, including nuclear power and even natural gas plants, as long as the gas plants capture and store their carbon emissions underground.

Critics of the new law say it will raise electricity prices. “If it's not affordable, it's not sustainable,” PG&E, the California utility, said in a statement. “We believe customers must be protected from unreasonable rate and bill impacts.”113

But 67 percent of likely California voters support the law, and half are willing to pay more for electricity if it comes from renewable sources, according to a survey conducted last year by the Public Policy Institute of California, a think tank in San Francisco.114

California leads the nation in solar energy growth and is home to Topaz Solar Farm in San Luis Obispo County, one of the largest solar farms in the world. The 550-megawatt farm produces enough electricity to power 160,000 homes. The largest solar farm in the world, in the Tengger Desert in China, produces almost three times that much electricity — 1,547 megawatts.115

To meet its emission reduction goals, California is working with the Trump administration — a rare case of climate-related cooperation between the state and the administration — on a plan to lease about 688,000 acres off the state's northern and central shorelines to develop wind energy. The only utility-scale offshore wind farm now operating in the United States is off Block Island in Rhode Island.116

Wind also is a major industry in Texas, which has more than 12,000 turbines. In December, Texas briefly generated 19,168 megawatts of electricity from wind power, a state record. One megawatt of electricity powers about 200 homes in the state.117

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Go to Outlook

[96] “Deloitte Resources 2018 Study,” Deloitte Insights, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y4hmdlw4.

[97] Ibid.

[98] “Resolution Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal,” op. cit.

[99] Ibid.

[100] William L. Holahan and Charles O. Kroncke, “Column: The smart grid and the Green New Deal,” Tampa Bay Times, Feb. 24, 2019, https://tinyurl.com/y5m7r5js.

[101] “Resolution Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal,” op. cit.

[102] Benjy Sarlin, “‘Existential’ threat to the planet: Ocasio-Cortez offers Green New Deal details,” NBC News, Feb. 7, 2019, https://tinyurl.com/ydch7m4m.

[103] “Resolution Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal,” op. cit.

[104] Andrew Duehren, “‘Green New Deal’ Democrats Position Climate Change as Central Issue in 2020,” The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 8, 2019, https://tinyurl.com/yyybwsfp.

[105] “Green New Deal too ambitious for some Democrats, even those who say Congress must ‘do something,’” USA Today, March 7, 2019, https://tinyurl.com/y5popzjt.

[106] Ellen R. Wald, “Forget The Green New Deal, The Future Is Batteries,” Forbes, Feb. 21, 2019, https://tinyurl.com/y2ab3rtv.

[107] Jennifer Chu,” “Sun in a box” would store renewable energy for the grid,” MIT, Dec. 5, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y9w3cvdn.

[108] Colm Gorey, “Amazing renewable energy battery could power an entire city around the clock,” Silicon Republic, Dec. 7, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ya8bdz3s.

[109] “A flexible, dynamic way to store and generate energy,” Duke Energy, undated, https://tinyurl.com/yypey7r6.

[110] “Billions in US solar projects have been shelved after Trump panel tariff,” Reuters, CNBC, June 7, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y8tlm8ut; Kelly Pickerel, “Solar Jobs Census: U.S. solar workforce loses 8,000 jobs in 2018 due to tariffs and state policy changes,” Solar Power World, Feb. 12, 2019, https://tinyurl.com/y6s45dts; McKenna Moore, “Trump's Solar Tariff May Cost Up to 23,000 U.S. Jobs, But Boost Domestic Manufacturing,” Fortune, June 11, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y4d2952e.

[111] Tom DiChristopher, “US solar workforce shrinks for second straight year as Trump tariffs bite,” CNBC, Feb. 12, 2019, https://tinyurl.com/yxqmfohp; Dave Gregorio, “Renewable energy seeks demand, investment to survive Trump squeeze,” Reuters, June 22, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y3twalqo.

[112] Paul Rogers, “California mandates 100 percent clean energy by 2045,” The Mercury News, Sept. 10, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ya4dks3t.

[113] Ibid.

[114] “Californians & the Environment,” Public Policy Institute of California, July 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y688d85y.

[115] Anmar Frangoul, “From California to Texas, these are the US states leading the way in solar,” CNBC, Sept. 19, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y76jl958; “Topaz Solar Farm,” First Solar, undated, https://tinyurl.com/y37f84mm; Kelly Hodgkins, “These are the largest solar farms in the world,” Digital Trends, Oct. 27, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y22yal67.

[116] Dino Grandoni, “The Energy 202: California and the Trump administration rarely agree on energy policy. Here's an exception,” The Washington Post, Oct. 22, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y3vqoqkf.

[117] Patrick Sisson, “A mighty wind: How Texas's pro-energy, anti-regulation philosophy conspired to create a regional wind boom,” Curbed, Oct. 24, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yy5bduot; Erin Douglas, “Texas wind generation breaks record, ERCOT reports,” Houston Chronicle, Dec. 20, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yxhx5h28.



Document APA Citation
Mossman, M. (2019, March 15). Renewable energy debate. CQ researcher, 29, 1-58. Retrieved from http://library.cqpress.com/
Document ID: cqresrre2019031505
Document URL: http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre2019031505
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