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“Write to be understood, speak to be heard, read to grow.” ― Lawrence Clark Powell

Why the Solar Tariff Might Actually Lead to Cleaner Air in the Eastern United States

Posted on 1/25/2018 by in REC solar green power wind
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Alden Hathaway, SVP Sterling Planet, provides insight into the consequences of the new 30% solar import tariff, and its potential effect on wind development, particularly in the eastern US. (image from Avangrid)

Author’s note:  This is the second of two articles I have written about the the changes in the renewable energy industry that should come about because of the new 30% tariff that President Trump placed on solar panels. This one discusses the opportunity that wind might move back to a preeminent role in large utility-scale power projects for national accounts. The other article was written back in September, and referenced here, suggests that solar deployment is most efficiently used on buildings where the solar tariff is less impactful.

Changing politics has brought wide concern about redirection of US energy and environmental policy. Fortunately, renewable energy continues to lead the country in electricity growth, transforming the electrical grid cleaner than before the election. The rapid growth is thanks, in large part, to the direct procurement of renewable electricity generated from new projects by a growing list of corporations that are proving that governments are not the only ones capable of charting energy policy. So I am going to make a prediction that is not obvious to many of my environmental friends. This new solar tariff may indirectly lead to cleaner air in places such as Washington, DC.  

Organizations such as RE100, a group of 122 companies pledging to move to 100% procurement of renewable energy, or CDP, the former Carbon Disclosure Project, which tracks the progress of thousands of organizations in achieving sustainability goals, have moved more companies to seeking ways to contract for renewable electricity generation, whether onsite, or direct purchase, or through remote Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs). And many win notoriety for doing so. The Renewable Energy Markets conference has bestowed quite a few awards to companies that have found novel methods of directly procuring renewable energy and benefitting the community.  

These volume purchase announcements by corporations have become a regular part of the discourse in environmental and energy news over the last few years, and 2017 did not disappoint, with announcements by Amazon, General Motors, Apple, Facebook, and many others committing to new wind and solar. In fact, solar has been the recent success story, catching and even passing wind power as the most cost effective renewable resource over the past several years. This has helped sustain the increasing competitive nature of renewable electricity compared to traditional sources of energy, making it more likely other companies will sign on, despite whatever federal or state energy policy dictates.

A recent news story appearing as part of NYC Climate Week by the Climate Group states that policy barriers represent the most common challenges to corporate members of RE100 in achieving their renewable energy goals. Yet, more and more companies have been purchasing renewable energy, demonstrating the power of corporations to make an impact.

Now, renewable energy’s greatest potential challenge, and one I wrote about in September,  is placed before the corporate members of RE100 and CDP. It was announced this week that a 30% tariff is being applied to solar module imports into the US, in the hopes it can protect a solar manufacturing industry that has largely left the United States since the Clinton Presidency. Since most solar modules used for large scale arrays are imported, mostly from China where low prices have been the main driver for the growth, most experts expect costs to suddenly take a hike upward. As one solar developer confided to me, “Well Alden, it looks like solar just became 30% more expensive.” If so, solar that was selling for under $0.05 per kWh will be going for as much as 6½ cents per kWh.

Luckily this does not mean the renewable energy train is coming to a halt, for there is another key renewable resource that needs to retake center stage, and not just for cost reasons - wind power. It is hard to imagine now, but the whole renewable energy green power movement was started two decades ago by companies like Sterling Planet on the availability of large scale wind energy, at a time when solar was too costly and not even conceived of as a grid-tied product. We built green power mostly on the rapidly declining costs and improved air quality of wind power. In fact, one of wind’s greatest strengths is its ability to back down fossil fired generation.

During the early 2000 – 2008 time frame, wind power was rapidly developed in the mid Atlantic region, partly in response to the region’s very dirty air. In 2002, the Washington DC metropolitan area suffered some of the worst air in the country, caused by ground level ozone, a product of the reaction of nitrogen oxide emissions from coal fired power plants in the Ohio valley traveling eastward and causing smog in the hot summer sun. In 2002 over 2200 people were hospitalized and 200 died of extreme asthma.

Back in 2002, environmental organizations proved the link to wind power in the Appalachians backing down the generation from base load coal plants, reducing the emissions of nitrogen oxide in the Ohio valley, and, thus ozone in the Baltimore – Washington corridor. Over the course of nearly a decade, more than 10,000 MWs of wind power was constructed from West Virginia up to New York State and west through Ohio, Indiana and Michigan. This was largely based on contracts to sell that wind to Universities, Cities, Counties and other large users. The result was a dramatic improvement to cleaner air over the mid-Atlantic region.

But in the last ten years, as the solar boom has taken off, we have forgotten about the clean air benefits of wind. And that is unfortunate, because we never got wind built in the states south of the Potomac River, which still leaves a gaping hole in the ability of Washington DC to further improve its air quality. Although a wind plant has just recently gone on line in eastern North Carolina, thanks to Amazon, that should have some positive clean air effects, the metro Washington area continues to rank in the top ten worst cities for smog, and recently received an “F” in air quality from the Moms of Moms Clean Air Force. Solar has less value in backing down coal since it provides its energy during the day when natural gas, a much cleaner fossil fuel, is more likely to be in use in electricity peaking plants. With potential wind sites in Virginia and other high capacity factor locations projecting wind energy rates well less than 6 cents per kWh, it is hopefully time to turn attention back to wind power.

We cannot offer a robust renewable energy future based only on solar energy. Rather, we need a more balanced wind and solar energy future. Both provide real, but different, benefits. But we have forgotten the clean air benefits of large scale wind development. What the Moms need, and frankly deserve, is a hero to come forth and close that dirty hole in the Mid Atlantic region by committing to buy and cause the development of wind energy in Virginia. Could such a hero reside in the high tech industry purchasing power in the northern, Virginia suburbs? I can imagine a new award at next years’ Renewable Energy Markets for such a company that the Moms would cheer. 

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