“Clean energy is rapidly rising on the Texas power grid, but regulators in the Lone Star State are now considering a plan that could give fossil fuels a boost.
The zero greenhouse gas emissions trio — wind, solar, and nuclear energy — provided more than 40 percent of electricity in the state in 2022. It was a year when several Texas cities experienced their hottest summers on record, driving electricity demand to its highest levels ever as fans and air conditioners switched on. Winter proved stressful too, with freezing temperatures last month pushing winter electricity peaks to record-high levels, narrowly avoiding outages.”
“Texas leads the US in oil and natural gas production, but it’s also number one in wind power. Solar production in the state has almost tripled in the past three years. Part of the reason is that Texas is particularly suited to renewable energy on its grid. Wind turbines and solar panels in Texas have a high degree of “complementarity,” so shortfalls in one source are often matched by increases in another, smoothing out power production and reducing the need for other generators to step in. That has eased the integration of intermittent energy sources on the grid.
Coal, meanwhile, has lost more than half of its share in Texas since 2006. For a long time and across much of the country, the story was that cheap natural gas from hydraulic fracturing was eating coal’s lunch on the power grid. Coal was also facing tougher environmental regulations like stricter limits on mercury, requiring coal power plants to upgrade their equipment, and raising electricity production costs.”
“in Texas, natural gas’s share of the electricity mix has been holding around 40 percent for more than a decade. On the other hand, renewable energy has surged as coal withered. Wind alone started beating out coal in 2019 and is now the second-largest source of electricity behind natural gas in the state.
An important factor is that the state has its own internal power grid, serving 26 million customers and meeting 90 percent of its electricity demand. It’s managed by the nonprofit Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT. In the freewheeling Texas energy market, the cheapest sources of electricity become dominant, and wind and solar — with low construction costs, rapid build times, and zero fuel expenses — have emerged as winners.”
“Some lawmakers are now working to tilt the balance toward fossil fuels. “There are different political figures who are trying to incentivize gas power plants or deny, prohibit, or inhibit renewables,” Webber said.
Last year, the Texas legislature passed a law that would prevent the state’s retirement and investment funds from doing business with companies that “boycott” fossil fuels.
Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said one of his legislative priorities for this year is to secure more support for natural gas-fired generation. “We have to level the playing field so that we attract investment in natural gas plants,” Patrick said during a press conference last November. “We can’t leave here next spring unless we have a plan for more natural gas power.””
“While wind and solar power are ascendant, they are intermittent, and regulators want to make sure there is enough dispatchable power like natural gas to ramp up on still, cloudy days. The new proposal would create a credit scheme that would encourage more of these dispatchable plants to come online and extend a lifeline to some existing generators that are struggling to compete. But it would also raise the costs of electricity production.
Environmental groups like the Sierra Club noted that the proposal leaves the door open for other tactics for balancing electricity supply and demand, like energy storage, increasing energy efficiency, and demand response.”
“”In 2000, Germany launched a deliberately targeted program to decarbonize its primary energy supply, a plan more ambitious than anything seen anywhere else,” Vaclav Smil wrote in 2020 for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ IEEE Spectrum. “The policy, called the Energiewende, is rooted in Germany’s naturalistic and romantic tradition, reflected in the rise of the Green Party and, more recently, in public opposition to nuclear electricity generation.”
The problem, as Smil noted, is that government-favored and subsidized solar and wind are intermittent. Wind doesn’t generate electricity when the air is still, and solar is of little use at night and on cloudy days. That means old-school generating capacity has to be maintained in parallel to the new systems.
“It costs Germany a great deal to maintain such an excess of installed power,” Smil added. “The average cost of electricity for German households has doubled since 2000. By 2019, households had to pay 34 U.S. cents per kilowatt-hour, compared to 22 cents per kilowatt-hour in France and 13 cents in the United States.”
The German news magazine Der Spiegel came to a similar conclusion in 2019.
“The state has redistributed gigantic sums of money, with the [Renewable Energy Sources Act] directing more than 25 billion euros each year to the operators of renewable energy facilities,” the authors observed. “But without the subsidies, operating wind turbines and solar parks will hardly be worth it anymore. As is so often the case with such subsidies: They trigger an artificial boom that burns fast and leaves nothing but scorched earth in their wake.”
Making the matter worse is the extent to which Europe has sourced its fossil fuels from Russia. That’s a dependency partly based on easy accessibility by land to Russia’s resources. It’s also an artifact of economic diplomacy from the Cold War era intended to build trade ties to reduce the risk of conflict. But what was supposed to give the West leverage over the old Soviet Union has instead handed modern Russia enormous clout.
Comparatively clean nuclear energy might have made the difference, but the 2011 Fukushima disaster spooked Germans more, perhaps, than people anywhere else, and the country resolved to abandon nuclear power, leaving it dependent on unreliable solar and wind and, especially, imported fossil fuels. Only now, with Russia throttling the supply of natural gas to 20 percent of capacity, is the governing coalition considering extending the life of the last two nuclear power plants past the end of the year.”
“The initiative would connect participants in a federal program that subsidizes energy costs for low-income residents with developers of community solar projects, which sell subscriptions to households for renewable power with the promise of lowering their monthly electricity bills.
The Biden administration has big aspirations for the program, projecting it could spur the development of 134 gigawatts of new solar power capacity nationwide, the agency official said. To put that in perspective, total U.S. solar capacity today sits at 97.2 gigawatts, according to the Energy Department.
And it could lead to sizable savings, too: DOE estimated participants in the five initial pilot project states and the District of Columbia alone would save more than $1 billion on their energy bills annually.”
“the president plans to use the Defense Production Act to boost clean energy in the United States by putting a two-year freeze on tariffs for solar panels coming to the country from Southeast Asia and simultaneously scaling up the domestic production of clean energy technologies.
This is the latest in a series of moves that show the White House is beginning to treat climate change and clean energy as national security issues. It’s also the kind of thing climate activists have been asking the Biden administration to do for months. The executive actions could bring thousands of manufacturing jobs to the country while also making the US less dependent on foreign oil and gas, particularly as the war in Ukraine continues.”
“Defense Production Act (DPA) authorization specifically targets solar technology, heat pumps, insulation, green hydrogen, and grid components like transformers. Those might not seem very similar to, say, repurposing automobile production lines to build tanks, but in the past few years we have seen the definition of national security shift to encompass more than just military spending. It now includes everything from the manufacture of equipment to treat Covid-19 to baby formula. Biden’s latest move sends a message that clean energy technologies are worth investing in because they are critical to the security of the country, and the government is willing to support their production even if the market would prefer cheaper imports.”
“More than 230,000 people work in the American solar industry as of 2020, mostly in installation, and “the vast majority of those jobs depend on solar imports,” according to Stokes, who is also the senior policy counsel at the electrification nonprofit Rewiring America.
Hundreds of solar projects around the country had been put on hold in the last two months while developers waited to find out if they’d have to pay billions in tariffs. The newly announced freeze, however, should allow those projects to move forward immediately, while also giving American solar manufacturers time to ramp up production to meet the needs of future projects.”
“the DPA authorization also includes funding to ramp up the production of four other technologies: green hydrogen technology, which can be used to store clean energy and clean up carbon-heavy industries; grid components like transformers, which will help build a more modern, resilient grid that can handle an influx of renewable energy; heat pumps, which use electricity to heat and cool homes more efficiently than fossil fuel-dependent systems like furnaces; and building insulation, which is an overlooked tool in fighting climate change, making homes more energy-efficient and keeping them heated and cooled for longer.”
“President Joe Biden won’t impose new tariffs on imports of solar power equipment for two years to help ease the fears that have slowed the growth in the renewable energy sector, and will invoke the Defense Production Act to spur domestic manufacturing of critical clean energy technologies, including solar panel parts.
The moves come as the solar energy industry has been roiled by a Commerce Department probe into whether companies in four Southeast Asian countries have circumvented the tariffs on Chinese shipments of solar equipment to the U.S. Those fears have slowed the development of large projects that are crucial to meeting the Biden administration’s goal of eliminating carbon emissions from the power sector by 2035.”
“A tiny solar panel manufacturing firm with outsized political clout is poised to wreak havoc on the entire American solar energy industry.
And the White House, which at least theoretically supports expanding America’s green energy industries, might just go along with the madness. It’s a tricky situation for President Joe Biden to navigate, one that requires choosing between two of his top policy priorities: industrial protectionism and combatting climate change.
In February, the California-based company Auxin Solar submitted a petition to the U.S. Department of Commerce asking for a more expansive set of tariffs targeting imported solar panels and their component parts. The company alleges that American solar panel manufacturers are avoiding tariffs on Chinese-made solar panels and components—tariffs originally imposed in 2018 by the Trump administration but renewed earlier this year by Biden—by buying parts made in Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam that are sometimes made with Chinese parts.
That is, of course, pretty much exactly what you’d expect any company to do. But Auxin argues that the federal government now has a responsibility to stop what it calls attempts to “circumvent” those tariffs on Chinese imports by imposing new tariffs on imports from those four other countries as well. In March, the Commerce Department launched an investigation to determine whether those tariffs are to be added.
According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), those prospective tariffs would target the source of about 80 percent of America’s supply of crystalline silicon photovoltaic cells, the fundamental building blocks of solar panels. In a letter to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo in March, dozens of the SEIA’s member companies warned that the tariffs would “stall both ongoing and planned U.S. solar projects and lead to the loss of over 45,000 American jobs, including 15,000 domestic solar manufacturing jobs.” It would also mean losing about 14 gigawatts of planned solar deployment—about two-thirds of the Energy Information Administration’s target for solar deployment this year
All that, the SEIA warned, “because a single company is seeking to inappropriately exploit the law for market advantage.”
It sounds like a typical story of big business using its political clout to shut smaller competitors out of the market. But the bizarre thing about this fight is that relatively unsuccessful businesses are holding the rest of the market hostage. Because they have friends in Washington”
“this offers a lesson about how protectionism creates perverse incentives in markets and politics. Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on Chinese solar parts and Biden’s decision to extend those tariffs have created a bizarre situation where a bankrupt solar manufacturer and an “artisanal solar boutique” might get to dictate the future of an entire industry.”
“Even the mere prospect of new trade restrictions has prompted solar installers, who are already facing supply issues and higher labor costs, to pull back on some projects. At the same time, Biden wants to avoid being seen to be weak on China — another centerpiece of his campaign pitch and early policy agenda.
The conflict pits parts of the solar industry against each other. American solar panel manufacturers are petitioning to expand existing tariffs on Chinese products to those coming from Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. Backers of the tariffs and trade restrictions say they would allow panel makers in the U.S. to expand production. Added duties would also accomplish another of Biden’s goals: punishing China over the use of forced labor.
But the Solar Energy Industries Association, which represents developers that install panels and build solar projects, says imposing tariffs on those three nations would hit more than three-fourths of imports and about half of the total solar panel supply in the U.S. “That would have a pretty devastating impact on the solar industry,” said Abby Hopper, CEO of the trade group.”
“Other trade issues before the administration could also hamper solar build-out. Commerce is weighing whether to extend separate Trump-era tariffs on Chinese solar for another four years, and the Department of Homeland Security is considering whether to increase trade restrictions on Chinese panel components, like it did this summer.
In June, the Biden administration blocked the import of products containing silicon materials from a key Chinese supplier, Hoshine, over concerns it uses forced labor in its manufacturing. The company operates in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang, where the ruling Communist Party has interned hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uyghur Muslims.
The policy has resulted in Customs and Border Protection detaining some shipments of solar panels coming in from China.”
““The fossil fuel industries were unionized in long struggles that were classic labor stories,” said University of Rhode Island labor historian Erik Loomis. “Now, they’re in decline and you have these new industries. But a green capitalist is still a capitalist, and they don’t want a union.”
About 4 percent of solar industry workers and 6 percent of wind workers are unionized, according to the 2020 US Energy and Employment Report. The percentage of unionized workers in natural gas, nuclear, and coal power plants is about double that, around 10 to 12 percent unionized (although still not a huge amount). In addition, transportation, distribution, and storage jobs — which exist largely in the fossil fuel sector — about 17 percent of the jobs are unionized. Still, the solar and wind unionization rates are in line with the albeit very low national rate of unionized workers in the private sector, which is about 6.3 percent.
This is one of the big reasons there’s a real hesitancy on the part of many unions and workers to transition from fossil fuel to renewable jobs: They are worried the jobs waiting for them in wind and solar won’t pay as well or have union protections. This has long been a tension point between environmental groups and labor”
“Rolling electric power blackouts afflicted roughly 2 million California residents in August as a heat wave gripped the Golden State. At the center of the problem is a state policy requiring that 33 percent of California’s electricity come from renewable sources such as solar and wind power, rising to a goal of 60 percent by 2030. Yet data showed that power demand peaks just before the sun begins to go down, when overheated people turn up their air conditioning in the late afternoon. Meanwhile, the power output from California’s wind farms in August was erratic.
Until this summer, California utilities and grid operators were able to purchase extra electricity from other states. But the August heat wave stretched from Texas to Oregon, so there was little to no surplus energy available.”
“California has been bringing the hammer down on a huge source of safe, reliable, always-on, non-carbon-dioxide-emitting electricity: nuclear power. In 2013, state regulators forced the closing of the San Onofre nuclear power plant, which supplied electricity to 1.4 million households. By 2025, California regulators plan to close the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, which can supply electricity to 3 million households.
The problem of climate change, along with the blackouts resulting from the vagaries of wind and solar power, suggests that California should not only keep its nuclear power plants running but also build more innovative reactors designed to flexibly back up variable renewable electricity generation.”