By Jacob Sandry
The energy landscape is changing rapidly. Renewables are no longer the cottage industry that they were decades ago. New technology and financing combined with rapidly dropping prices have opened the door to a new age of energy. These four striking facts demonstrate why.
Solar energy is 99% cheaper than it used to be
Solar energy has developed dramatically over the past few decades. But most people don’t know it. In fact, 97 percent of people overestimate the cost of going solar. As the technology has developed and manufacturing improved, prices have dropped. A recent glut of Chinese subsidies has made the price drops over the last half-decade even more dramatic. To put this in perspective, solar cost around $77/watt in 1977. It now costs around 75￠/watt and estimates put it in the 35￠/watt range next year. While the industry focuses on reducing soft costs, new financing models allow people and businesses to overcome the upfront costs that currently exist. Leases and Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) allow people and businesses to go solar for little to no money down and purchase electricity for cheaper-than-grid rates for a decade or more. Only popularized about three years ago, these financing models now account for the majority of new residential solar installations.
Fossil fuels receive six times more subsidies than renewables and are still losing
I’m sure you’ve heard critics of clean energy deride that renewables are only feasible with generous government subsidies. It is true that government subsidies have been instrumental in the development of clean energy, but there are two crucial points to remember. First, the government subsidizes fossil fuels far more than it does renewables. Second, renewables are getting rapidly cheaper, as mentioned above, and can already compete with fossil fuels in a dozen major worldwide energy markets. In the United States, fossil fuels receive about $70 billion each year in subsidies. Renewables receive about $12 billion. Additionally, fossil fuels cause $500 billion in environmental and health damage each year. If you consider these externalities, fossil fuels receive $1.9 trillion in subsidies each year worldwide. While it’s true that coal, oil and gas receive fewer dollars per kWh of electricity produced, they’re also industries that have been around for over 100 years. Even with the world’s uneven subsidy landscape, solar has reached grid parity in 10 major worldwide markets including Los Angeles, Hawaii, Chile and India. It is predicted that 10 more major markets will see grid parity in the next few years.
Clean energy is creating millions of jobs
Perhaps the most important lesson from Germany’s mobilization around solar energy over the past couple years is that the country is adding more jobs for renewables than they are cutting from fossil fuels. The number of people in the German solar industry has doubled to over 400,000. In fact, renewables simply create more jobs than fossil fuels, controlling for price (i.e. it’s not because renewables are less economically efficient). Similar events are unfolding in the United States. In 2012, the U.S. added 13,000 solar jobs; there are now more people hired to create solar than to mine for coal. The solar job market grew six times faster than the economy as a whole. Clean energy jobs are even outpacing natural gas. Massachusetts recently reported that they’ve added 80,000 new jobs in renewable energy since 2011. This dwarfs the 30,000 jobs that Pennsylvania has added since its shale gas boom. On the whole, there are 3.4 million Americans employed in (broadly defined) “green jobs.”
Famous conservatives are vocally supporting clean energy
Climate and energy have traditionally been liberal issues, but the political landscape around clean energy is shifting. As renewables become increasingly economically viable, conservatives have started to see the glint of the clean energy gold rush. As viable renewables begin to generate electricity, they provide competition in the energy marketplace. In most places across the United States, energy markets are controlled by utility monopolies and many libertarian conservatives like distributed solar’s potential for providing energy self-reliance. Barry Goldwater Jr. leads TUSK (Tell Utilities Solar won’t be Killed), an Arizona group that is fighting to maintain net metering benefits. A similar fight is taking place in Georgia where the Green Tea Coalition (comprised of Sierra Club, Occupy Atlanta, NAACP, and Atlanta Tea Party Patriots) is battling a Koch Brothers campaign to reduce net metering. Clean energy also has enormous national security value as it reduces America’s dependence on volatile foreign oil markets, increases troop readiness, and buffers the military against grid failures. Many traditionally conservative states like Texas, Iowa, Kansas, South Carolina, Nevada and Georgia and leaders like Rick Perry, George Bush, Terry Branstad, Sam Brownback, Chris Christie and Jan Brewer have implemented significant Renewable Portfolio Standards in their respective states.
Jacob Sandry is an Energy Studies scholar at Yale University and a fellow at Mosaic, an online platform that enables anyone to invest in solar and participate in the clean energy sector with campaigns like the New Age of Energy. He has worked in Colorado to protect endangered waterways and in Bolivia to protect animals rescued from the black market. Jacob has been to 5 continents, but originally hails from Minnesota where he developed his appreciation for the environment by camping, hiking and running. Follow him on twitter @yaakovsandry.
(Photo Credit: Tai Viinikka from Flickr)