Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Tina Casey headshot

Keystone XL Pipeline Sputters Out As U.S. Solar Generation Soars to Record High


Fans of the notorious Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline got a double whammy of bad news last week. First, the latest figures from the U.S. Energy Information Agency highlight the spectacular growth of solar energy in the 50 states, which should knock the job-creating pins out from under the Keystone XL argument once and for all. Second, the rumor mill is heating up with anticipation that President Barack Obama will deny a permit for the controversial project, perhaps as early as Labor Day weekend.

Great numbers for U.S. solar generation

The latest Energy Information Agency (EIA) figures were released earlier this month, covering data up through June 2015. The report focuses on utility-scale solar plants, defined as 1 megawatt or more.

For utility-scale solar generation, EIA reported a one-month record of 2,765 gigawatt-hours in June 2015, a 35.8 percent increase over the same month last year, and a spectacular 31 times the solar generation 10 years ago, in June 2005.

Dig behind the national figures and you'll see some interesting state-by-state numbers emerge. According to EIA, California by far added the most solar generation to the grid in June 2015, accounting for a full 56.5 percent. That's no big surprise from a public policy perspective, given California's progressive reputation along with its ample sunshine.

The surprise is in the numbers for states immediately following California for solar grid contribution: Arizona (13.4 percent), North Carolina (6.7 percent), Nevada (6.4 percent) and New Jersey (3.3 percent). None of these states are particularly known for left-leaning energy policy, at least not as far as their current governors go. However, the legacy of past legislative initiatives continues to power the solar industry.

In Arizona, for example, former Gov. Jan Brewer was a strong advocate of solar development, and her efforts continue to ripple out thanks in part to corporate interest in solar generation. Arizona is also home to the massive Agua Caliente and Solana solar thermal plants, both supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, as well as military installations such as a new 16.4 megawatt array at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

Despite having a current governor with deep ties to the fossil fuel industry, North Carolina is the beneficiary of high interest in solar generation among its corporate citizens such as Apple and Ikea, along with its previously established Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard. The state's solar generation numbers also got a boost this year with a 20 megawatt facility for George Washington University.

Like Arizona, Nevada is the beneficiary of giant-sized federally supported solar generation projects along with strong state policies that support an estimated 5,900 direct and value chain jobs in the solar industry.

New Jersey started off strong in solar generation policy under previous administrations, and though its current governor has been less than aggressive in addressing the state's boom-and-bust solar jobs cycle, the sector continues to be a growth engine. As with the other state solar frontrunners, corporate interest in solar energy plays a big role here.

Prospects for continued growth in utility-scale solar don't look too good for New Jersey, though. EIA's map of forthcoming utility-scale power generation looks to California and North Carolina for the big numbers.

EIA also notes that small-scale solar generation is also growing, and in that regard you can check the Solar Energy Industries Association for a state-by-state estimates of jobs related to the solar sector.

The Keystone XL pipeline and jobs, jobs, jobs

For those of you new to the topic, Keystone XL is a pipeline project that would bring crude oil from Canadian tar sands down through the U.S. midsection to Gulf Coast refineries.

The project was first proposed about seven years ago, at the tip of the 2008 global financial crisis and well before the U.S. renewable energy sector began its spectacular job-creating climb. While proponents of the project continue to portray it as a critical economic engine for the U.S. economy, Keystone XL would only create a few dozen permanent jobs. Compared to recent growth in the wind and solar sectors, it is less than a blip on the screen.

Throw in the potential risks to water resources in the nation's breadbasket, and it is evident that the burden is on Keystone's developer, TransCanda, to demonstrate that the project is in the best interests of the U.S.

Because the pipeline crosses an international border, it requires a sign-off from the White House. President Obama is also on record stating that approval would be contingent on Keystone XL not contributing significantly to greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite its best efforts, TransCanada may be doomed to fail. Last week our friends over at Oil and Gas Investor provided a rundown of rumors in Canadian media indicating that President Obama would deny a permit for Keystone XL. The rumor mill apparently began to crank up earlier this summer, courtesy of the consulting company Stratas Advisors (of the Hart Energy publishing group).

On August 27 our friends over at The Hill reported that White House spox Josh Earnest debunked the rumors, stating that the State Department is still reviewing Keystone XL.

However, on August 28 Stratas Director John Kneiss is reported to have predicted that the denial would come down around the Labor Day holiday weekend, so stay tuned.

Image credit: 1) Flickr/Elvert Barnes 2) U.S. Energy Information Agency.

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

Read more stories by Tina Casey

More stories from Energy & Environment