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Top 5 Renewable Energy Trends for 2019: Why Hydrogen Makes The Cut

By Tina Casey

With the urgency of climate action in mind, here are five energy trends to look out for in 2019. They are not necessarily the biggest trends in terms of raw numbers, but they could play an outsized role in accelerating decarbonization and reducing the risks and impacts of climate change.

1. Natural gas loses grip on U.S. homes.

We're putting this one first because cutting home energy consumption is one major key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Homes accounted for a full 16 percent of U.S. natural gas use in 2017, coming in third behind power generation and industrial users. Commercial users were fourth at 12 percent, and the transportation sector barely registered.

Electricity is the other major energy input for homes in the U.S., but that doesn't mean all-electric homes are off the hook for methane emissions: The U.S. power grid still depends heavily on both natural gas and coal.

The good news: Renewable energy is beginning to push natural gas and coal out of the U.S. electricity grid. Taking advantage of that trend, in 2018 the Rocky Mountain Institute launched a new initiative aimed at transitioning the residential sector from gas to electricity.

RMI is taking a page out of the Sierra Club's successful Beyond Coal campaign. The idea is to raise awareness about local impacts—such as methane emissions from drilling operations, power plants and the transportation chain—to push for new policies that incentivize gas-to-electric conversions for existing homes and promote all-electric new home construction.

Allies in the appliance manufacturing and construction sectors could contribute to the success of the effort.

What to look for: One important factor in home electrification is the falling cost of rooftop solar and home energy storage systems. Some homeowners may convert from gas to electricity for safety reasons, but the bulk of conversions will probably come from homeowners who spot an opportunity to squeeze the maximum benefit from their rooftop solar systems.

2. U.S. offshore wind industry gets a grip.

The U.S. is a global leader when it comes to land-based wind farms, but the country lags far behind other nations in the offshore category. That's partly due to technology challenges for siting wind turbines in the deep waters of the U.S. Pacific Coast.

The relatively shallow Atlantic coast presents a different set of obstacles. Back in 2010, the Barack Obama administration laid plans for systematically developing wind farms on the Atlantic coast. The plan was stonewalled by Republican leadership in several coastal states, including New Jersey. An earlier offshore wind project for Massachusetts also foundered with an assist from a member of the Koch family.

So far, the U.S. only has one commercial offshore wind farm in operation, the five-turbine Block Island wind farm off the coast of Rhode Island.

The good news: Strangely enough, investor interest in Atlantic offshore wind has picked up substantially during the Donald Trump administration. Global energy companies including Shell, EDF and Equinor (formerly Statoil) are putting up the big bucks for federal offshore lease areas. The Department of Energy is also pitching the U.S. wind industry to overseas investors. This year, the agency established a new wind energy R&D hub in renewables-friendly New York state. Hundreds of turbines could dot the Atlantic coast by the mid-2020s.

What to look for: Keep an eye on upcoming offshore wind lease activity in the New York Bight, a corner of the Atlantic Ocean bordered by New Jersey and New York.

3. A hydrogen fuel cell in every port.

TriplePundit regularly takes note of the emerging hydrogen economy, though with a major caveat: Hydrogen is a zero-emission fuel at the tailpipe, but currently the main sources for hydrogen are natural gas and coal gas.

Fortunately, pathways for renewable hydrogen are beginning to emerge. One particular focus of attention is "splitting" hydrogen from water molecules by applying an electrical current. The bad news is that water-splitting is not necessarily a sustainable solution when the local power grid mix includes fossil fuels.

The good news: The integration of wind and solar in the power grid will help reduce the carbon footprint of water-splitting. In addition, the U.S. Department of Energy and private-sector companies are already looking at modular hydrogen fueling systems that integrate on-site hydrogen production with on-site wind or solar power.

For example, the hydrogen-focused startup Nikola is marketing fuel cell semi trucks in tandem with plans to establish its own network of hydrogen fueling stations, at least some of which will use clean power to produce hydrogen on site.

It's true that hydrogen passenger cars have been slow to take off in the U.S. However, Nikola, UPS and other shipping and logistics stakeholders are positioning renewable hydrogen as the fuel of the future for long-haul trucking, forklifts and other work vehicles. Stationary fuel cells also come into play, and the U.S. military has also been looking at hydrogen fuel cells for tactical and fleet vehicles.

What to look for: Port cities and other shipping hubs will lead the way to hydrogen fuel cell commercialization. Despite headwinds from the Trump White House, the U.S. EPA is apparently still making progress on a broad, ongoing initiative to improve air quality in port cities. That program includes a number of fuel cell projects. In a related development, a first-of-its-kind, high-speed hydrogen fuel cell ferry is on track to launch in the San Francisco Bay in the latter half of 2019.

4. Onshore wind energy: Smaller is okay, too.

One field that has been flying under the radar is distributed wind energy. As described by the Energy Department, distributed wind generally refers to wind turbines that are used to power site-specific operations, for example in agricultural or industrial applications. They are also coming into use for schools, government buildings and homes, among other sites.

Distributed wind turbines are typically much smaller than the now-familiar giant turbines that populate wind farms, though they can range up to the megawatt end of the scale.

Growth in the distributed wind sector has been relatively slow compared to rooftop solar. In the early days of the small wind industry, an element of unfulfilled promises—if not outright hucksterism—may have discouraged investors, but the situation has changed in recent years. Technology improvements and a new regimen of oversight and certification are beginning to pay off, as described in the latest Distributed Wind Markets report from the Energy Department.

The good news: Last summer, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) added a Distributed Wind section to its portfolio for the first time, citing an opportunity to grow the market for distributed wind applications:

"The inclusion of distributed wind at AWEA expands the Association’s ability to educate Americans about all the benefits of wind energy, including the potential wind turbines have to supply on-site power for homes and businesses. Distributed wind also provides a unique opportunity for the public to engage more directly with wind power technology at residential and community scale."

What to look for: Distributed wind can be difficult to site in urban and suburban settings, but rural applications could be a strong area of growth. Helping matters along, the 2018 Farm Bill passed in December with its slate of clean power programs intact. These are administered under the U.S. Department of Agriculture's ongoing REAP (Rural Energy for America Program), which includes funding for distributed wind projects.

In particular, Energy Department studies have pinpointed the U.S. Southeast as a region with untapped potential for both utility-scale and distributed wind development.

5. Local communities step up to the renewable energy plate.

U.S. corporate leadership has garnered a lot of praise, deservedly so, for committing to huge renewable energy purchases. This corporate clean power activism helps to lower costs for everyone, by helping the wind and solar industries build economies of scale.

For individual ratepayers, though, the power to control one's renewable energy destiny can still be elusive. The case of Boulder, Colorado, illustrates the obstacles. In 2011, the city launched a long, messy legal fight for clean power with its utility Xcel. Seven years later, the clean power battle still rages on. Xcel set a zero carbon goal for 2050, but apparently that was too little, too late. In a recent vote, Boulder legislators decided to forge ahead with a takeover of Xcel's distribution network.

The good news: More cities are establishing renewable energy goals, and they are finding new ways to leverage the collective power of ratepayers to get their hands on more clean power.

What to look for: Just as corporate America helped push the demand for wind and solar, local governments are becoming a market force to be reckoned with.

One emerging pathway is community choice aggregation. These programs force utilities to provide a voluntary clean power option. In the past, community choice was a hard sell because wind and solar were more expensive. However, costs are continuing to drop, making community choice practically a no-brainer. Community choice is already underway in California and New York. Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island and Virginia have also passed enabling legislation.

The low cost of renewable energy is also attracting more attention from rural electric cooperatives and other public utilities. Philadelphia's municipal utility, for example, just entered into a power purchase agreement to buy the entire output from a planned 70-megawatt solar farm. In Texas, the municipal utility New Braunfels Utilities recently signed a power purchase agreement involving 225 megawatts of solar energy, enabling it to maintain its reputation for offering some of the lowest electricity rates in the U.S.

A third pathway is on-site solar. These so-named distributed energy resources are already commonplace at federal, state and local public facilities, but their full potential has yet to be realized. Next-generation microgrid technology will help accelerate the trend, with the help of low-cost energy storage.

New cryptocurrency platforms and blockchain software will also help push the on-site solar trend. Cryptocurrency gets a bad rap through its association with Bitcoin and other speculative online currencies, but it also has applications that are purely workhorse in nature. When used in microgrids, online tokens provide for rapid, seamless and transparent transactions. That can incentivize property owners to install solar panels and, if possible, to install more than enough to fulfill their own electricity needs.

Image courtesy of Deepwater Wind

Tina Casey headshot

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.

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