In this episode
John and Colleen discuss:
- the current status of clean energy as the COVID-19 vaccine rolls out
- how renewables fared in 2020 compared to fossil fuels
- where the opportunities are for wind and solar
Timing and cues
Interview part 1 (1:40-13:19)
Interview part 2 (14:13-23:43)
Ending segment (23:57-27:31)
Science for the Win: Cynthia DeRocco
Editing: Omari Spears
Additional editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Jiayu Liang and Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald
Colleen: Among the endless bad and worse news from 2020, there was a bit of good news. And it came from an industry that’s had its own share of not-so-great news as well… the clean energy industry, which has suffered massive job losses, just when we needed these jobs the most. And like most of the effects of the pandemic, the brunt of these losses has fallen mostly on people of color.
But wait, I said I had good news. According to my colleague John Rogers, a senior energy analyst, new renewable energy generation in the US had its best year even in 2020. And that’s good for us, because we desperately need to incorporate more clean energy into our power mix and cut emissions from generating and consuming electricity.
But, of course, nothing from 2020 can be completely good news. While other industries have somewhat recovered their jobs, clean energy is still struggling. But John Rogers sees this bad news… as an opportunity to do better. He’s back on the podcast, to talk about the good, the bad… and what’s keeping us from 100 percent renewable energy nationwide.
Colleen: John, welcome back to the podcast.
John: Thanks, Colleen. Great to be back with you.
Colleen: So there's a lot of encouraging news to talk about on the clean energy front. But before we talk about the progress, this has been a really tough year, and I know we talked last spring about job losses due to the pandemic. Can we start with where things stand on that front?
John: Sure, Colleen, and I think that's a really important place to start. So even as we're talking about progress, we have to acknowledge the really difficult circumstances that the country and the world have found themselves in. So in the U.S., COVID hit clean energy hard, and, you know, if you think about clean energy, you're talking about renewable energy, like solar and wind, you're talking about energy efficiency, maybe advanced vehicles, other technologies.
When you and I talked last spring, at that point, more than 600,000 people had lost their jobs in this country, in the clean energy sector, and that's because COVID made their work either physically or economically impossible. And the recovery, certainly to this point, has been far from complete. As of November, I saw calculations saying, something like 450,000 people in the sector still had not gotten plugged back in. So that meant clean energy jobs were down something like 13% from their pre-COVID levels, and that obviously matters. That matters for workers' families, that matters for their livelihoods, that matters for our transition to clean energy. And I got to say, like so much else surrounding the virus, the impacts of the job losses have been unevenly felt, and you see black and Hispanic clean energy workers continuing to shoulder more than their fair share of the high levels of unemployment. So those are important considerations as we think about and, certainly, as the new administration in D.C. thinks about addressing COVID, and the economy, and climate change, and racial justice issues.
Colleen: So despite these enormous challenges, I mean, I gather things are still moving along. Are you seeing signs of progress?
John: Oh, definitely, yeah. That's a terrific question. You know, I think another piece of context is that there has been a thumb on the scales for fossil fuels for the last four years coming out of Washington, D.C., particularly coal, but across energy. And you're seeing things like the taxes on solar imports that the previous administration put in place, even so...so let me wind the clock back to 2006, which is the last time coal was half of our electricity supply on an annual basis. At that point, if you look at the renewable energy space, we had hydro, you know, the big dams that were built many decades before that, but wind power was less than 1% of our electricity supply, and solar didn't even show up. I mean, you had to really dig in to the significant digits to find solar. By last year, 2020, coal had dropped to a fifth. Renewable energy passed coal in terms of its contribution to our electricity supply. We're still waiting for the final figures, but that's based on preliminary data. That's what we see. It looks like renewables passed coal, probably tied nuclear power, and so those two are neck and neck to be the second largest source of electricity supply in this country.
Colleen: That's kind of astonishing progress. You're talking about, what, like 14 years, 14 to 15 years?
John: Yeah. So the pandemic was certainly a factor last year, and natural gas has played an important role in knocking coal off its perch, but it's also a testament to renewable energy's incredible growth over the last dozen or so years. Other figures we're still waiting for, end-of-year figures or year-end, you know, 2020 figures for wind and solar, but it is pretty clear that 2020 will have been the best year ever for new wind power in terms of megawatts installed. It'll have been the best year ever for new solar, and that's not rooftop solar because of all the problems, you know, in terms of not being able to get into people's houses and not businesses. Businesses putting on solar so much is really the large-scale solar, but what we see is that adding up to probably the best year ever for solar.
Colleen: To clarify on solar, we have residential solar, business solar, and then you have...are you talking about solar farms?
John: That's right. So those three sectors, basically. Residential, and then you think about commercial and industrial, so businesses and institutions. But then you've got this other category, which is the large-scale solar, which is the large solar farms you might see by the side of a highway or in a field or in a desert.
Colleen: And just run through how each of those sectors, how they've fared in this past year.
John: Sure. So residential solar, again, had difficulties because of the pandemic and the restrictions on movement and getting into people's houses. Solar that targets businesses or institutions, certainly, it will have been a down year, but for large-scale solar, they were able to keep working, and they've found safe ways to do it, and they kept building, and those will have propelled the sector to a new height for 2020.
Colleen: So essentially, the pandemic was the major player here. It wasn't something like fewer incentives or...
John: No. That's a great question. The pandemic actually hampered some of this growth. What we did have was tax incentives that were getting set to change. And certainly, cheaper costs. I mean, each year, every year, we've seen wind and solar get cheaper and cheaper and cheaper, and it's been amazing to watch, and that's certainly been a factor. And as utility companies, as customers are going out there, thinking about where they're gonna get their power from, these are the technologies that are rising to the top in so many occasions and so many places around the country.
And one other indication of progress, if you look at how we're doing not just on a countrywide basis but on a regional basis, we just had the news that the Southwest Power Pool, essentially, the regional grid operator for a lot of the Great Plains, just said that, in 2020, wind power was the number one fuel on an annual basis for the first time ever. So wind beat out coal, wind beat out gas, wind beat out everything else out there in terms of its contribution to meeting their electricity needs over the course of the year.
Colleen: It's sounding unstoppable, John.
John: You know, it's amazing. And we need more, and we need faster, and we need to be constantly thinking about what comes next.
Colleen: I mean, how can we accelerate progress even more?
John: Oh, yeah. So, how do we do that? So let me say, costs are gonna continue to be a major driver. Again, renewable energy in many parts of the country, wind power is the cheapest source of new electricity and sometimes even cheaper than existing power plants. Costs are gonna continue to be an important driver. There is the role of tax policy, you know, how is the federal government getting behind these technologies, and that will continue to be a part of the equation.
Also, we have been seeing a really important role for commitments at some level other than the country as a whole, so states increasingly committing to high levels, even 100% renewable or clean energy targets. You see cities that are making similar commitments, and you're seeing companies that are basically saying, "Look, by X year, we wanna be off of fossil fuels." And those are really important drivers because they're going out there and they are signing deals for wind power or for solar power. But again, the federal policy is gonna be something really important to watch, and not just watch but drive in the right direction. So whether that's tax policy, or investments in continued innovation, or other ways of deployment, that's gonna be a really important piece of the equation so that everybody across the country is being lifted up by this time.
Colleen: What’s holding back even faster growth?
John: If you look at what's holding things back, let's say, or what's slowing things down, I might put in three different buckets. One is inertia. And I'm not talking about a technical term that means something in the power sector. I'm talking about the policies that are in place, that have been in place for decades, and are in place solely because they've been in place for decades. We still reward fossil fuel plants for doing stuff that renewable energy could do, at least as well if not better. We still have power plants that have contracts, sometimes decades out, with a coal supplier, a coal mine, or a utility that has a contract with a coal-fired power plant sometimes for decades out. And those are things that have just...those have got to fall away. We've got to find ways to get past that. And there's also inertia in us, the workforce. You know, you think about what it takes. It's not like we can just snap our fingers or flip a switch and switch from having, you know, a bunch of people working in fossil fuels to having a bunch of people working in renewable energy. Now, the fact is there are a whole lot of people who work in renewable energy now, and it's an incredible job creator. We still need to find ways to help people move...other people make that move. So that's sort of maybe the inertia bucket.
There are technical issues about how the pieces fit together. You know, if you think about our national transmission grid, it was built around these large fossil fuel plants or nuclear plants. We need to reconfigure that. We need to make sure that we've got the transmission to get power from the Great Plains, let's say, from the Dakotas to the Twin Cities, or from the Great Plains East to the Southeastern U.S. And we need to figure out how we make it easier for us to get to higher and higher levels of variable renewable energy, like solar and wind, and just make those pieces work together.
And I'd say a third bucket is maybe around public acceptance. Wind power has, you know, a very high favorability rating, and solar is almost off the charts. I mean, these are public acceptance ratings that any politician would die for, but that doesn't always translate into everybody supporting a particular project in a particular place. And so figuring out ways to help people understand the importance of that next wind farm or those next solar panels, I think those are some of the things that you wanna have come together to make this move even more quickly.
Colleen: So, John, what would you like to see in the near future, say, the next year?
John: Yeah. Well, so it's gonna take some time to undo some of the bad stuff from the last few years, but other changes are gonna be a lot more immediate. You know, first off, I think we're already gonna see the effects of what's already happened. So the record years for solar and wind last year, those wind turbines and those solar panels are gonna be generating throughout this year, and so we'll already see it bump up because of that. If you look at Congress, the stimulus bill that they passed just recently, there were tax credit extensions, which will be really important for providing greater certainty for the businesses for solar and wind developers that we need to have doing these things. But you know on day one, the Biden administration bringing us back into the Paris Climate Agreement. You see things that are a little bit more behind the scenes, like appointing a new chair for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is, it's an obscure agency for many people, but it's really important for how electricity grids are operated across the country, how we make decisions about the treatment that renewable energy gets, and how much we stop tilting the playing field toward fossil fuels. So there's a new chair there who is much more keen on clean energy than others.
So I think we're seeing things like that come in already. We certainly expect if, you know, you look at something like offshore wind, that offshore wind is gonna get a fair shake under this administration. So whether those are project approvals, certainly, consideration of projects, opening up new leasing areas off our coasts for more offshore wind, those are gonna be really important. And then if you think more broadly about clean energy, energy efficiency. There's a lot of stuff that got held up over the last four years, progress we could have been making, faster progress on energy efficiency, appliances, or cars, or other things that this administration will get back on track.
Colleen: So, John, I know you're a wind turbine guy. I know that's a lot of what you study and have your finger on the pulse of. You know, when I think of turbines, I think technology will advance in that they'll get bigger and more powerful, and we'll put them in windier places. Are there other types of technology, or tell me what you're seeing on the wind front?
John: Sure. I'll say to all my solar friends out there, I'm not a wind guy. I'm both. I love you both. But on a...
Colleen: You love all your children equally.
John: I love all, yes. So in the wind, a few things to watch. I'd say, with land-based wind turbines, what you are seeing is longer blades and taller towers, and what that means is that wind turbines can now generate, and generate economically, generate power in areas and even parts of the country where large-scale wind hasn't really caught on. And so I think that's a really exciting development, and we're gonna continue to see progress on that front.
If you look offshore, we will continue to see turbines getting bigger and bigger. When you and I were having this conversation a couple of years ago, I think we were talking about turbines in the 8 to 10-megawatt range. Now, all the talk is about 13 or 14 or 15-megawatt wind turbines that are coming. And just to give you a sense of what that means, since 13 megawatts is hard to picture, 13 megawatts, if that turbine is going full out, it will generate enough energy to power a house in 7 seconds. Power a house for a day in seven seconds. So now, there are a lot of caveats about, you know, you gotta get the power from the wind turbine to the land, to my house. You've got to store the power so I can use it 24 hours, not just for those 7 seconds. But just to give you a sense of that scale, so power a house for a day in seven seconds.
Colleen: That's amazing. I mean, I'd be happy with 10 seconds.
John: Ten seconds, all right. We'll see what we can do. We can stretch it out with a little bit of battery. So that's...I mean, one is the size of the turbines. Another is the size of the projects. As we get larger and larger projects, meaning more of these turbines put together, that's gonna help drive down the cost too. So both those things are contributing to reductions in cost, which are gonna make this even more attractive. The thing about offshore wind turbines is we're not limited, size-bound the way we are on land. You know, on land, you gotta get that turbine blade or that tower or section where it's going, which means driving on roads, and going under bridges, and making hairpin turns, and all that. And, you know, that gets more difficult.
Colleen: So, John, is it true that...I recently read that some of the blades for the turbines that are gonna be out in deep ocean are something like two football fields long? Is that true?
John: More than a football field is what we're seeing now. I mean, you've got...
Colleen: Okay, more than a football field.
John: ...blades that are coming out now that are 107 meters long, and that's where we're heading in the very near future. And the thing is you're not constrained nearly as much on open water, because, you know, it's easy to turn, there are no bridges out in the middle of the ocean, and so you're not constrained that way. You still have to think about the size of the ships that are gonna do the work, you know, to install these things, and that's certainly a topic of conversation here in the U.S., because we gotta start building those. In fact, the first one is under development now, building those special barges that are gonna make it possible to install those types of turbines here.
Colleen: And what about solar?
John: Oh, I love solar. Solar is gonna keep getting more efficient. You know, we see incremental improvements in efficiency. It's gonna keep getting cheaper as the modules get larger, as the industry gets larger. But there are opportunities that are on the horizon for different types of materials. A lot of the solar panels we use now are based on silicon, but there are other classes of materials that may maybe supplement that. So you can imagine these multi-junction cells that have these different technologies overlaid on each other that are capturing different parts of the spectrum of what's coming from the sun. And so real opportunities to even get past some of the sort of physical limits that we've faced up to this point. So stay tuned. Stay tuned for that.
Colleen: That's pretty exciting.
John: Yeah, it is. And, you know, I started working on solar panels in the early 1990s, and it's been silicon for...not exclusively, but in most cases, that's been the technology that has dominated the market, and it's played a really important role. But expanding the range of technologies we have available to us, that's nothing but a good thing.
Colleen: John, any closing thoughts?
John: I should say hi to Omari, shouldn't I? Because he's probably the one helping to make this sound intelligent. Thanks, Omari.
Colleen: He is, in fact, the one who's gonna.
John: I'm glad. So all this, you know, as you and I have talked about, none of this happens automatically. So we are gonna be looking to clean energy to be an important piece of our way forward. And again, that's in terms of the economy, certainly. That's in terms of public health. That's in terms of getting past the pandemic. That's in terms of dealing with climate change. And also, you know, we have to keep in mind, in all of this, thinking about the equity considerations. So, who has borne the burden from the way we've made and used power for so many decades, but also how the benefits are shared, who has access to the benefits, who's making the decisions about new technologies that are being brought online. And, you know, with respect to the new administration in D.C., we'll be watching and we'll be engaging to ensure that the promise of this new administration comes to fruition. None of this is automatic. We need to continue to be engaged to make sure that we're making the best decisions possible, the decisions that will best serve us not just for the coming months or years but for the long term.
Colleen: Well, John, thanks for joining me. I feel like we are on the road to recovery. We have a COVID vaccine that's being deployed, a plan is being put in place. Hopefully, that will mean many people can get back to work, and we can really start to see some acceleration of our clean energy future.
John: Yeah, that's exactly right. And it's a pleasure to talk with you again, Colleen. Thanks for having me.