Has Solar Gone Dark?

Renewable energy is at a point that is both incredibly inspiring and incredibly frustrating. On the one hand, the future has never looked brighter; renewable projects are bursting with potential. On the other, the transition seems to be stalling, creating a landscape where progress appears to be moving backward and at the same time proving the immense promise and achievability of a great transition. Let’s unravel this a bit.

The Frustration: Though we’ve been pushing solar and renewables for over 20 years, solar only provided 3.4% of the electricity sold to consumers in the US in 2022. Even when you add rooftop solar, it accounts for only 5%. All renewables, including wind, hydro, solar, biomass, and geothermal, made up only 21.5% of electricity production in 2022. Worse yet, there were 36% fewer new clean energy installations in Q1 2023 than Q1 2022. These numbers sound pretty bleak, suggesting that the transition could be in trouble.

So what’s happening? Are we hitting a wall with renewables? Today, oil, gas and coal plants produce 750 GW of electricity. To transition to renewables, we need to deploy at least that amount. We also need to deploy storage and energy management to manage the intermittency of renewables. The seeming slow progress despite government subsidies has fueled a backlash against clean energy projects.

The Promise: Yet this apparent slowdown belies the amount of solar and wind that will be deployed with currently committed projects. Today, we have more solar and wind under development than all fossil fuel-based generating capacity combined, with over 10,000 projects representing 1,350 GW of generating capacity. Add to that 680 GW of active storage projects, and the capacity for a clean energy future is well on its way.

Policy Needs to be Changed: The transition is not limited by technology or capital, but rather by policy and infrastructure. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has taken steps to speed up the process by reviewing projects in batches, but we need to go further. Streamlined environmental and land use reviews, updated policies, and proactive planning can help bridge the gap between potential and reality. It would be too ironic if the environmental movement kept us from using renewable energy.

Grid Improvements Are Crucial: Our current grid needs significant improvements, from more transmission lines to upgrading existing systems with technologies like HVDC transmission. This is not just about expanding capacity but about creating a smart and efficient grid that can handle the unique demands of electric vehicles, our other growing energy needs, and renewable energy.

Encouraging Local Generation: The big picture includes not only massive projects but also community-driven initiatives like roof-top solar, community solar, co-generation, and local storage. These efforts reduce the need to transport energy over long distances, making the energy landscape more resilient and efficient.

A Call to Action: The time for change is now. The backlash against clean energy must be navigated carefully, and barriers to growth must be removed.

The renewable energy situation might feel like a two-steps-forward-one-step-back dance, but the reality is far more optimistic. We’re not merely shuffling; we’re on a marathon run toward a cleaner, more sustainable future.

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