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In less than a generation, solar power has gone from an expensive novelty to one of the world’s most affordable sources of carbon-free energy. A new book tells us how it happened. I also have some important updates on wind energy plans in Oklahoma and off Massachusetts, and about solar power in Georgia.

I’m Dan Gearino, your tour guide to the clean energy economy. Send me news tips and questions to dan.gearino@insideclimatenews.org, and thanks for reading.

— Dan

Solar Power Used to Be Expensive. Now It’s Cheap. Here’s What We Can Learn.

Greg Nemet, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has spent more than a decade tracing the development of solar power and has come up with a globe-spanning examination of how this technology became a low-cost leader.

I spoke with him about his new book,
How Solar Energy Became Cheap: A Model for Low-Carbon Innovation, a story that begins with research and development in the United States as far back as the 1950s and then was kicked into overdrive by subsidy programs in Japan and Germany in the 1990s and 2000s.

Subsidies created demand for large-scale manufacturing. And this set the stage for Chinese companies to find ways to make solar components much cheaper than had been done anywhere else—a step that would not have been possible without the previous ones.


“Now we have solar that is the cheapest way to produce electricity in sunny places, and it's probably the cheapest way humans have ever made electricity at scale,” Nemet said.

That’s the good news. Yet he laments that solar could have become more affordable much sooner if any of the countries involved had sustained some of their early efforts, especially the United States. The U.S. did much of the early research and had some supportive policies. But there was a lack of follow-through, such as in the early 1980s when the Reagan administration showed little interest in building upon the work that had come before.

The lesson for Nemet is that clean energy advocates need to be ready to act when political windows open.

He cites Germany as the best example of making the most of a political opportunity. The country implemented a law in the 2000s that provided financial incentives for residents and businesses that added rooftop solar, significantly reducing the risk of investing in solar.

The law was politically possible because the 1998 federal election led to a coalition government that included the Green Party.

Germany’s solar market soared, creating demand that was met by improvements in manufacturing. The solar industry got big enough that companies developed processes specifically for making solar equipment, as opposed to using repurposed manufacturing tools from other industries. This helped to increase efficiency and decrease prices even more.

Nemet’s book is more than a history lesson. He aims to figure out how the development of solar can be used as a model that can improve the affordability of other clean energy technologies.

The key concept here is openness, with researchers and companies around the world being able to benefit from work being done elsewhere.

He hopes that by studying how solar became cheap, he can help researchers figure out how to duplicate this kind of innovation and do it even more quickly for other technologies, such as battery storage and small-scale nuclear reactors.

And that is the goal of his work, to understand the factors that lead to innovation so they can be encouraged.


“I think improving technology is a really crucial part of dealing with climate change,” he said. “We need to do that really quickly and move a lot faster than we have in the past, not just in terms of passing policies, but developing technology, getting it adopted and then scaling it up.”

(Photo: University of Wisconsin-Madison)
 

AEP Makes Another Run at Wind Power in Oklahoma

American Electric Power, one of the nation’s largest utilities, said this week that it wants to develop three wind farms in Oklahoma, for a total of about 1,485 megawatts. This is a follow-up to a proposal the company abandoned last year for a single 2,000-megawatt project in the state that would have been the largest in the country.

This new plan looks designed to avoid the pitfalls of the previous one. Most notably, it does not include construction of a high-voltage transmission line that would run across Oklahoma, a part of the prior project that provoked the most pushback.


By not including power lines, AEP is helping to reduce the cost. The new plan has a price tag of about $2 billion, which is less than half the $4.5 billion of the previous plan.

The lower price may help to ease approvals with regulators. A year ago, Texas utility regulators rejected AEP’s proposal after opponents cast doubt on the claim that it would lead to a net cost savings for consumers. Texas was involved because AEP’s customers in the state would have been paying for a portion of the project.

That turned out to be a fatal blow. AEP announced the next day it was no longer going to pursue the plan. (The proposal had been approved in several other states. In Oklahoma, where the transmission line was a major concern, regulators had not yet ruled.)

AEP responded to this setback by pursuing the same goal—a big expansion of wind power in a wind-rich part of the country—in more of a piecemeal fashion.

The three wind farms in the new plan are being developed by Invenergy, the developer that also was behind last year’s abandoned project. They include a 999 megawatt project near Weatherford, a 287 megawatt project near Enid, and a 199 megawatt project near Alva.

Each project is within about 150 miles of Oklahoma City; the previous plan was in the remote Panhandle. The shorter distance makes it easier to deliver the electricity to the places where it would be used and reduces the need to build a large power line.

“Purchasing these wind facilities is consistent with our strategy of investing in the energy resources of the future, and it will save our customers money while providing significant economic benefits to local communities,” said Nick Akins, AEP’s chairman, president and CEO, in a statement.

Indeed, cost savings is an important part of the case that AEP will make to regulators who will be asked to approve the company’s contracts for the wind farms. The projected savings for consumers would be $3 billion, which is based on the prices of wind compared to what other leading sources would cost.

AEP, which is based in Ohio and has local utilities in 11 states, has said it plans to add more than 9,100 megawatts of new wind and solar capacity across its territory by 2030. That’s a lot, considering that the company’s current generating capacity from all sources is about 32,000 megawatts, and its capacity from renewable sources is about 5,300 megawatts.

I’m not going to predict the outcome, but it seems safe to say that AEP’s new Oklahoma proposal has a better chance of being approved than the one last year. If that happens, it would bolster Oklahoma’s status as one of the country’s wind energy leaders.
 

Vineyard Wind Runs into Some Choppy Waters

Remember how a proposal for a power line helped to trip up AEP’s Oklahoma project? There are echoes of this in Massachusetts. A local conservation commission voted last week to deny a permit for a power line that would connect to Vineyard Wind, a proposed 800 megawatt offshore wind farm that developers hoped to begin building this year.

In rejecting the line, the Edgartown Conservation Commission on Martha’s Vineyard said the developers had not done enough to allay concerns about adverse effects from the project, including concerns about the effects on marine life, according to this story from the Boston Globe.


This doesn’t kill the project. The developers, Avangrid and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, can appeal the decision to the state or they could revise the plan.

The Bureau of Ocean Management has also delayed issuing a final environmental impact statement for the project. It’s not clear how much longer this will take.

“We understand that, as the first commercial-scale offshore wind project in the U.S., the Vineyard Wind project will undergo extraordinary review before receiving approvals,” the developers said in a statement. “As with any project of this scale and complexity, changes to the schedule are anticipated.”

As the first large offshore wind farm planned in the country, Vineyard Wind is helping to set expectations. If the project runs on schedule and within budget, that’s a good sign for the many other offshore wind farms being planned.

(Photo: Chris Laurens/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images)
 

‘Bubba’ Does His Part Again for Renewables in Georgia

Georgia utility regulators voted this week to approve a long-term plan for Georgia Power, the state’s largest utility, that calls for 2,210 megawatts of new renewable energy by 2024, most of which is likely to come from solar.

The plan continues a pattern that my colleague James Bruggers
wrote about last summer: While the Georgia legislature is doing little to support clean energy, the Public Service Commission is encouraging renewable energy development.

The commission’s chairman, Lauren “Bubba” McDonald, the leader of the all-Republican panel, has led the way in nudging utilities to make renewable energy an increasingly large part of their planning.


“I determined Georgia has the ability to add significantly more renewable energy and solar energy using a market-based approach without any upward pressure on the rate payers and no state subsidies,” McDonald said in a statement.

The renewables in the plan are more than double the 1,000 megawatts that the utility had proposed in January.

Most of the state’s progress on renewable energy has been in the form of large projects. Georgia has been slow to develop rooftop solar for homes and businesses in part because of rules that limit the financial benefits of owning the systems, said Katie Chiles Ottenweller of Vote Solar.

She told me that the ruling in the Georgia Power case is a positive step but that concerns remain that the state is not doing enough to encourage rooftop solar. (I’ll note that the plan includes a carve-out to support some solar systems owned by residents and businesses, but does not change the financial rules that Vote Solar and others have long criticized.)

"There is still a lot of work to be done in looking at individual customers and asking whether they are able to capture benefits at their homes and at their businesses,” she said. “That’s a piece that’s really missing and Georgia’s economy is suffering as a result of that.

With the new plan, Georgia Power will be getting 22 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, up from 7 percent last year.

And, Georgia will be moving toward fulfilling some of its potential to become one of the country’s leaders in solar power, thanks to abundant sun. The state
ranks 11th in solar with 1,572 megawatts, trailing only North Carolina and Florida in the South.

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