By Pete Danko
The renewable energy sector is dynamic, with advancing technology and evolving policy. As 2015 beckons, here are some of the key questions that Portland, Oregon-based contributor Pete Danko will be asking about U.S. renewables.
1) Is The PTC Winding Down or Dead?
The wind industry won a small victory just before Congress went home, gaining reinstatement of the Production Tax Credit – which had expired at the end of 2013 – but only through the end of 2014. The industry will lobby hard to bring the key subsidy back, and the best it might hope for is a multiyear deal that ends the PTC permanently in two or three years.
2) Can Power Towers Power Up?
Owners of the Ivanpah plant in California suggested low generation will ramp up over the next few years; we’ll be watching the 2015 data with one eye. The other eye will be on the Crescent Dunes project, which comes with molten-salt energy storage. Due to open soon after a very long commissioning phase, a successful launch of the Nevada plant could give the power towers a badly needed boost.
3) Wavering: Will Marine Energy Bounce Back?
It was a bit of an annus horribilis for wave and tidal energy in 2014. Ocean Power Technologies projects in Oregon and Australia were dropped, and in the U.K. major players Pelamis and Aquamarine Power faltered. Wave, especially, was always a very long-term play, so the question in 2015 will be if the sector can regather momentum and inch ahead. In the U.S., Resolute Marine Energy is hoping to do a demonstration project in Oregon, while in Hawaii Northwest Energy Innovations will test at an existing 30-meter site while a Fred.Olsen device is scheduled to be deployed at a new 60-meter berth.
4) Solar Trade War: What Will the Fallout Be?
SolarWorld’s U.S. unit, based in Oregon, continued its winning streak with trade regulators in D.C., expanding duties on Chinese PV products and bringing Taiwan into the fold. As a result, module prices are expected to rise in the U.S. How much is uncertain, however – as is who will be forced to absorb the cost. Will installations, particularly at the price-sensitive utility-scale level, suffer? Will U.S. manufacturing rebound?
5) Can Distributed Solar Stand Strong?
Utilities are responding to a perceived threat from the rise of distributed solar, pushing back on net metering programs. Mostly, the programs have stood pretty firm, but 2015 will bring more tests. Meanwhile, two Arizona utilities are trying to get into the rooftop solar business themselves; some solar advocates see that as a good sign, while others fear such programs could edge out the solar developers who have been growth leaders in the past few years.
6) What Turn Will Energy Storage Take?
This was a big year for energy storage, led by California, as Jeff St. John highlighted over on Greentech Media. Most of the news was regarding lithium-ion batteries, but won’t systems with greater bulk storage potential need to emerge? Vanadium, for instance. And then there’s pumped storage, which won’t get built in 2015 in the U.S., but could sure use some policy nudges.
7) How Big a Threat Does Cheap Oil Pose?
In the U.S., renewable energy (solar, wind) doesn’t compete with oil, so the new reality of cheap crude shouldn’t have too big of an impact on the sector. However, that’s not true everywhere, and certainly some aspects of the larger cleantech sector could feel pressure if oil prices remain depressed. Think: transportation. Electric vehicles could lose some of their urgency, and what of cellulosic ethanol, which advanced a bit in 2014?
8) Will the Clean Power Plan Survive?
A final rule on the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to trim emissions from existing power plants is due in June, but lawsuits opposing it are already flying and Republicans are vowing to do what they can to derail the plan. Meanwhile, climate hawks, while generally supportive of the plan, are trying to push the EPA to strengthen it to bring on more renewable energy. How this tug-of-war plays out could have a huge impact on U.S. renewables down the road.
9) RIP for Kansas RPS?
A strong Clean Power Plan would undoubtedly invigorate renewable portfolio standards down the road, but in the immediate future they figure to be under attack yet again in state legislatures. Kansas, with an RPS requiring 20 percent renewables by 2020, is one likely battleground state in 2015, according to Stateline report from Jeffrey Stinson.
10) Will Paris Go Better than Lima?
Hopes for global agreement on greenhouse gas emissions rose with a U.S.-China deal in November. While UN talks in Lima in December didn’t utterly fall apart, negotiators left a lot of work to be done leading up to Paris later in the year. Can the world get it together?