Fears that the coronavirus outbreak would sideswipe the U.S. clean energy market appear overblown so far — and the proof is in the projects.
2020 is the most socially and economically disruptive year for Americans in a generation. It’s also likely to be the biggest year in history for U.S. installations of wind turbines, solar panels and batteries, analysts say. And 2021 looks set to be even bigger.
The health crisis was a shock to the renewables sector: Equipment deliveries were delayed, project deadlines pushed out, contract lawyers nervously consulted. Tens of thousands of American renewable energy jobs have been lost, with the distributed solar sector hit particularly hard. Unlike during the last recession, Congress has not passed any legislation supporting clean-energy deployment.
Still, much of the industry has rapidly found its rhythm again. Many big projects remain on track, having adjusted to new working conditions. Far from using the crisis to back away from green targets, utilities including Southern Company and Dominion are expanding them, setting the stage for future market growth.
The U.S. is set to add a record 18 gigawatts of new PV capacity this year, driven by the rip-roaring utility-scale market, according to Wood Mackenzie. Despite deep pain in the distributed solar market, where project cycles are shorter and it’s harder to maintain physical distance, installers such as Sunrun and Sunnova are trading at or near record stock market valuations.
On the wind side, there are more projects under construction than ever before. WoodMac recently upped its near-term forecast for the U.S. wind market, thanks in part to new federal guidance giving developers an extra year to finish projects and remain qualified for the Production Tax Credit.
Then there’s energy storage, the fastest-growing clean energy market of them all. The U.S. will build a record 1.2 gigawatts of energy storage this year, Wood Mackenzie expects, before surging to nearly 7 gigawatts of annual installations in 2025.
The coronavirus threat was not a mirage for clean energy, and it has not gone away. The health crisis is ongoing, putting a big, scary asterisk next to any forecast.
Just the same, the renewables industry has been remarkably buoyant in recent months. As for the proof, here are five landmark projects that rumbled straight through the spring lockdowns — keeping workers in jobs while exemplifying the industry’s resiliency.
Spotsylvania (sPower): Virginia
One of the clean energy industry’s biggest fears as the pandemic grew more severe was that capital for projects would dry up, particularly tax equity. It was no small feat, then, when sPower secured a huge tax-equity package for its 620-megawatt (DC) Spotsylvania project in Virginia in late April, during the depths of the U.S. outbreak.
The Spotsylvania Solar Energy Center has been under construction since late 2019 and counts Microsoft, Apple, Etsy and the University of Richmond among its offtakers. It will be the largest solar project anywhere east of the Rockies, according to sPower.
There are currently 550 workers on-site, building to a crescendo of 700 before the project reaches completion in the third quarter of 2021, said David Spotts, senior project manager.
The Spotsylvania project is going up an hour's drive from Washington, D.C. (Photo: sPower)
Developing big renewable energy projects in the Southeast has never been easy. Cat Mosley, sPower’s director of community relations, said the local-outreach efforts for the Spotsylvania project have been “unprecedented.”
Among its undertakings tailored specifically to address the local COVID-19 outbreak, sPower donated $200,000 to Mary Washington Healthcare, which operates a hospital in Fredericksburg, and with parent company AES provided electric vehicles to two of the hospital’s frontline workers to help with their transportation and safety needs, Mosley said.
North Central Wind (American Electric Power): Oklahoma
For American Electric Power, the North Central wind project is a Plan B — a gigantic, record-smashing Plan B.
AEP, the Ohio-based utility group, electrified the U.S. wind industry three years ago when it announced it would build a 2-gigawatt wind farm in Oklahoma’s panhandle, to be known as Wind Catcher. The project was remarkable both for its size and its backer: Wind Catcher would have been the largest wind farm ever built in North America; AEP remains a fairly conservative utility, with coal still accounting for nearly half of its generation.
Then came the letdown: AEP canceled Wind Catcher a year later, blaming regulatory delays in Texas that put the project at risk of failing to capture the full Production Tax Credit (PTC).
Thankfully, the saga didn't end there. Last year AEP’s bold wind ambitions reemerged in the form of North Central, a slimmed-down but still massive investment in Oklahoma that doesn’t require the full PTC to pencil out economically.
Unlike Wind Catcher, the $2 billion North Central plan is being built as three separate wind farms. Even so, one of them — the 999-megawatt Traverse development — will be the largest single-phase wind farm ever built in the U.S., overtaking Oregon's Shepherds Flat project.
The linchpin to North Central's ability to go ahead was receiving regulatory approval in the four states where the power will be sold: Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas. The coronavirus pandemic has slowed many regulatory and permitting decisions. But three weeks ago AEP confirmed that new approvals in Arkansas and Louisiana mean North Central will go ahead even if it does not get a green light in Texas, now the final holdout.
“We expect the [Public Utility Commission of] Texas to consider the project as part of its July 2 meeting,” an AEP spokesperson said in an email. But North Central “will be 1,485 megawatts regardless of Texas’ decision.”
The North Central wind farms are scheduled to reach completion in 2020-2021, with Chicago-based Invenergy developing the plants through construction and GE supplying the many, many wind turbines.
American Electric Power's 1.5GW North Central project covers three wind farms. (Credit: AEP)
Strata Solar's Ventura Battery (Southern California Edison): California
The rise of 100-megawatt batteries is upon us, and a very important one will enter construction in a few weeks in Southern California.
A year ago, utility Southern California Edison surprised many in the energy industry by choosing a portfolio of battery storage projects to meet local capacity needs around the coastal city of Oxnard. Historically, that role would almost certainly have been filled by a gas peaker (and indeed, that was SCE’s original intention). But community resistance to a new fossil-fired plant on the coastline of a state committed to clean energy forced SCE down a different path.
The biggest project in the storage portfolio is a 100-megawatt/400-megawatt-hour battery to be built and operated by Strata Solar. Last month Strata confirmed that it has tapped Tesla to supply and install its Megapack product. The project is on track to be operational in early 2021, Strata’s senior vice president of energy storage told GTM.
If Strata’s peaker-killing battery in Ventura County comes off as planned and works as hoped, many gas peaker plants across the country — existing and planned — could find themselves with targets on their backs.
Sagamore Wind (Xcel Energy): New Mexico
One important shift in the U.S. wind industry in recent years has been the growing appetite from utilities not simply to buy renewable power but rather to own and operate wind farms.
That trend may not suit developers that prefer to sign power-purchase agreements for their projects. But the embrace of wind farm ownership by many utilities in the central region is bringing huge pools of low-cost capital into the market while allowing red-state utilities to imagine a future where their business model stays largely the same but with a renewable inflection.
Xcel Energy, whose utilities serve customers across eight Midwestern and Western states, has been at the vanguard of this shift. For years now, CEO Ben Fowkes has promoted Xcel’s “steel for fuel” strategy, which entails trading ongoing payments for fossil fuels for upfront investments in wind and solar plants.
Xcel plans to double its in-house wind capacity by the end of 2021, increasing it to 4.5 gigawatts. A good chunk of that growth will come from the 522-megawatt Sagamore Wind project, under construction in New Mexico just west of the Texas border.
After adjusting to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sagamore is back in the hot phase of installation, Xcel says. Several dozen of the planned 240 Vestas turbines have been erected. “At this point, we still anticipate having the Sagamore Wind Project in service by the end of this year as planned,” a company spokesperson said.
The first Vestas 2.2MW turbine being installed at the Sagamore project in New Mexico. (Credit: Xcel)
Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind pilot (Dominion Energy)
It may only be 12 megawatts in size, and not many people will ever see it with their own eyes, but Dominion Energy’s Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind pilot is a big deal.
The two-turbine project will be just the second offshore wind facility ever built in the U.S., and the first in federal waters, blazing a trail through the labyrinthine federal permitting process for every project that follows.
The logistics of building an offshore wind farm are far more challenging than an onshore facility, and the complexity is compounded when all the major turbine components and the specialized installation vessel must come from Europe, as is the case with Coastal Virginia. The coronavirus crisis doesn't make things any easier.
Nevertheless, Dominion has kept its project 30 miles off Virginia Beach on schedule. The two monopile foundations that attach to the seabed and will hoist the turbines were installed in May (see photo below). This week the Vole au Vent installation vessel picked up the two Siemens Gamesa turbines in Nova Scotia, Canada and began carrying them down to the project site. The turbines will arrive on June 18 and are slated to be installed by the end of this month, a Dominion spokesperson said.
The Vole au Vent vessel installing monopile foundations at Dominion's Coastal Virginia offshore wind pilot last month. (Image: Dominion)
Logistical headaches aside, Dominion very much likes what it has learned about offshore wind. The utility has already announced a 2.6-gigawatt follow-up to its pilot at an adjacent site off Virginia, to be built in 2024-2026.
Offshore wind's generation profile aligns well with Dominion’s large and growing base of solar plants, Mark Mitchell, Dominion’s head of generation projects, told GTM last month.
Dominion is hoping to lure the offshore wind supply chain to American shores, and preferably to Virginia. It seems to be doing a good job: Shortly after Siemens Gamesa announced a new 14-megawatt offshore turbine last month, the sector's leading manufacturer confirmed it was considering an East Coast site for a blade factory.
Additional reporting contributed by Julian Spector and Emma Foehringer Merchant.