The U.S. solar, wind, energy storage and hydropower industries announced a new era of cooperation between their sectors, with the goal of bringing renewables to constitute a majority of electricity generation sources by 2030.
While the American solar and wind industries have long fought for many of the same policies on the national stage, the two markets are largely supported by different mechanisms at the federal level, and a policy victory for one industry has not always meant a victory for the other.
But the two industries have grown increasingly blended, particularly among development companies. Utility-scale solar now competes strongly in many of the wind industry's strongest markets, from Texas to the Midwest. Last year the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) announced it would transform its flagship annual Windpower conference and exhibition to a "Cleanpower" event designed to incorporate solar and storage.
“What’s good for wind is not always good for solar,” said Chris Brown, president of Vestas Americas and AWEA board chair, speaking this week at the first Cleanpower event, held virtually because of the ongoing pandemic. “But we didn’t come to the industry to wall ourselves off and fight with each other. We came to this industry to fight against climate change.”
Put together, solar and wind account for 10 percent of electricity generation in the United States. Add in hydro and the figure jumps to 17 percent. Under this week's goal announced by the industries' leading trade groups, wind and solar would each reach 20 percent of generation by 2030, complemented by 125 gigawatts of energy storage. Traditional hydropower would tick up to 9 percent of generation.
The industry groups said the efforts would build to over 1 million jobs by 2030, with the majority working in solar.
AWEA, along with the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the Energy Storage Association and the National Hydropower Association, said the groups would work together on several “advocacy principles” including achieving carbon reductions, building a more resilient grid and advancing fair market competition.
Challenging targets, challenging politics
Achieving the "majority renewables" vision by 2030 would be challenging even in favorable economic and political conditions.
The solar industry estimates it would need to see average annual growth of 18 percent through the next decade and installations averaging 39 gigawatts per year. In 2019, the market grew 23 percent and installed 13.3 gigawatts, according to Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables. The U.S. solar industry's largest year on record saw it installing 14.6 gigawatts back in 2016.
Before the coronavirus pandemic shook the market, WoodMac projected that large-scale solar additions would peak in 2021 before hovering between 13 and 14 gigawatts annually through 2025 amid the federal Investment Tax Credit's stepdown.
For U.S. wind, WoodMac forecast 15.2 gigawatts in 2020 prior to the pandemic. The market is expected to recede substantially in the early 2020s before getting a fresh jolt of momentum offshore later in the decade.
Another term for President Trump, who has in many instances opposed renewables, could mean more hurdles. But regardless of the election’s outcome, SEIA CEO Abigail Ross Hopper acknowledged that renewables will face further political obstacles if they continue growing at the expense of fossil fuels.
“That’s why it’s so important for us to remain aligned — because we’re going out to take other [industries'] market share,” she said. “That will bring with it a variety of political challenges we need to be able to address.”
Though the wind industry has been able to secure some wins at the federal level in the past year — including a one-year extension of its Production Tax Credit and Treasury Department guidance that loosens deadlines for the credit — solar has been repeatedly passed over for additional help from Congress.
That uneven support has at times appeared to put the industries at odds with each other, but the initiative announced this week makes explicit their plans to coordinate efforts. “We have a common vision,” said Energy Storage Association CEO Kelly Speakes-Backman.
With political attention in short supply amid the coronavirus pandemic, nationwide protests over police practices, and the looming 2020 elections, the renewables industries appear unlikely to secure any further federal incentives this year.