December 5, 2018

Time To Wake Up: The Booming Renewables Sector

As-prepared for delivery

I am delighted to be joined today by my colleague Senator Tina Smith of Minnesota.  Both my home state of Rhode Island and her state of Minnesota are heavily involved in the booming renewable energy sector. 

President Trump has called climate change a hoax.  But no matter how much his administration may try to prop up the fossil fuel industry, there’s no denying the clean energy revolution unfolding across the country. 

The rapid growth of renewables has been underway for decades, but the transition has really accelerated in recent years.  To put this into context, it took global wind and solar developers 40 years to install their first trillion watts of power generation.  A recent estimate from Bloomberg New Energy Finance found that the next trillion could be installed within the next five years.  Part of the reason is that falling costs of renewables mean that building out the next trillion watts will cost half as much.

This chart shows the year-to-year cost of generating energy from wind, from 2009 to 2017, as calculated by the financial firm Lazard.  Since 2009, costs for onshore wind have dropped by two-thirds.

Here’s the same chart for solar power.  Utility-scale solar costs have dropped 86 percent over that same period. 

“[I]n some scenarios,” writes Lazard, “the full lifecycle costs of building and operating renewables-based projects have dropped below the operating costs alone of conventional generation technologies such as coal or nuclear.”

And when you look at the drop in solar costs compared to other resources, you see how dramatic the change has been.  This graphic produced by the World Economic Forum shows the same downward trend. 

The renewable energy industry in America has grown to 3.3 million jobs—more than all fossil fuel jobs combined.  AT&T this year adopted the World Wildlife Fund’s Corporate Renewable Energy Buyers’ Principles, a set of criteria to help energy producers meet the needs of large corporate customers.  As part of that commitment, AT&T has signed two agreements with NextEra Energy for wind power—220 megawatts from an Oklahoma wind farm and 300 megawatts from a Texas wind farm.  It is one of the largest corporate renewable energy purchases in history. 

I congratulate my Texas and Oklahoma colleagues for these new, home-state, renewable energy jobs, and I congratulate AT&T for its foresight and leadership.

States are advancing renewable energy policies and kick-starting employment in clean energy.  In Rhode Island, the Governor’s 2018 Rhode Island Clean Energy Industry Report showed that clean energy jobs have risen by 72 percent since 2014, bringing over 6,600 new jobs.  In all, nearly 16,000 Rhode Islanders work green energy jobs.  And we are projected to see more, as the state is committed to reaching 20,000 clean energy jobs and one gigawatt of new clean energy by 2020. 

Rhode Island also continues to be a leader on energy efficiency, ranking third on the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy’s 2017 State Energy Efficiency Scorecard. 

In Senator Smith’s state, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission has required since 1993 that utilities consider the estimated societal costs of carbon emissions in planning for new infrastructure projects.  Last year, the commission voted to raise its estimate, known as the social cost of carbon, to $43 per ton of carbon emitted.  Minnesota is one of the few states that has a public utility commission factoring the cost of carbon into its decision-making. 

Other states are also powering forward.  The Colorado State Public Utility Commission just unanimously approved an Xcel Energy program to build out a cleaner energy mix and retire older fossil fuel units. Specifically, Colorado is looking to retire 660 megawatts of coal-fired generation—close it down—and replace it with $2.5 billion in renewable energy and battery storage. The initial request for bids brought a flood of new renewable energy proposals at costs that beat out existing coal and natural gas facilities.

Around here, there’s a sharp political divide in the rhetoric around climate change and renewable energy.  But out in the real world, some of the most heavily Republican states are at the forefront of the clean energy economy.  Last month, the Department of Energy released three wind energy market reports showing Texas leading the nation in generation with over 22 gigawatts of wind capacity.  And other red states are right behind Texas, with Oklahoma and Kansas having more than 5 gigawatts of installed wind capacity. 

To put these numbers into perspective, wind energy made up just over 6 percent of the nation’s electricity generation in 2017.  But Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and South Dakota each got more than 30 percent of their in-state energy production from wind.  This graphic shows that some of the reddest states politically are the ones leading the charge on deploying wind energy.  Oklahoma is at 32 percent, Kansas at 36 percent, Iowa at 37 percent, South Dakota at 30 percent, and North Dakota at 27 percent.   

Mr. President, I’d like to submit to the Record the Energy Department press release on these reports, which includes more evidence of falling costs, job growth, and billions of dollars in investment in projects across the country. 

It may seem hard to believe this information comes out of the same Energy Department that is currently pushing coal bailout proposals.  But that’s just another symptom of the political leadership of this administration, which choses to ignore the scientific reality of climate change and the economic reality of energy markets at the behest of its fossil fuel industry masters. 

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission this year finalized a rule for energy storage in America’s electric grids.  This will help accelerate the adoption of renewable energy sources like wind and solar.  A study predicted that the rule could spur 50 gigawatts of additional energy storage across the United States, enough to power roughly 35 million homes.  This estimate could turn out to be conservative if renewables prices keep heading along their current trajectories.  That FERC rule, by the way, was unanimous and bipartisan.

FERC oversees the electric grid system operators, like ISO-New England in my region, which are steadily boosting the role of renewables in regional markets, removing obstacles that had kept renewables from competing fairly in capacity auctions and dispatch decisions.  Better integration of renewables into our power markets is saving consumers money.  It was reported by UtilityDive that during the July heat wave in New England, distributed solar, which can reduce demand during peak times, saved customers some $20 million. 

With wind power being such a large part of Iowa’s energy mix, its Midwestern ISO figured out the algorithms to treat wind as reliable, baseload power.  FERC’s storage rule will give these system operators a new avenue for further progress on clean, renewable energy.

As you might imagine, however, Mr./Madam President, the fossil fuel industry is not going to take this shift toward cleaner energy lying down.  The International Monetary Fund estimates that the fossil fuel industry enjoys a subsidy of $700 billion per year in the U.S. alone.  The polluters are not about to give up that advantage without a fight.  And you can afford to spend enormous amounts of money to defend a $700 billion annual subsidy.

Their tactics are not always easy to spot; sometimes they work indirectly through shady front groups.  This year, for example, two industry trade groups, the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, hired a bunch of Washington lobbyists to create a fake consumer group called the Consumer Energy Alliance.  This fake consumer group then created a phony initiative in Kentucky called Kentuckians for Solar Fairness.  The goal of the effort is to promote legislation making it harder for consumers to sell their rooftop solar power back to big utilities.

Despite such underhanded efforts, the transition to clean, renewable energy is charging ahead, thanks to private sector leaders like AT&T and forward-looking policies emerging at the federal level and in states from coast to coast.  It is becoming increasingly difficult to argue against sources of energy that are cheaper, reliable, and carbon-free.

It’s time for this chamber to wake up and throw our weight behind the clean energy movement, for the benefit of our economy, our communities, and our planet.

I yield the floor.