What Are the Barriers to a Renewable Energy Transformation?

Feb 22, 2017

Politicians in Ohio and around the country  are struggling to articulate new energy policies.  Renewables are booming and becoming cheaper, but shale oil and gas are on the rise as well. How will the energy system of the future look?  Sustainability commentator Bob Brecha has some ideas about pitfalls to avoid.

I’ll admit right up front that I really like renewable energy.  Knowing that sun shining on the solar panels on my roof is making hot water and electricity just makes me happy.  The rise of renewables over the past decade has been breathtaking.   Wind and solar have been doubling every few years.  Renewables, including hydroelectric power, could be supplying a big fraction of the world’s electricity in just a couple of decades.   By the time my kids are my age,  the world’s energy system could look very different than it does now.

That is, if other forces don’t step in to stop this trend.

For the first time in history we are intentionally thinking about how energy will be used.  We’re looking at which kinds of energy will serve us best over the long term. And when I say “we,” I  mean people in countries around the world, both rich and poor. But a lot of  entrenched interests have grown very comfortable, not to mention wealthy, with the system as it is now, and they have no interest in making changes 

Ohio, like many other states, created laws to encourage energy efficiency and renewable energy. Programs that help us save energy can be the most cost-effective change we can make to the energy system. Groups like the Ohio Manufacturer’s Association  support Ohio’s energy efficiency programs because they see that members can be more efficient and save unnecessary costs.   But coal and oil companies, or utilities distributing electricity or natural gas, have no incentive to help us buy less of their energy.

Operators of old coal-fired power plants are under pressure because of competition from  natural gas. Coal companies don’t like to hear this, but they are looking more and more like – well, dinosaurs.  In this case, the dinosaurs have a few tricks left. 

First, fossil fuel companies worked with legislators to try and kill  Ohio’s renewable energy standards, and they were temporarily successful until Governor Kasich recently used his veto power. Meanwhile, the big utilities, like DP&L, AEP and FirstEnergy, came up with  plans to keep uneconomic power plants open and to get us to pay for  their bad decisions. These  power plants are among the oldest and dirtiest ones, so there is no justification in an era of cheaper alternatives to keep them running.

There’s a model for how energy providers should not operate, and it’s in Germany.  When Germans created a set of ambitious renewable energy measures more than a decade ago, they were producing only a few percent of their electricity from sun and wind.  Utilities laughed off these efforts, and thought they would never  be a threat to their business model.  But almost  overnight, renewables were suddenly over 30% of the electricity market.Operators of power plants found that they couldn’t be profitable any more.  So what did they do?  Among other things, they worked with politicians to gut some renewable energy programs. The result has been a sharp decrease in new solar photovoltaic installation in Germany, together with restrictive laws on wind turbines in some parts of the country.

Sometimes big companies can be  efficient, but they have  a lot of inertia as well.  If utilities and fossil fuel providers were really efficient and foresighted, they would see the changes coming down the road and transform themselves into broad-based energy companies They would   embrace a  renewable-energy future.  If they refuse to do so, they will find themselves going the way of wheelwrights and makers of whale-oil lamps.  And for me personally, I’d love to have more people sharing the pleasure of making their own clean energy at home.

Bob Brecha is a professor of Physics and Renewable and Clean Energy at the University of Dayton, and Research Director at UD's Hanley Sustainability Institute.  Follow him on Twitter: @BobBrecha