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Renewal of Public Interest in Renewable Energy

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sarmistha R. Majumdar
December 12, 2021

Renewable energy has garnered a lot of public attention in an era of global climate change. Energy production from renewables has been favorably viewed by Americans, but politics and the wavering support renewables have received from federal and state governments, along with businesses, at different times have stymied its growth. In addition, policy drivers like lack of funds and little or no financial incentives, coupled with unfavorable utility rate structures, lack of transmission from remote areas and barriers in environmental permitting also can be partly blamed for its sluggish growth. A review of data from U.S. Energy Information Administration reveals that renewable energy production has increased slowly from 2.98 quadrillion British thermal units (BTU) in 1950 to 11.78 quadrillion BTU in 2020. A large part of this increase has occurred during the last two years with the gradual decline in the average construction costs of solar photovoltaic systems and wind farms. In 2020, renewable energy production surpassed that from coal and renewables accounted for 12% of total United States energy production in comparison with 11% from coal.

With the increasing rhetoric on global climate change and its undeniable evidence on increases in the frequency and intensity of floods, droughts, fires and other natural calamities, it is not surprising to find more Americans favoring increasing energy production from renewable sources like biomass, hydro and geothermal sources, wind and solar panels rather than from fossil fuels and nuclear energy. According to a Pew Research Center Survey in 2021, which was conducted after the announcement of the United States’ re-entry into the Paris Climate Agreement to reduce emissions, 71% of Americans not only support energy production from renewables, but also are in favor of policies that call for the reduction of carbon emissions from power plants, trucks and automobiles.

Although public support for renewable energy has increased over time and the federal government has provided tax credits for the development of both solar and wind energy, not all states have taken advantage of the opportunity to develop policies conducive to harnessing and using potential renewable energy resources. According to the U.S. Environmental Protect Agency, just eight states accounted for 99.5% of total solar photovoltaic installation in 2021 (California, New Jersey, Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, Nevada, Texas and Pennsylvania). Other states like Colorado, New Mexico, Hawaii, Utah and Wyoming possess similar potential to harness solar energy but are yet to fully realize it. 

The United States is the second largest producer of wind power, trailing China. Currently, Texas leads the nation not only in energy production from hydrocarbons but also from renewable resources like wind and sun. Other states, including Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Kansas, North and South Dakota and Oklahoma also have added wind power to their energy portfolio. According to a 2021 U.S. Department of Energy report, installing wind turbines has outpaced that of solar power units. Much of this increase in wind energy production can be attributed in part to technological developments like the increase in size and efficiency of wind turbines and federal government incentives, which include a production tax credit of 1.5 cents per kilowatt hour of wind-generated electricity for the first 10 years of production and an investment tax credit of 12 to 20% of capital costs for capital intensive offshore wind projects.

With the United States’ re-entry into the Paris agreement in early 2021, the emphasis to mitigate climate change has shifted to the states. The change in leadership along with citizens’ greater willingness to embrace renewable energy has helped open the window of opportunity. As stated by John Kingdon in 2003 in Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies, opening the window is the most propitious moment to develop and promote policies. This is the time to develop policies calling for energy development from non-combustible and non-carbon resources. Some states like New York and California have ambitious policy goals to cut back on emissions and embrace clean energy technology, but many others lag behind. In the private sector, the realization of a forthcoming and imminent change in energy production from fossil fuels and pressure from environmental activists on people and investors either to boycott products or divest from companies with large carbon footprints, has had its own consequences.

Within local governments, community ownership of renewable energy production units offer the hope to reduce utility costs and gain the economic and environmental benefits of clean power. According to the Sierra Club’s website, only 180 communities, more than 10 counties and eight states in the nation have committed to transitioning to 100% renewable energy. Often in such commitments, political partisanship has played little or no role. For example, in Texas, the City of Georgetown already has made the 100% transition to renewable energy via wind and solar energy, while the city of Denton has committed to clean renewable energy by 2022.

For a transition to clean energy, states and local governments need to revisit their policies and adopt adequate and appropriate measures to promote investment in community wide ownership of renewable energy units, facilitate the distribution of cleaner power through the power grid and maintain a lower energy price. Further, to reach the goal of the Biden administration’s net zero emissions by 2050, more bipartisan support and concerted efforts are required to generate, distribute and utilize clean energy. More joint collaborations or partnerships between the governments, public and nonprofit organizations and private companies are essential. This can help adopt the right mix of policy options and pool tangible and intangible resources for investment in renewable energy in all states to mitigate the threats of global climate change

Author: Sarmistha R. Majumdar is faculty in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University. She can be reached at [email protected].

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