The debate about the role of renewable energy in the U.S. is highly politicized and polarized, needlessly hurting our energy and national security interests.
Proponents point to an industry that is growing robustly, creating jobs, lowering our carbon footprint and empowering individuals to break free of centuries-old utility business models. Congressional and other detractors point to the Department of Energy’s Solyndra debacle and insist that hydraulic fracturing and unconventional oil and natural gas can solve all of the nation’s energy problems.
What is undeniable is that renewable energy can be a strong component of energy and national security and the ongoing debate over its validity threatens our soldiers overseas and limits our options at home.
Renewable energy is moving from a niche market to the mainstream. Renewable sources represent approximately 13 percent of U.S. energy generation. While still small, these numbers are growing quickly; wind generation is up 20 percent and solar is up more than 100 percent in the past year. Wall Street has taken notice, offering market-based solutions to bring down capital costs through securitizations, yieldcos and other vehicles. Nevertheless, renewable energy does not enjoy some of the tax advantages given to fossil fuels, such as master limited partnerships. Oil and gas proponents argue that these are not subsidies, while often incorrectly labeling as subsidies tax-based solutions for renewables such as the investment tax credit and production tax credit. The playing field is not level and any efforts to create long-term solutions and bridge the treatment gap between fossil and renewable energy is often met with uninformed rhetoric.
A growing group of investors, politicians and industry stakeholders recognize that renewable energy is here to stay and its economic competitiveness, long-term price stability and grid responsiveness all are beneficial to our nation’s economic choice and security. As the U.S. went through its early January cold spell, areas of the country that had more renewables were subject to fewer brownouts and blackouts. For example, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas and the Midcontinent Independent System Operator in the Midwest were able to rely on their growing wind capacities to counteract thermal plants being knocked offline due to mechanical and natural-gas supply issues.
On the international level, our military’s forward operating bases can utilize micro solar, wind and fuel cells to reduce or eliminate the need for diesel generators. More importantly, renewables reduce the need to put our young men and women in harm’s way guarding fuel supply convoys. On the homefront, the Department of Defense is seeking to source 25 percent of its energy from renewable energy by 2025, or about 1 gigawatt for each branch of the military, producing savings upward of $10 billion over the life of the power purchase agreements.
There is no one-stop shop to solve U.S. energy security. Our increasingly accessible unconventional natural gas supply is starting to be shipped abroad to take advantage of high prices in overseas markets, erasing some of the advantages to domestic users. On the transportation side, so long as we import one barrel of oil, we will not have energy independence, as prices will be set by the global market. Overall, energy security, like most things, is rarely a black and white issue.
Solar, wind, biomass and other renewable energy sources help the U.S. improve its energy security at home and abroad. They are increasingly cost competitive, extremely scalable and will continue to be a growing force in pushing the U.S. toward greater energy self-sufficiency and choice for power and transportation. The real question is whether Washington is going to get on board with the rest of the country or continue to stick its head in the sand while U.S. industry, consumers and progressive utilities recognize and take advantage of renewable energy’s economic, operating and security benefits.
Andrew Garfinkel is principal of Aronnax Public Strategies LLC. Ed Sappin is CEO of Sappin Global Strategies, a strategy and investment group focused on the energy and innovation economies.
An earlier version of this Guest Observer left off one of the authors. It was co-authored by Andrew Garfinkel and Ed Sappin.