Perspectives on 30 Years of Clean Energy Policy
As we approach The 30th Anniversary Energy Fair this June 21-23, we’re examining how the market for renewable energy in the US has changed over the last three decades.
In October 1973, people in the United States learned firsthand how dependent we were on oil produced in the Persian Gulf. A few months after the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries proclaimed an oil embargo on the US (and other countries that supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War), the price of oil quadrupled. This led to price caps, rationing, and a cascading foreign policy effect. By 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait over oil-pricing and production disputes, the US was quick to enter the first Gulf War, including naval bombardment, air forces, and ground troops. This also led to a call for local energy action in Home Power Magazine, the opening of The First Energy Fair, and formation of the Midwest Renewable Energy Association.
Coming up on our 30th Anniversary Energy Fair, much has changed: Home Power printed its last magazine this year, solar and wind are the leading source of new electricity generation in the US, the US is set to be a net exporter of oil and gas, and is still embroiled in conflicts across the Middle East.
Through all of this change, state policy has determined whether and when markets for clean energy technologies flourish or languish. For some perspective on how policy battles for clean energy have changed over the last 30 years, we talked with Michael Vickerman from RENEW Wisconsin. He has been fighting for supportive policy action since our beginnings.
MREA: Michael, thanks for sitting down with us to provide some perspective on how policy battles for clean energy have changed over the last 30 years. To get started, please tell us a bit about yourself and your work in clean energy policy.
Michael: Since 1991, I have worked for RENEW Wisconsin in various capacities, including as Executive Director for nearly 20 years. Understand that from a staffing perspective, RENEW was a one-man operation in its first 10 years, and that the term “Executive Director” was code for Director of Everything, which included data entry. Renewable energy was not on the map when I started working for RENEW. That said, the only native energy resources in the state, then as today, are renewable in nature: wind, solar, hydro, fiber, and organic wastes. The task before our Board of Directors and myself was to figure out how to put renewables on the map and make it relevant to the 99.99% of Wisconsin residents who were not members of RENEW. What unfolded from that moment forward was a combination of basic education and specific policy proposals to move renewable energy out of the wilderness and integrate it into our daily lives.
MREA: What noteworthy changes have you seen over the last 30 years? What has surprised you the most?
Michael: When thinking about where we are today, I continue to be, pun intended, blown away by the engineering advances in the renewable energy world—especially in solar and wind—since 1991. The first wind farm in the Midwest was built in 1994 in a section of Minnesota called the Buffalo Ridge. When you look at pictures of those ungainly contraptions with their black blades spinning above stubby lattice towers, and compare them with today’s turbines, with blades almost as long as the shiny and tall tubular towers projecting into the sky, the differences could not be more stark. The 1994 version is a lab experiment involving a promising prototype, while the 2019 version is–dare I say it–a fully mature power plant.
I am no less astonished by the transformation of solar photovoltaics then I am with wind power. Twenty five years ago, electricity production from photovoltaic cells occurred only in calculators and spacecraft. In those days, there was no point of contact or overlap in the Venn diagram depicting solar PV and electric utilities. Today, solar electricity is generated on houses, commercial buildings, and open land. It has become a desirable alternative to growing corn on your land.
The fact that wind and solar have become the default energy resources for electric utilities is by far the most noteworthy change I’ve seen in my 27+ years with RENEW.
MREA: Are the same groups still fighting on either side of the issue? Have you seen groups change their position in support of clean energy?
Michael: Unlike the situation, say, 10 years ago, renewable energy resources are today fully cost-competitive with conventional energy sources. We know that now and, significantly, so do electric utilities, which have been the principal targets of our clean energy advocacy since Day One. Ten years ago utilities and clean energy advocates quarreled over the question of whether to increase supplies of renewable energy. Especially in the solar energy arena, the fault line in this conflict has since evolved from the question of “whether” to the question of “in what form.” While utilities are now on board with solar as a bulk energy resource, most remain resistant to the idea of customers generating solar electricity for themselves. We have a few utilities in Wisconsin that regard solar self-generation as an economic threat that needs to be contained if not outright throttled.
MREA: What challenges have we overcome and what challenges remain?
Michael: The journey we have undertaken with renewable energy has covered a great deal of ground. At the outset we had to demonstrate why renewable energy is relevant to the state’s economic and environmental future, and not simply a fringe consideration. This challenge motivated advocates to characterize both the benefits from working renewable resources into Wisconsin’s energy mainstream and the risks of not doing so. It also required much thinking about the policy mix that would deliver opportunities and positive results for both utilities and customers, since the economics weren’t favorable for many years. In the previous decade, Wisconsin’s political leadership did a pretty good job of forging a consensus on clean energy policy, and the fruits of the clean energy legislation adopted in 2006 are readily apparent.
However, much of that momentum has dissipated, a casualty of the 2010 elections and the resulting vacuum in political leadership that set in shortly thereafter. A very different attitude towards clean energy emerged in state government, one grounded in the belief that Wisconsin had more than enough generating capacity to power itself for the foreseeable future, so why add more renewables? Not surprisingly, wind power development slowed to a standstill here, and on that front Wisconsin became the undisputed laggard in the Upper Midwest.
On the customer side of the picture, Focus on Energy’s renewable energy component survived a rocky stretch earlier in the decade and is now is in the best shape it’s been since its inception in 2002.
MREA: And finally, what makes you most optimistic about the future of clean energy policy?
Michael: To begin with, public support for wind and solar is at an all-time high. Most citizens now know that these resources today are cost-competitive with fossil fuels, and they also appreciate the fact that wind and solar avoid the environmental liabilities associated with coal or natural gas. The citizens of this state now expect their elected officials to take action. To that end, a growing number of cities and counties have set aggressive renewable energy and carbon reduction goals, along with implementation plans to achieve these goals. Parallel to those efforts, electric providers are adopting aggressive carbon reduction goals of their own and have begun in earnest to acquire utility-scale solar and wind, which they say will lower their operating costs. It’s worth noting that this transition is happening without a policy driver at the state level. Though the transition is proceeding in a piecemeal and scattershot manner, it is happening and its effects are noticeable.
Which leads me to my final thought. Yes, we have a very divided state government today, but with the election of Tony Evers as our new governor, we will see positive leadership at the state level again after eight years of lethargy and drift. I am hopeful that his administration will find a way to put the State of Wisconsin back into the forefront of clean energy development, and devise policy pathways for enabling its local governments, school districts, utilities, businesses, and citizens to become fully powered by renewables.
Special thanks to Michael Vickerman, Policy Director at RENEW Wisconsin for taking part in this interview.
Thanks to RENEW Wisconsin for their support of clean energy and sustainable living education at The 30th Annivesary Energy Fair.
The Perspectives on 30 Years of Clean Energy Education Interview Series will continue next month with an interview with founding MREA Member, Mark Klein of Gimme Shelter Construction. This interview will examine the incorporation of renewable energy into building design over the last three decades.
See past interviews here:
- How has renewable energy changed over the last 30 years: Interview with John Dunlop, MREA Member and Chairman of ASES 2019 Solar Conference.