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Outgoing US energy secretary lauds Obama era solar boom

In a parting memo, outgoing US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz underscored the dramatic transformation of the American energy sector during the years of Barack Obama’s presidency, emphasising in particular the enormous gains made by renewables.

In a 20-page “exit memo” (PDF), Moniz noted that since Obama took office, the US base of installed wind capacity has tripled to 75GW while solar capacity surged 25-fold to 31GW. The cost of onshore wind and large-scale solar during the Obama years fell by 41% and 64% respectively, making both competitive in many cases with coal, gas and nuclear on an unsubsidised basis.

Moniz, a nuclear physicist who followed Stephen Chu to become Obama’s second energy secretary in 2013, says he’s been “especially privileged to lead the Department of Energy (DOE) during the Obama Administration, because the President placed a very high priority on clean energy and climate change, science and innovation, and nuclear security”.

Although many in the renewables industry are deeply concerned about President-elect Donald Trump’s shifting views on clean energy and the threat from climate change, Moniz says he expects “the next and future Administrations and Congresses will sustain [DOE’s] success in addressing science, energy, security and environmental opportunities for generations of Americans”.

While the DOE has helped the wind industry under Obama, including financially backing a number of early-stage offshore projects, some of its biggest successes have come in solar.

For example, when Obama took office there were no US solar projects larger than 100MW. The DOE Loan Program helped fund the first five such mega-projects, and today the US is a world leader in utility-scale solar, with more than 50 operating projects larger than 100MW, nearly all of them privately financed. First Solar and SunPower, two US-based solar giants, have gone on to build utility-scale arrays around the world.

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Through its SunShot Initiative, launched in 2011, the DOE has funded a number of solar research and demonstration projects. The solar industry is currently about 90% of the way towards meeting SunShot’s initial 2020 cost goals of 6¢/kWh for utility-scale PV and 9¢/kWh for residential rooftop.

But progress in US energy under Obama extends far beyond renewables, Moniz notes in his farewell memo. In 2008, US dependence on foreign oil was nearly 60%; today it’s about 25%. US production of crude rose from 5 million barrels per day in 2008 to 9.4 million b/d in 2015, the highest rate since the early 1970s, and the US has overtaken Russia as the world’s largest producer of natural gas.

Meanwhile, energy-related CO2 emissions have fallen to a 25-year low, due to a range of factors including coal-to-gas switching among utilities, the surge of new renewables capacity coming online, and energy-efficiency measures.

If President-elect Trump gets his wish, Moniz, a nuclear physicist, will be succeeded in the Cabinet-level role by former Texas Governor Rick Perry, an ardent critic of government regulation who previously called for the outright elimination of the Energy Department. While a full-throated ally of the fossil-fuels sector, Perry also helped spark a massive wind boom in Texas during his governorship. 

The DOE is a sprawling operation that includes more than 100,000 federal and contract employees and 64 sites, including 17 National Laboratories—among them the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

Only about 20% of the DOE’s $32.5bn annual budget goes to typical energy programmes, while 60% goes towards maintaining the US stockpile of nuclear weapons and handling nuclear waste, and 20% towards basic research, according to Vox.

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