Just after the 2008 presidential election - an eternity ago - a national mandate for utilities to obtain a fixed percentage of their electricity from renewable energy seemed almost inevitable.
After all, pro-renewables Democrats controlled Washington, more than two dozen states had a mandate and clean energy development was starting to be seen as a way out of the economic slide that had just gained steam, with no end in sight.
Quite a bit has changed in three years. National mandates are rarely discussed, the movement to add to the list of states has trickled to a crawl, and many proponents of the policy have been forced to defend existing requirements, or fend off rollbacks or repeals. Even the green jobs movement has lost some appeal with recent bankruptcies in the clean energy sector.
Today, 29 states and Washington have renewable portfolio standards and another five states have nonbinding goals. The standard creates local demand, which has led to manufacturing and support companies setting up shop in the industrial heartland.
Just in those renewable standards states, the market could exceed 115 gigawatts of generation by 2025, some observers note. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates a renewable energy standard of 30 percent by 2030 would lead to 63,000 megawatts of nonhydro capacity development in the Midwest, up from the current 13,000 megawatts.
California is one of the few places where the standard has been increased in the past year, with the legislature adopting the standard of 33 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2020. It failed to reach a previous interim benchmark of 20 percent by 2010, now pushed back to 2013, but the utilities are getting closer, with most rates in the high teens.
Most states are on schedule to meet the requirements of low, single-digit percentages that exist in 2011.
But in places like wind-rich Iowa - which is ahead of schedule and is far and away the national leader, by percentage, in the amount of clean energy it produces - wind supplied more than 15 percent of electricity generation in 2010 and industry and state officials say the total is 20 percent this year.
The state is now a wind powerhouse, trailing only Texas in installed capacity. It surpassed the former leader, California, a few years ago and now has 3,675 megawatts, with another 619 megawatts under construction, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
Iowa appears to be the laboratory model that renewable energy proponents say the country should adopt for the emerging green economy: policy support that encouraged a remaking of the electricity marketplace, which, in turn, attracted a domestic manufacturing base to serve the new energy economy.
The state had a head start - though by modern standards, a rather modest one - that was probably revolutionary for the time. Iowa had the first renewable portfolio standard in the United States, a mere 2 percent, but the date is significant because it was all the way back in 1983.
A high-profile result of late is the 700 manufacturing jobs at the TPI Composites wind blade plant in Newton, Iowa, which was formerly the headquarters for Maytag before those jobs moved overseas.
Now, Iowa claims over 200 wind-related businesses currently operate in 55 Iowa counties and add $5 billion to the Iowa economy.
Colorado first passed a requirement by ballot initiative in 2004, but legislators have twice increased the percentage. That led to Danish turbine maker Vestas to locate three plants there that employ about 2,000 and supply its North American customer base.
"The supply chain in the United States is such a success story over the last six or seven years due to the growth of the wind industry. So much more is now being manufactured here, along with the services around wind development and maintenance," said Susan Williams Sloan, director of state relations for the AWEA. "Colorado certainly has made an effort by its 30 percent by 2020 standard. It has attracted Vestas and other manufacturers. We count as least 16 facilities in Colorado currently manufacturing for the wind industry." AWEA tallies national employment at 85,000.
Due to the nature of their technologies, larger-scale investments occur in wind manufacturing, while solar development tends to be labor-intensive. Small rooftop installations, with small companies blossoming to fill the void, rule the day. Take, for example, Pennsylvania.
Like many states, it has a modest carve-out for solar, in this case at one-half percent by 2021. That led to a recent explosion of installations, which were also aided by federal stimulus funds and state grants and credits that are set to expire.
Pennsylvania went from 8 megawatts installed in 2008 to more than 100 megawatts today. More than 4,000 solar panel installations now exist in the Keystone State. The boom created 6,700 jobs for installers and others. But that boom has more than doubled current solar requirements under the mandate, sapping new demand from utilities.
"So 6,000 jobs in the solar industry in Pennsylvania are very much at risk," said Christina Simeone, director of the PennFuture Energy Center for Enterprise and the Environment in Philadelphia, which promotes renewable energy. "There are many policy options on the table that would not contribute to the state deficit or grow government that could save those jobs, but there doesn't seem to be support."
Pennsylvania's government switched to Republican control last year and the state is also the hub of the shale gas industry. Support for renewables is waning and programs are expiring, with an uncertain future. And legislative attempts to roll back mandates are gaining steam, which is part of a larger national trend.
Opponents of mandates from New England to the Southwest have made numerous attempts to scale back the requirements. Outright assaults have failed. Proponents of renewables failed yet again to get a mandate passed in Indiana, having to be content with a voluntary goal of 10 percent by 2025.
In Wisconsin, a repeal effort was defeated, but local sourcing was weakened.
"A bill signed into law in July allows large-scale hydropower from Manitoba to be used to comply with the state's existing standard. That's great news for economic development in Manitoba, but it undermines the deployment of Wisconsin's renewable resources and the local benefits it would bring," said Jeff Deyette of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
"We saw a lot of questions this year, but for the most part we came out intact," AWEA's Sloan said.
Solar overall employs more than 1 million in the United States. Some high-profile failures occurred in the solar manufacturing space, including the bankruptcy of Evergreen Solar and closure of Solyndra, which tanked in the summer and displaced 1,100 workers, while leaving taxpayers on the hook for a $535 million loan guarantee.
Solon North America, a subsidiary of a German panel manufacturer, closed a Tuscon, Ariz., plant that it had opened in 2007. Another German manufacturer, SolarWorld, closed a California plant and consolidated operations to Oregon. Both companies cited low-cost competition from China.
But the green jobs push is what has saved the effort so far. How much longer can that last if China conquers the global solar market? A lot rides on that question.
Published In: EnergyBiz Magazine November / December 2011