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Clean Energy Trends 2017: Corporate RE Commitments, Subnational Leadership, and Clean Energy Jobs

Ron Pernick's picture

For 17 years, my colleagues and I at Clean Edge have highlighted the major clean-energy trends to watch at the beginning of each year. Many of our past projections have become reality: the wide adoption of LED lighting, the growth of EVs over fuel-cell vehicles for next-gen transportation, and the significant cost declines of both wind and solar power which are making renewable energy (RE) sources more competitive than coal in a growing number of regions.

As we move into 2017, and Donald Trump takes office in just a few short days, what does the future of clean energy look like in the U.S. and across the globe? Well, despite Trump’s rhetoric that “we dig coal,” wind and solar (along with natural gas) will continue to dominate in new generation capacity, due to pure economics. There are a multitude of players, spanning the public and private spheres and the political spectrum, that strongly support continued clean-energy development. In my view, there’s little chance of turning back the clock. 

So, what does this year’s crystal ball foretell? Here are our top three clean-energy trends for 2017:

1) Corporations Double Down on RE Goals

Earlier this month, Clean Edge released a new Corporate Clean Energy Procurement Index on behalf of the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) and Information Technology Industry Council (ITI). The first-of-its-kind index ranks all 50 U.S. states based upon the ease with which companies can procure renewable energy (RE) for their operations in them, tracking both policies and deployment. The Top 5 states based on our research are Iowa, Illinois, New Jersey, California, and Texas. An interesting mix of East, West, Red, Blue, and in between.

Corporate RE procurement is gaining momentum due to a number of factors including the rapid cost decline for solar and wind power, a considerable increase in corporate climate and sustainability goals, and the ability for corporations to hedge against fossil fuel price volatility.

At present, 84 multinational companies are members of the RE 100 campaign, one of the leading groups supporting and tracking corporate commitments to reaching 100% renewable electricity. This number is up from just 53 companies a year ago. Global giants that have made this commitment include Apple, Bank of America, Facebook, Google, HP, IKEA, Nike, and Wells Fargo. We expect the list of companies aiming for 100% renewables to continue to expand considerably. Some companies, such as Google, Apple, and Amazon, have even set up separate subsidiaries focused on energy management, RE procurement and development, and in some cases, the resale of surplus RE supply.

In late 2016, Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, perhaps recognizing the growing importance of corporate RE initiatives and the need for his state to remain attractive to corporate procurers, vetoed a continued freeze on the state’s renewable portfolio standard. The Buckeye State, which ranks eighth overall in our index, now stands ready to capture even more of the high-paying jobs that come from data centers and other corporate operations seeking a ready supply of clean electrons. 

2) California (Along with Other Subnational Governments) Offers a Beacon of Clean Energy Hope and Innovation

California Gov. Jerry Brown offers both hope and salvation for those concerned about the prospects for federal climate policy under Trump. Make no mistake, California (along with leaders in Oregon, Hawaii, New York, Massachusetts, and elsewhere) will continue to lead on climate change. Not only do many of these states have renewable targets exceeding 50%, but they are actively involved in building their clean-energy innovation capacity.

At a recent American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, California’s governor made it clear that the nation’s largest state (and the sixth largest economy in the world based on GDP) was ready to step into the fold. If the Trump administration tries to dismantle NASA’s climate research and related satellite operations, Brown emphatically noted that California would “launch its own damn satellite.”

California has also taken a leadership role in organizing the Under2MOU initiative, bringing together states, provinces, and other subnational governments around the world committed to deep decarbonization and a shared goal of limiting greenhouse gas emissions to 2 tons per capita, or 80-95% below 1990 level by 2050. The initiative now represents jurisdictions from 33 countries representing more than 1 billion people and 35% of the global economy.

And California has one other key element in its clean-energy arsenal. Many years ago, Congress provided the State of California unique authority to set vehicle fuel efficiency standards that are more stringent than federal mandates. And other states are permitted to follow California’s standards. So, if federal leadership decides to pull back on the Obama Administration’s corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards, California stands ready to play a central role, as it has in the past, in enabling other states to pursue tougher standards. 

3) Clean Energy Jobs Remain a Major Growth Opportunity

While not a single brand name smartphone is made in the U.S., the same cannot be said for clean-energy products and services. Across the nation, Americans are hard at work building and assembling EVs from Chevrolet and Tesla, LED lightbulbs from Cree and 3M, wind turbines from Vestas and GE, and solar panels from First Solar and SolarWorld. That’s not to say that competition for these jobs isn’t intense and global. But unlike in the smart phone industry and so many others, the U.S has proven to be an attractive place for a host of clean-tech manufacturing jobs on both coasts and in the heartland, from Beaverton, Oregon and Toledo, Ohio to Lake Orion, Michigan and Durham, North Carolina.  

Just days after winning the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump met with one of the leading icons of the Japanese tech industry, Masayoshi Son of Softbank. Not only has Son made fortunes from a robust cellular services and tech business, he has been a leading light around renewables development in Japan, and is founder of the Renewable Energy Institute in Tokyo. He has been a major champion of solar power development in post-Fukushima Japan, and has also committed to spend $20 billion to develop solar power in India. In his meeting with Trump, he promised that his new fund would invest $50 billion in in the U.S. and create 50,000 jobs. How much will go into clean-energy innovation remains uncertain, but it certainly could be a not-insignificant portion of Son’s U.S. innovation strategy. 

The renewable energy sector in the U.S. provides nearly 770,000 jobs, with the solar industry alone now surpassing the number of jobs in the oil and natural gas extraction industries in the U.S., based on research from IRENA. But the U.S. risks losing out on the job creation opportunities offered by the fast-growing clean-energy sectors if Trump works to derail, hinder, or marginalize the nation’s robust clean-energy industry and tilts the playing field in favor of fossil fuels. Such actions will only shift the center of clean-energy gravity to Asia and Europe. China, for example, just announced plans to invest an additional $350 billion into renewable power generation and predicts that the nation will count 13 million jobs in the RE sector by 2020, up from 3.5 million in 2015. So, the question isn’t whether there will be job growth in the fields of solar and wind power, energy storage, green buildings, EVs, and more – it’s just a question of where those jobs will be created.

Clean energy has become a mainstream engine of economic growth. The progress that’s been made over the past decade has enabled clean-energy leaders to emerge with competitive products and services, and has solidified both public and private support across the political spectrum. “Every Iowa wind turbine means income for farmers, revenue for counties, and jobs for Iowa families,” says Iowa’s Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, who will become governor when Gov. Terry Branstad becomes ambassador to China early this year. There’s no doubt that this trend of job growth and economic development will continue; the only question is who will capture the fruits of this historic transition. 

Ron Pernick is founder and managing director of research and advisory firm Clean Edge and the coauthor of two books on clean-tech business trends and innovation, Clean Tech Nation (HarperCollins, 2012) and The Clean Tech Revolution (HarperCollins, 2007).