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In 2016, solar energy finally surpassed the coal industry in net growth. Two-thirds of all new power added to the global grid was solar. That remarkable achievement led Dr. Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, to declare that ““What we are witnessing is the birth of a new era in solar photovoltaics. We expect that solar PV capacity growth will be higher than any other renewable technology up to 2022.”
While the considerable power and influence of the coal and oil industries may pose a threat to the predicted growth of solar energy, one of the biggest threats has come from within the solar industry itself. Suniva and SolarWorld filed a case with the U.S. International Trade Commission, claiming damages as the result of solar panels imported from China. The commission recommended tariffs of up to 35% on imported solar panels. That recommendation was submitted on November 13th to President Trump. Section 201 of federal trade law gives the president broad authority to impose such tariffs to protect domestic industries. The deadline for rejection or approval of the recommendation is January 12th, 2018.
Frank Maisano of the Energy Trade Action Coalition, which represents solar workers, utilities, and retail interests that utilize solar energy, opposes the tariffs. Other opponents include environmental groups, The Heritage Foundation, the Solar Energy Industries Association, which according to the Department of Energy, employs over 374,000 workers.
Growth for wind power, which achieved new heights in 2017, is expected to lessen in 2018. According to Tom Kiernan of the American Wind Energy Association, “American wind power is now the #1 source of renewable capacity, thanks to more than 100,000 wind workers across all 50 states.” The industry has increased the number of manufacturing jobs while reducing the cost of wind power by two-thirds over the last seven years. That cost reduction is one reason for it’s phenomenal growth, but there are others.
Kiernan says that “…household brands like General Motors, Walmart, and more are buying low-cost wind energy to cut costs and power their businesses. American wind power is on track to double our output over the next five years, and supply 10 percent of U.S. electricity by 2020.” Today, fifty percent of the electricity used by the General Motors Assembly Plant in Arlington is generated by wind power. In 2018, it will become the first GM plant to reach the goal of generating one hundred percent of its electricity with wind power. GM’s global manager of renewable energy Rob Threlkeld says that “Using wind power delivers on this by securing more stable energy costs while reducing our impact on the environment.” Ironically, even companies that manufacture products that rely on the use of fossil fuels are realizing the cost benefits of renewable energy.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts an increase in both the use– and the price– of natural gas in 2018. Part of that increased cost is the result of the economic expense of the hydraulic fracturing technology used to access it. Unfortunately, the true cost of fracking has proven to be more than just financial. While the chemicals used in the fracking process are expensive, they also create a number of costly environmental health hazards. Besides those chemicals, other pollutants released by drilling include nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, benzene, toluene, xylene and ethyl benzene. Many of those pollutants are known to cause cancer, nervous system disorders, and birth defects.
Unfortunately, studies of the environmental impact of fracking have not kept pace with the astoundingly rapid growth of the industry. According to the Department of Energy, by 2013, the process had been used to extract oil and gas from over two million wells. There are currently over 900,000 active oil and gas wells in the United States. Further, up to 95% of new wells being drilled rely on the fracking process, which now accounts for 67% of the country’s natural gas production. However, public awareness of the dangers, including the contamination of ground water, is also increasing rapidly. Consequently, many states have begun passing legislation to ban the practice.
In March of this year, Maryland became the first state with proven gas reserves in the United States to ban fracking. In 2012, New York banned drilling and Vermont banned any future fracking before it even began there. 2012 also saw environmental groups in California file a lawsuit against the state for failing to evaluate risks before approving fracking for 600 wells. The Sierra Club was instrumental in achieving a recent public call for a moratorium on new gas connections in fire-ravaged Southern California.
Too often, the use of unsustainable energy sources has resulted in short-term private profit at long-term public expense. Increasingly, the public is demanding that the continued growth of sustainable energy sources not be impeded by legislation designed to benefit a few at the expense of many—and the environment upon which we all rely for our survival. As we move forward into 2018, public protest will continue to ensure global progress towards clean renewable energy sources.