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The top 10 advanced energy stories of 2016 – and how they will shape 2017


From the first American offshore wind power to the economic power to employ millions of people, “advanced energy” is a major growth market that shows no signs of stopping, writes Lexie Briggs, social media manager at Advanced Energy Economy (AEE), a US-based national association of business leaders promoting clean energy technologies. Briggs identifies the ten major advanced energy stories of 2016 in the US – and looks at how they will help shape our energy future.

1) Finally! American Offshore Wind No Longer a Dream

Offshore wind power in the U.S. has been a notion since Cape Wind was a twinkle in Jim Gordon’s eye, but it was long stymied by political (and NIMBY) interests. In 2015 construction began on the nation’s first offshore wind installation. Finally, this year, Rhode Island’s Block Island Wind Farm went online and is now pumping power to the small vacation destination. Offshore wind is officially a reality.

We followed the construction of the Block Island Wind Farm, and other projects in development, throughout the year. We saw Massachusetts legislators pass a bill requiring offshore wind as a part of the state’s energy generation mix in the future and the Long Island Power Authority moving toward construction of a wind farm as well. This week we also saw headlines that AEE member DONG Energy is pairing up with utility Eversource Energy on Bay State Wind, the proposed project 15 miles off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard that will be among the facilities vying for the contracts mandated by the Massachusetts legislature.

As AEE’s affiliate member Mintz Levin wrote in a guest blog post, offshore wind has the capacity to energize the coasts. We can’t wait!

2) Energy Storage’s Best Year Ever

We’ve long known that energy storage is a game changing technology allowing for a more agile and responsive grid. In 2016, energy storage went from being a cool technology promising to change the game to a booming business that is actually doing it.

From AEE member SolarCity’s self-supply solar + storage systems available to the average consumer to energy storage as a service for utilities and large-scale consumers like school districts, it was clear the technology was ramping up, driven in part by integration of renewable technologies. Regulators took notice as well: There were 89 distinct regulatory actions taken on storage as of October, and FERC examined barriers to energy storage in organized electricity markets, with an eye toward removing them.

In other storage news, Duke Energy tested out a solar + storage microgrid and AEE member Tesla Energy’s Powerwall and Powerpack batteries (for consumers and utilities, respectively) started to be deployed across the globe. Plus, interesting storage technologies, from fire and ice-based systems to actual, literal trains are under development to further the technology. By the time AEE affiliate member Navigant Research declared 2016 energy storage’s best year ever the technology was past the tipping point. We can’t wait to see what 2017 holds.

3) Clean Power Plan: Big Story Turned Conundrum

For most of the year, EPA’s Clean Power Plan has been a big, ongoing story, as the final rule was issued, planned for; taken to court, not stayed, stayed, not planned for; then America voted and, well, since then everything’s a bit up in the air. Here’s what happened:

In February, in an unprecedented move, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to overturn the D.C. Court of Appeals decision to deny a stay of the rule. States suddenly faced a decision of their own: plan for a rule that might not be implemented? Or risk being caught unprepared if it is? Different states chose different strategies, which we outlined in February. Many utilities also began to plan for the rule. Meanwhile, the Clean Energy Incentive Program, or CEIP, the optional, early-action incentive program, set up compliance credits in advance of any decision from the judicial branch. In July CEIP was published in the Federal Register (we still have some thoughts on how it could be improved).

In May it was announced that a full D.C. Circuit Court would hear oral arguments on the CPP, which it did in September. We were prepared to wait until next year for the Circuit Court to issue its decision. Then, the election of Donald J. Trump, who declared his intent to dump the rule, changed everything… again.

Here’s what we know for sure: The energy transformation we thought the CPP could accelerate is already underway. As Graham Richard and Howard Wenger put it, the advanced energy future is on its way. Models show that the CPP requirements and current trends already underway are converging, even without the rule in place.

4) Corporations Commit to Advanced Energy

More and more major corporations are committing to purchasing, developing, and operating on renewable energy and other advanced energy technologies. This year we saw announcements from all kinds of businesses, from tech giants like Apple, Google, and Amazon to consumer goods moguls like Johnson & Johnson. We released several studies this year on how states can capitalize on the Fortune 100 and 500 companies (and others) looking to renewable energy to power their operations.

new market brief from AEE, published earlier this month, found that 71 of the Fortune 100 companies have renewable energy or sustainability policies in place, up from 60 two years ago. Among the Fortune 500, 43% of companies are committed to advanced energy. A study developed in conjunction with the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University details how states can capitalize on this private investment. Published in conjunction with this month’s market brief, Private Procurement, Public Benefit: Integrating Corporate Renewable Energy Purchases with Utility Resource Planning, details the opportunities available for state energy markets. Another market brief published earlier this year, developed by Meister Consulting Group, looked at six simple policies states could implement to attract more private investment in renewable energy.

We say: What are they waiting for? Expect to see more on this in 2017.

5) Advanced Energy is a Jobs Engine

Jobs was one of the major touchstones of the 2016 election, but we’ve been tracking advanced energy employment for some time and can confidently say that it’s growing in many states, and has the capacity to grow in many more. Just this year we released employment reports for IndianaCalifornia, and Florida, and our friends at the Texas Advanced Energy Business Alliance published a report for the great state of Texas. Finally, we got our hands on the full extent of advanced energy employment nationwide – more than 2.5 million jobs supported by advanced energy, more than agriculture and mining combined, and equal to grocery stores and supermarkets.

In Indiana, advanced energy supports jobs for nearly twice as many people as colleges and universities. In Florida, it’s twice as many people as agriculture. In California, advanced energy is three times bigger than Hollywood, or, technically speaking, the motion picture, TV, and radio industry. In Texas, advanced energy employs more than chemical manufacturing and petroleum refining. That’s right – in terms of jobs, advanced energy is bigger than Texas crude.

The full story of advanced energy employment isn’t just the numbers, even though they are formidable. The real story is the people building the advanced energy future. From Ryan Logan, the facility manager of Amazon Wind Farm Fowler Ridge in Benton County, Ind., who says, “I really like knowing that what I am doing will benefit our future generations, especially my kids,” to Jason Gonos, a mechanical engineer and the Director of Operations at Power Production Management in Gainesville, Fla., who says solar is his passion.

From Dipal (Paul) Patel, who works at Veolia North America in California and loves working on new solutions to complex challenges to Anneliese Bujanda, an electrical engineer at Spruce Finance in Houston, who knows that processing solar equipment orders will have a positive impact on the world, advanced energy is providing livelihoods and building the future.

Next time you think of an American job, think of a wind turbine technician, a construction worker who utilizes energy efficient building materials, or a software developer figuring out how consumers can save money by using less electricity.

6) Elon Musk Carries Out Master Plan 

This year, Elon Musk detailed the second stage of his “Master Plan,” as laid out in his blog post, Master Plan Part Deux. The Master Plan involved four key steps:

  • Create “stunning solar roofs” with seamlessly integrated battery storage
  • Expand the electric vehicle product line to address all major segments
  • Develop a self-driving capability that is 10X safer than manual operation
  • Enable your car to make money for you when you aren’t using it by providing services to the grid.

By December, he’d achieved or made major inroads on each of those elements. Here’s how it all went down.

To create “stunning solar roofs,” Tesla would need a partner in solar technology. One was close at hand. In August, Tesla Motors announced it had reached a deal to buy SolarCity for $2.6 billion. Next came a 45-day waiting period for other bids to come in. Despite much carping – but to nobody’s surprise – the sale went through, and was approved by shareholders in November.

Meanwhile, the still-separate companies worked on a joint venture to build a marketable solar roof. The technology behind solar shingles was not entirely new, though not extensively commercialized, but with a little of the classic Musk fanfare and obsessive focus on design, SolarCity and Tesla unveiled four styles of solar roof tiles. Musk did the unveiling on the former set of “Desperate Housewives,” because of course he did. These solar tiles, combined with the Tesla Powerwall and an electric vehicle, create a sort of in-home mini-microgrid. In Hawaii, that’s what’s called a “self-supply option,” which is one part of Hawaii’s follow-on to net-metering.

In terms of expanding Tesla’s EV product line to “all major segments,” the company made a major step in that direction in April with the opening of pre-ordering for the Model 3, a Tesla vehicle with a $35,000 base model price. Within 24 hours, the company received more than 100,000 orders, and eventually reached 325,000 in the first week. Of course, there aren’t any Model 3s on the road yet. Production begins in mid-2017.

Finally, Musk also made inroads in driverless vehicle technology, with the Tesla Autopilot system (first featured on Advanced Energy Perspectives late last year). We’ll dive into that more in #7, but it’s safe to say that Musk is well on his way to world domination – or, um, completing his Master Plan and delivering value to shareholders.

7) Advanced Planes, Trains, and Automobiles Dominate Headlines

Driverless vehicles weren’t the only advanced vehicles making headlines this year. Uber launched a fleet of driverless vehicles in Pittsburgh and acquired automated truck company Otto, European development of long-haul trucks without drivers continued, and Tesla’s Autopilot system was made available widely to many drivers (even, in one case, a Tesla driving its “driver” to the hospital after a heart-attack). Meanwhile, EV prices dropped, a solar plane launched on an around-the-world mission, and trains stored energy. Should somebody make a movie about this?

Never mind. This year we followed the flight path of the Solar Impulse 2, the world’s first manned solar plane flight to circumnavigate the globe. After a 10-month stay in Hawaii, the plane, which is powered with panels from AEE Member SunPower, took off in April to continue its journey. From Hawaii it flew to San Francisco, Phoenix, Oklahoma, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and finally New York City, and then on to Seville, Spain, complete its global tour.

Although the solar-powered transportation future is not exactly immanent, we also saw some headlines about solar yachts and solar cars!

Finally, there is a train that stores energy, and not by hauling loads of coal or oil around. Instead, California’s Advanced Rail Energy Storage (ARES) train is full of rocks. It stores potential energy by… being a heavy train on top of a hill, and releases it by running downhill. It’s a dry equivalent of pumped hydro energy storage, and can be counted on to run ontime. The energy train is still in what we might call “Model 3-stage” – ARES expects to begin construction next year on a 50 MW test site next year. All aboard!

8) Waking the Sleeping Giant of Nuclear Power

For decades, nuclear power has been quietly producing about 20% of the electricity used in the United States. But until recently, construction on new nuclear power plants had halted. That finally changed in 2016. So did policy initiatives to keep some aging nukes in operation, at least until they can be replaced by similarly zero-emitting renewable energy.

The Tennessee Valley Authority completed the final tests on Watts Bar 2 in August and it came online not long after. Construction on unit 2 actually began in 1973, but the project stalled out a few times for both safety and economic concerns. In the end, it was worth the wait. The reactor features the FLEX system, a state-of-the-art safety feature produced in response to a Fukushima task force put together by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Additionally, TVA got permits this year to install small nuclear reactors (SMR) on another site originally slated for a much larger nuclear facility, and NuScale Power, an SMR company based in Oregon, is developing a site on the grounds of the Idaho National Laboratory and the Los Alamos National Laboratory is considering whether or not to follow suit.

In the closing days of 2016, there was a flurry of activity around nuclear power. Duke Energy won a license to site a nuclear power plant in South Carolina, and just this week, Senators Lamar Alexander and Sheldon Whitehouse published an opinion piece in the New York Times on the importance of maintaining nuclear power for the United States.

That goal is being accomplished, however controversially, in New York and Illinois. Gov. Cuomo’s Clean Energy Standard will drive New York to 50% renewable energy by 2030, but until then, will provide credits to older nuclear power plants upstate. Similarly, in Illinois, a new law will keep certain Exelon nuclear power stations in operation in the short term as part of a deal that grows renewable energy in the long term. It’s all advanced energy – old and new, working together.

9) Pot Power Gets Mellow

We’ve been following the energy angle of legalized marijuana – whether medical or recreational – for a couple of years now. Legal growth operations draw major amounts of electricity from the grid, but utilities, which in many cases are governed by federal regulation, have their hands tied when it comes to helping growers become more efficient. Kind of funny, but it’s no joke: Legal grow operations are rivaling data centers in energy use. Current indoor growth operations might represent as much as 1% of total U.S. electricity demand. Luckily, marijuana farmers are aware of the cost of electricity, and are beginning to get more efficient on their own.

More and more growers are using high-efficiency LED lighting, in some cases cutting energy costs passed on to consumers in half. According to Utility Dive, large commercial grow operations can have power bills that run between $50,000 and $100,000 per month. LEDs can cut that cost significantly.

Making pot-growing more efficient isn’t the only thing LED lights can do. In a news release from New York Independent System Operator, sent out both this year and last, holiday lighting increases electricity use about 4% between Thanksgiving and the New Year. But LED lights, which have increasingly displaced the traditional variety of blinking red, green, and white strings, have reduced the seasonal bump in electricity demand in the Empire State from 1,150 MW to between 800 MW and 900 MW. Happy – and energy efficient – holidays!

10) The Future of Energy is Now!

This year, we saw stories that, in years past, would have been the stuff of science fiction rather than news. Blockchain technology developed for Bitcoin bringing in a new era of energy sharing to utilities investing in virtual power plants and integrated distributed energy resourcesConnectedhomes and data-managed buildings that lower electricity bills for consumers large and small. Science fiction? No – energy fact!

All in all, it’s an exciting time to be in advanced energy. What will 2017 bring? We can’t wait to find out.


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