There's an energy boom going on in America and it's not in the oil fields of Texas or the coal strip mines of Kentucky. It’s to be found in the wind and the sun.
Renewable energy generation has taken off in the United States. In 2013, there was more new solar and wind generation than ever and that meant lower utility bills, more jobs and less investment in polluting fossil fuel. Now, 20 million homes can be powered by the amount of solar and wind generated in the U.S.
More new generation came from renewable energy last year than from new coal, oil and nuclear power combined. In fact, not a single coal plant has broken ground for the past three years.
And the best is yet to come. Here's a harbinger of the future: In May, a Colorado utility met 60.5 percent of its entire electricity demand for an hour with wind. The Federal Energy Information Administration forecasts wind power will expand 9 percent this year, and another 15 percent in 2015. Utility-scale solar power generation capacity is expected to rise 40 percent by 2015.
In Texas, the infrastructure is now in place to add 7,500 megawatts of new wind power over the next three years. That’s equivalent to building 75 new fossil fuel power plants the size of the plant on Madison’s east side, the one known for its prominent smokestacks.
The renewable energy boom has been good for both workers and consumers.
Employment in the U.S. solar industry jumped 20 percent in 2013, adding almost 24,000 jobs. Solar employs 142,698 Americans and that will grow by 15.6 percent this year. Solar pays competitive wages. The average solar installer earns $23 an hour.
Renewable energy is cheap and getting cheaper. In the 11 states with the most wind power, electric prices have gone down. In the other 39 states, rates increased 8 percent. A Minnesota judge just ruled that solar energy was the cheapest way to supply new power and in Detroit, the power company lowered its rates by 6.5 percent, citing savings from wind energy.
At a time when renewable energy is booming, Wisconsin under Scott Walker is lagging. Very little solar or wind is being built here. According to Carl Siegrist, a utility consultant "We're falling behind. We could have a lot of nice jobs here and we don't."
Nearby states are thriving. The director of Renew Wisconsin points out: "Renewable energy is driving economic development throughout the Midwest and the nation. Our Midwest neighbors are investing heavily in wind power too."
Walker administration policies are largely to blame. Under Walker, the Focus on Energy program curtailed funding for rooftop solar installations. State regulators appointed by Walker allowed utilities to reduce what they pay for power generated by utility customers' solar panels. Policies promoted by Walker have also made it harder to build new wind projects.
Ironically, while Wisconsin installs little new renewable energy, clean energy is still putting some folks to work here, but for projects in other states. For example, in Manitowoc, the Broadwind Energy factory will build towers for new Iowa wind farms.
With Wisconsin near the bottom of the states in job creation under Walker and with our electric rates rising, it's too bad that Walker's policies are depriving us of the environmental and economic benefits of fully participating in the renewable energy boom.
Spencer Black represented the 77th Assembly District for 26 years and was chair of the Natural Resources Committee. He currently serves as the vice president of the national Sierra Club and is an adjunct professor of urban and regional planning at UW-Madison.