Sunday, October 07, 2018

Utilities Have a Problem:  the Public Wants 100% Renewable Energy, and Quick - By David Roberts

The industry is groping for ways to talk the public down.

Get used to it.  (Credit: Shutterstock) Click to enlarge.
Renewable energy is hot.  It has incredible momentum, not only in terms of deployment and costs but in terms of public opinion and cultural cachet.  To put it simply:  Everyone loves renewable energy.  It’s cleaner, it’s high-tech, it’s new jobs, it’s the future.

And so more and more big energy customers are demanding the full meal deal:  100 percent renewable energy.

The Sierra Club notes that so far in the US, more than 80 cities, five counties, and two states have committed to 100 percent renewables.  Six cities have already hit the target.

The group RE100 tracks 152 private companies across the globe that have committed to 100 percent renewables, including Google, Ikea, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Nike, GM, and, uh, Lego.

The timing of all these targets (and thus their stringency) varies, everywhere from 2020 to 2050, but cumulatively, they are beginning to add up.  Even if policymakers never force power utilities to produce renewable energy through mandates, if all the biggest customers demand it, utilities will be mandated to produce it in all but name.

The rapid spread and evident popularity of the 100 percent target has created an alarming situation for power utilities.  Suffice to say, while there are some visionary utilities in the country, as an industry, they tend to be extremely small-c conservative.

They do not like the idea of being forced to transition entirely to renewable energy, certainly not in the next 10 to 15 years.  For one thing, most of them don’t believe the technology exists to make 100 percent work reliably; they believe that even with lots of storage, variable renewables will need to be balanced out by “dispatchable” power plants like natural gas.  For another thing, getting to 100 percent quickly would mean lots of “stranded assets,” i.e., shutting down profitable fossil fuel power plants.
The public might be willing to let the experts work out the details
So utilities must convince customers that they support renewable energy, first thing, off the bat.  (The best way to do that, of the options tested, was telling customers about investments — highlighting the rising level of investment in renewables.  Money talks.)

If they can make that key connection, then they can swing the conversation around.  Once customers are convinced that utilities are sincere about supporting renewables, they become more open to the message that getting to 100 percent will take some time, that it needs to be done deliberately, and that costs need to be taken into account.

“Given the cost and the complexities of it, it should be done gradually,” one Phoenix respondent said.  “Not the next five years, but maybe by the end of our lifetimes,” said another.

The researchers tested the following message (excerpted):  “[A balanced energy mix] helps us maintain consistent service for our customers and avoids over-reliance on a single fuel type or technology.  This means we’re able to bring our customers increasingly more renewable energy without asking them to compromise on reliability or cost.”

That worked much better.  “It seemed like we all have the same goal that we’re working toward,” said a respondent in Minneapolis.  “In the meantime, they’ll use a balance to serve us.  It’s sensible.”

In fact, in terms of reasons not to rely entirely on renewables, by far the most potent argument was that it would slow the transition to clean energy:  “We can get to cleaner energy faster and more effectively if we use a range of sources and technologies.”

The state-of-the-art message for utilities, then, is this:  Yes, we want to pursue renewables, but to protect consumers, we want to do it in a way that is “balanced, gradual, affordable, [and] reliable.”  That means we should avoid, ahem, “short-term mandates.”

Read more at Utilities Have a Problem: the Public Wants 100% Renewable Energy, and Quick

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