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Clean Energy Expert Tam Hunt: Rapid Clean Energy Growth Inevitable

4 min. read

At Scaling Green, we periodically attempt to highlight some of the brightest, most up-and-coming stars – key industry players, thinkers, etc. - in the cleantech world. Today, we feature Tam Hunt, the “managing member of Community Renewable Solutions LLC, a renewable consulting and project development company focused on community-scale wind and solar,” and also a lecturer at UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management.  What caught our eye about Tam Hunt were a number of articles he’s written on clean energy issues, such as “The True Cost of Renewable Energy,” in Renewable Energy World. We caught up to Tam last week.

We were immediately struck by Tam’s tremendous confidence in clean energy’s popularity and growth potential. One of his points is that renewables are actually at scale now, not at some distant point in the future. And Tam has an informed perspective, given his work on Santa Barbara County, California clean energy plan. Entitled “A New Energy Direction,” that report called for weaning the region off of fossil fuels by 2033, through a series of measures including: reducing energy use in buildings, reducing petroleum demand, next generation vehicles, wind power, solar power, and ocean power.

In our conversation with Tam, he placed particular emphasis on energy efficiency in the building sector, specifically mentioning the Architecture 2030 challenge, which aims to “achieve a dramatic reduction in the climate-change-causing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of the Building Sector by changing the way buildings and developments are planned, designed and constructed.” In part, Tam focuses on the building sector because, in his view, this is something we can have a major impact on at the local level, without waiting for action by a Congress that is unpopular, dysfunctional, and out-of-touch with Americans’ overwhelming support for clean energy. At the local and state levels, in contrast, there is much greater potential for rapid policy action, as we’ve already seen in California, where Gov. Brown has signed a law requiring that 33% of the Golden State’s energy come from renewable sources, like wind and solar, by 2020.

Nonetheless, we asked Tam – given his work on a plan for one large U.S. county - what’s portable to other counties, and even to national policy. In short, how does the US get to majority renewables as rapidly as possible? Tam Hunt’s answer: continue the growth trajectory we’re already on. As Tam wrote in his Renewable Energy World article:

Where global wind power has grown about 25 percent per year in the last decade, global solar power has grown an average of 68 percent each year over the last five years (including Bloomberg New Energy Finance projections of 28 GW of new solar in 2011). This is a doubling literally every 1.3 years. So today’s 40 GW of capacity becomes, under the same growth rate, an astronomical 1.3 million GW by 2030. Obviously, the recent rate of growth won’t continue because, among other reasons, this is far more power than we need for the entire globe! But even if solar power’s rate of growth drops in half to 35 percent over the next two decades, this produces a doubling every 2.3 years and we get 16,000 GW (16 terawatts) by 2030 – almost as much as the entire world will need by then.

What’s keeping this scenario from rapidly coming to fruition? It’s certainly not the cost of renewables, which is coming down fast. Instead, according to Tam Hunt, it’s more about issues like transmission and integration, which are largely policy matters. It also, in Tam’s view, is about the need for a burgeoning, increasingly powerful, cleantech industry to aggressively defend itself against dirty energy interests that want to slow or stop clean energy scaling. That, in turn, is a matter of fighting back against the huge numbers of lobbyists and lawyers, giving large sums of money to pliable politicians every year, within the federal government’s halls of power.

No doubt, cleantech needs to fight – and win – the inside-the-Beltway battle in coming years, in part by getting the facts out there (e.g., clean energy’s increasingly competitive costs and local job creation potential), and in part by playing the political game effectively. But let’s be clear about this: entrenched dirty energy interests will fight back with everything they’ve got to keep a powerful competitor from rising up and taking its place, and to keep their gravy train of enormous profits and taxpayer-funded welfare rolling along. In fact, we already see that with their coordinated assault on the solar industry in the aftermath of the Solyndra non-scandal.

In the end, Tam Hunt’s optimism about clean energy growth is based on two main factors. First, there’s clean energy’s overwhelming popularity (in the 90% range in many cases), which shows no signs of dissipating, despite the dirty energy industry’s relentless disinformation campaign against it. Second, there’s the ongoing, inexorable (think Moore’s Law for computer technology), and rapid reduction in the cost of producing clean energy. This trend has already resulted in “[t]he price of solar energy-generated electricity, calculated by a legitimate levelized cost of energy (LCOE) method, [now becoming] competitive in many regions with the price of electricity generated by conventional sources.” This trend is almost certain to continue for years to come.

Finally, keep in mind that clean energy doesn’t come with the enormous health and economic costs that are inherent to dirty energy, such as the $500-billion-per-year cost of coal in the United States alone. Taking those “externalities” into account, not to mention others like military costs and global warming, clean energy becomes even more competitive than it already is. Given that policymakers in Washington, DC, can’t seem to figure this one out, it seems that we’re going to have to do it ourselves, in the industry and at the local and state level. For that, we’ll need a heavy dose of Tam’s optimism.