Misconception and myth hang over the entirety of the US energy sector, but with renewable energy equally likely to get bogged down in political wrangling over subsidy levels and climate change, getting to the truth remains a particular challenge.
Accounting firm Ernst & Young is accustomed to crunching data from a wide range of sources and sorting it into manageable categories. The company has taken an increasing thought-leadership profile in energy, and recently released an update to its substantial renewable energy attractiveness indices as part of that practice.
The surprisingly-bullish report includes scores for state renewable energy markets, renewable energy infrastructure and their suitability for individual technologies. The indices provide scores out of 100 and are typically updated on a biannual basis.
In discussing the report, the indices and the results this year that placed California at the top of the heap but had some surprising breakouts, Ernst & Young LLP Senior Manager, National Tax Michael Bernier dispelled some of the most entrenched myths in the renewable energy business.
Myth One: The renewable energy industry is facing an unprecedented challenge in the end of the production tax credit at the end of this year.
The renewable energy industry does face a number of challenges this year and next, says Bernier, but none of them are unique or insurmountable. “The wind industry has been through this before, and it has survived and grown,” Bernier said, referring to the possible end of the PTC. Bernier says his report is relatively upbeat, but that reflects his belief that “a solution exists to all the problems that exist.”
Myth Two: Wind energy will still lead growth in renewable energy.
Bernier says it is actually solar energy that will attract the most growth in the renewable sector over the next three to five years, and that resulted in a much heavier weighting for solar in the accounting firm’s renewable energy attractiveness report. The solar industry is “clicking on all cylinders,” Bernier said, with an attractive environment for large-scale utility projects, domestic-scale home solar panels and medium-scale distributed generation solar.
To hear a podcast with a celebrity distributed generation solar distributor (yes, really) on Breaking Energy, click here.
Myth Three: Geography and weather are the determining factor in how appealing a market is for renewable energy.
People oversimplify when they talk about solar, Bernier said, presuming that projects cannot be profitable or contribute when they are outside of sunny areas. In fact there are about 10 different factors in determining the success of a solar energy installation, he said, including the cost of the power a unit of solar energy is replacing. In Boston, Massachusetts, although sun is comparatively rare, power prices are high enough that even intermittent solar when combined with incentives can make a project attractive.
Myth Four: Natural gas and renewables are always competitors.
Low natural gas prices are not the end of the world for renewable energy, says Bernier. While natural gas generation currently sets the marginal price for electricity, the price of renewable energy generation is falling fast enough to compete with other forms of generation, even natural gas. “High power prices would help expedite the adoption of renewables, but renewables can already compete in many markets,” Bernier said.
Discuss the interaction of power prices and natural gas markets on Breaking Energy here.
Myth Five: Transmission can always be developed once the big renewable energy projects are built.
The challenge in the US for renewable energy is that it is a large country with many different power market regimes, Bernier said. “Transmission is a big factor in moving up or down the attractiveness index…if you don’t have transmission you can’t build a large-scale project,” he said.
Myth Six: National players in renewable energy can only succeed in their own markets
“We are seeing our client base across a much-larger swathe of the globe than it has been previous years,” Bernier said. New entries from international markets are entering the US and competing on price and scale with US firms, in part because they are becoming accustomed to the tax-code-based US incentive system.
Myth Seven: Infrastructure funds are the shining hope for a second boom in renewable energy financing
While completed renewable energy assets are attractive to many “second-level funding sources” looking for reliable, long-term returns, many infrastructure funds and pension funds are actually limited in their ability to take on early-stage funding of new renewable energy projects. Many of them do not pay taxes because they hold pension funds or retirement funds, and thereby cannot use the tax incentives that are used to fund new projects. The tax equity market, in which taxpayers assume the incentives, continues to play a role but has struggled to grow since 2007 even as the pipeline of qualifying renewable energy projects has grown.
Myth Eight: The US military’s renewable energy efforts will boost the market for renewable energy before 2015
The military’s role as a purchaser of renewable energy is important because it is less price-sensitive than private sector buyers; it is focused on other mission goals as well, like fuel security. But the investments the military is making are “really cutting edge,” Bernier said. “[They] have the ability to spend to fix those needs, but all that is beyond the three to five year window the market is currently looking at.”