Tyson Slocum, Energy Program Director at Public Citizen, delivered the Northern Plains Annual Meeting’s keynote speech in November. He provided us with a vantage point on our current place in history, focused on energy use, which is sometimes hard to see without the perspective afforded by time.
We’re seeing energy technology disruption firsthand, he told us. As the example of cellular telephones shows, “disruptive technology comes at you fast.” (In 2003, only 4% of US households relied solely on a cell phone with no landline. By 2017, that percentage had jumped to 65%.)
There are three main factors currently driving “disruption-level” change in American power markets.
- First, renewables and storage are getting cheaper and cheaper, and they’re deploying fast. This, a lot of us knew.
- Second, electricity demand since 2007 in the U.S. has been flat. Mandates and incentives for energy efficiency improvements in buildings and vehicles have worked.
- Third, inexpensive fracked natural gas is displacing coal and nuclear.
Fracking has been its “own little revolution causing lower prices,” but after doing a lot of looking at the numbers, Slocum concludes that “production isn’t sustainable.” Of course, we know it’s not environmentally sustainable. But he also informed us that the pace and supply aren’t sustainable either.
Government regulation and mandates had an important role in kicking renewables into gear. Twenty years of state-level renewable mandates have been significant. For example, Montana enacted a renewable energy standard in 2005 which mandated that 15% of its energy be generated by renewable sources by 2015, and we successfully got there. Corporate procurement of utility-scale renewable development and retail-level distributed generation incentives also helped push renewables to the front of the pack, where they now stand on their own as the cheapest option.
Throughout history, America has helped along technological advancements. Slocum said that “Government mandates and investment have always played a central role―and that must continue.” From the telegraph network to the railway system to the highway system, our government has regularly written our laws and budgeted our public dollars in ways that bring a better collective future to all of its citizens. Slocum advised that we need to keep innovation rewards in the public interest.
It’s not hard to make the leap to understanding that today’s equivalent role for government is to keep it working hand-in-hand with the sectors of our energy economy that will promote economic health and public health over pollution and concentrated profits.
Toward this goal, Northern Plains continues to advocate for the removal of barriers to energy efficiency and distributed renewable generation. This includes working to influence our state lawmakers every legislative session as well as aiding our members in dealing directly with decision-makers at their Rural Electric Cooperatives.
–From the The Plains Truth, Winter 2018
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