This is the first of five installments in a series about clean energy.
In the spring of 2009, Mark Parkinson, then governor of Kansas, was considering a request from Sunflower Electric to build a new coal-fired generator in Holcomb, a small town in the western half of the state. Parkinson, eager to draw more wind developers to Kansas, said he would authorize the project if Sunflower backed a plan to source 20 percent of the state’s electricity from renewables by 2020. From the outset, it sounded like a fair bargain. Sunflower would get its coal plant, and Parkinson could begin the slow, arduous and costly work of revamping the state’s electric grid.
Then, something unexpected happened.
Over the next few years, the cost of renewable energy plummeted. Kansas blew past its renewable energy target and now generates 30 percent of its electricity from wind. And the Sunflower coal plant? It has yet to be built. High costs and legal challenges have kept the project in limbo.
Wind and solar are now cheap enough to compete with coal and gas across much of the country — even without subsidies. Fossil fuels once had little to fear from renewable energy, but that’s no longer the case. Last year, wind and solar made up two-thirds of new U.S. generating capacity. Today, wind technician and solar installer rank among the fastest-growing jobs in the United States.
But, falling costs and soaring popularity won’t be enough to sustain renewables. Clean energy has reached an inflection point. It threatens to upend the status quo, and entrenched interests are fighting back.
The rise of wind and solar threaten to eat away at oil and gas profits. New rooftop solar installations are cutting into the core business of power utilities by allowing homeowners to generate their own electricity. And new wind farms are transforming landscapes, sparking backlash from environmentalists.
Where wind and solar have made inroads, energy companies, power utilities and conservationists have pushed legislators to pass onerous, byzantine policies that make it all but impossible for renewables to compete with conventional power plants.
These measures are having a tangible impact on regular people. Ohio severely restricted wind development, depriving schools of tax revenue from nearby wind farms. Indiana slashed incentives for rooftop solar, dealing a blow to homeowners and installers. Policymakers across the country are pushing measures to stifle renewable energy, and an unlikely assortment of consumer advocates and business leaders is fighting back.
The fight over clean energy is no longer a conflict between left-leaning climate hawks and laissez-faire libertarians. These battles are pitting mainstream Republicans against Tea Party conservatives and environmentalists against each other. Wind and solar have scrambled ideological loyalties, forcing Americans on both sides of the aisle to rethink their definition of the “free market” and reconsider what it means to serve the public interest.
Read the rest of this series from Nexus Media.
Nexus Media is a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. Owen Agnew, Josh Chamot, Jeremy Deaton and Mina Lee contributed to this report.