A decade in review: the most underrated clean energy stories

A decade in review: the most underrated clean energy stories

blocks that say 2019 turning over into 2020
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The 2010s were a seminal decade for clean energy. 

At the start of the decade, solar, wind and energy storage technologies largely were dismissed as being fringe, not cost-competitive and pie-in-the sky. The movement’s main messengers were environmentalists and climate activists. 

Today, clean energy is recognized as an economic driver. The private and public sectors are embracing it not only because of environmental concerns, but also because it’s a smart economic move. Advocates are in every sector, from finance to industrial manufacturing.

The rising power of renewables reflects a confluence of many factors, large and small. I asked some of my favorite brilliant, inspirational clean energy leaders two questions: 

  • What was the most underrated clean energy story of the last decade?

  • What will be the big clean energy story of the next 10 years? 

Here’s what they said. Answers are edited for clarity and length. All individuals are sharing personal opinions, not those of their organizations. 

Neha Palmer, head of energy strategy at Google

Neha Palmer

The most underrated story of the 2010s...

The importance of policy in supporting the uptake of renewables. There's been a lot written about the massive cost decline of renewables over the last decade, mostly focused on technology improvements. The huge increase in demand for renewables created by state-level Renewable Portfolio Standards, for example, was a key element in driving renewable technology companies to improve. Without that, the speed of technology change and subsequent decrease in prices would have been much slower, in turn slowing the uptake of renewables by non-policy driven customers, like corporates.

The big story of the next decade will be…

The 2020s will be the decade of women driving the energy transition. Climate change is a women's issue. There is an increased focus on bringing more women into engineering and finance, key entry points for working in clean energy. This, combined with a knack for solving hard problems, and a desire to improve the lives of other women globally, will drive women to lead the way.

Vince Digneo, sustainability strategist at Adobe

vince digneo
The most underrated story of the 2010s…

I really think that the ability to take local action has been overlooked. The national and global conversation around climate has a real sense of doom and gloom, and while climate issues must be a priority, focusing on the negative isn’t productive. I think a lot of people feel really overwhelmed and helpless when it comes to climate action, but the truth is that everyone can get involved locally and make a real difference.

The big story of the 2020s will be…

Digital transformation and the progress we’re seeing with technology is providing the biggest tailwind for a clean energy future. When we think back to 10 years ago, the cloud computing space was just getting started. Moore’s Law, efficient data center and IT design, and unbounded innovation have all driven tremendous business opportunity — things we could only have imagined 10 years ago. And the willingness to responsibly innovate and adopt new technologies has shaped our present and will drive our future. I’m confident that in the next 10 years, technology will continue to push us forward, and we’ll all have a part to play as we move forward together.

Danny Kennedy,  chief energy officer at New Energy Nexus 

Danny Kennedy
The most underrated story of the 2010s…

China. China changed everything. It gets some credit but not enough. The costdown curve of energy, driven by scale, has reversed 100 years of history in which end-uses of power (electricity and also mobility) got more expensive annually. Mass manufacturing of photovoltaic and batteries have unleashed a gale of creative destruction that has already felled old king coal and will soon end oil. China did most of that.

The big story of the 2020s will be…

Oilfall. A combination of low cost-electricity and EV platforms (cars but more important buses, boats, transit and micromobility solutions) will soon take away growth of oil producers. By the end of the decade it will mean collapse for states and sectors overexposed to oil. This includes OEMs but extends to gas stations, service providers up and downstream, brokers, banks, refinery towns from Richmond to Singapore, and everything in between. Venezuela's demise and Aramco's flop on lPO are but tastes of what's to come.

Amory Lovins, co-founder and chief scientist at Rocky Mountain Institute

Amory Lovins
The most underrated story of the 2010s…

Falling U.S. energy intensity (about two-thirds from smarter end-use technologies and one-third from structural and behavioral shifts) saved 30 time as much energy in 1975-2018 as doubled renewable output increased renewable production — roughly the opposite of their headline ratio, because energy is invisible and unused energy is almost unimaginable. In 2010 to 2018, U.S. renewable growth nearly caught up with savings, but global 2010 to 2016 savings were three times carbon-free supply growth. Hardly anyone noticed: renewables dominate attention and emphasis, while efficiency is nearly ignored.

The big story of the 2020s will be… 

 

Designing buildings, vehicles, equipment and factories as whole systems for multiple benefits can save several fold more energy, cheaper, than previously thought. That overhang of unbought efficiency holds incumbents’ supply assets at risk. Even without such integrative design, just quadrupled U.S. electric end-use efficiency would cost about a tenth as much as today’s average electricity price, increasing supply-side risks. 

Emily Kirsch, founder and CEO of Powerhouse Ventures

Emily Kirsch
The most underrated story of the 2010s…

The biggest players in the clean energy and mobility industry were startups 10 years ago. Those that we think of as the giants of the industry – Sunrun, Opower, Nest, Tesla – were either nonexistent or barely on the radar in 2009. It’s easy to lose sight of how much the landscape has shifted. Formerly small players are now the ones leading the way, just as some of today’s little known startups will be industry giants by the time we’re celebrating the next turn of a decade. 

The big story of the 2020s will be…

A new wave of collaboration between disruptors and incumbents will shape our energy future. As digital technologies continue to decrease soft costs and make renewables the cheapest source of electricity almost everywhere in the world, startups and corporations pioneering today's digital energy breakthroughs will become the leaders of the new industry paradigm. The economics of clean energy coupled with increased public demand for climate solutions will drive traditional venture capital to enter (or re-enter) a space that would be unrecognizable 10 years ago.

KC Golden, board chair of 350.org

Disclosure: KC Golden is the uncle of the author of this piece, Sarah Golden.

Golden
The most underrated story of the 2010s…

No one would consciously choose the future we’re going to get if we continue with fossil-fuel dependence as usual. What became clear in the last decade is that we have practical, commercially viable alternatives at scale. The clean energy revolution is launched and dramatic reductions in fossil-fuel dependence are now technologically possible and economically attractive. We have a choice.

The big story of the 2020s will be…

As Keynes said, ‘The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.’ Now that the clean energy transition is both urgently necessary and tantalizingly possible, the question is how quickly we can escape from the entrenched economic and political position of fossil fuels. The big turning points are likely to come when investors and investment managers conclude there’s no more residual reward to be reaped from investing in economically obsolete and unconscionable fossil fuel development. Solutions are ready to be fully unleashed if we can manage to stop feeding the problem with new capital investment.

Sonia Aggarwal, vice president at Energy Innovation

sonia
The most underrated story of the 2010s… 

The positive impact of the plummeting prices of solar, wind and storage cannot be overstated. The 2010s saw the "coal cost crossover (PDF)," after which it became cheaper to provide reliable electricity without greenhouse gases or local air pollution than with it. Taking advantage of this cheap, reliable, clean power will require running the grid in new ways and re-making the institutions that govern our electricity system.

The big story of the 2020s will be… 

We have two major to-dos in the next decade: First, we have to use newly cheap sources of clean electricity to displace coal and gas. Then we have to use that clean electricity to displace gasoline burned in vehicles and gas burned in buildings. The private and public sectors can work together to get this done at scale.

David Hochschild, chair of the California Energy Commission

David Hoschild

The solar mandate was the culmination of over a decade of steps to bring costs down, increase customer awareness and develop innovative policy design. Strategic incentive programs, including the California Solar Initiative and the New Solar Homes Partnership (NSHP), helped grow the market for solar installations on new homes. Additionally, local policy innovation paved the way for the statewide requirement. Seven cities had passed a form on solar requirement ahead of the statewide standard, demonstrating that a solar mandate would be implementable, cost-effective and reduce energy consumption in homes.

The big story of the 2020s will be…

California will be on its way to 100 percent clean energy.

State agencies are working jointly to implement the ambitious targets established by SB100: 60 percent renewable electricity by 2030, and 100 percent clean electricity by 2045. Successful implementation requires balancing many key considerations, including affordability, reliability, equity, resilience and environmental impacts. Additionally, in defining zero-carbon resources, we aim to balance market direction with flexibility to include new and innovative solutions in the years to come. Today, nearly 30 percent of Americans live in communities committed to 100 percent clean electricity. Now, we are committed to successful implementation.

As we move toward an increasingly decarbonized grid, we need to leverage the grid as a clean energy backbone to reduce emissions in other sectors. Top priority areas are transportation and buildings, which combined account for over half of the state’s emissions. Increasing infrastructure for zero-emissions vehicles, as well as scaling appliance innovations, such as heat pumps and induction stoves, will be key.

Jigar Shah, president and co-founder of Generate Capital

Jigar Shah
The most underrated story of the 2010s…

In general, since 2010, wind/solar has been dismissed and belittled consistently. Even recently Axios inferred that solar/wind are not capable of offsetting fossil fuels. 

More importantly, increasingly solar/wind industry are mostly responsible for battery storage deployment and integration. Solar/wind are so successful that you are seeing projects financed in countries that have poor credit like Pakistan, Egypt and other difficult markets. The innovation required to make this happen is truly revolutionary. It requires project finance innovation, a lost art from the 1960s/70s that has been reinvigorated in ways that are truly inspiring. This innovation is critical to the deployment of all climate solutions at scale.

The big story of the 2020s will be…

In the next decade you will see true education of all parties on how infrastructure is deployed.  This included politicians, media, venture capitalists and others. In fact, this innovation will unlock the largest wealth creation opportunity of this decade — the deployment of climate change solutions. There are over 70 sectors/technologies waiting to be deployed at scale. They were highlighted in McKinsey’s Resource Revolution and the International Energy Agency’s deployment reports. All of them will be combined with financial technology innovation, sensors, 5G and many small innovations to unlock $5 trillion per year.