Freeing the Grid: A Look at Clean Energy in the U.S.

“The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

I included this thought-provoking quote by William Gibson in our just-releasedFreeing the Grid report because I think it works on a few different levels when discussing clean energy. A decidedly wide variety of technologies, policies, electricity markets and climates throughout the country makes for a decidedly unevenly distributed landscape for the use of renewable energy in the United States.

Technology and climate go together, so I will start there. First, the U.S. is blessed with a wide variety of climates; from tropical Hawai'i to the frigid Alaska tundra; from the warm California sun to the windy Plains States; and from the cloudy Mid-West to the rainy Pacific Northwest. Different renewable technologies are better optimized to take advantage of these geographic differences in climate. Solar works great in the sunny desert southwest, while wind technologies are better suited to the windy and less sunny Plains and Midwestern States. You want to get the most kilowatt-hours (the unit of electric energy production and consumption) for your buck, so you need to choose the optimal technology to fit your geographic situation.

Next, the electricity market in different regions and states will also have widely different prices for kilowatt-hours. That price will be dictated by demand, the mix of conventional electric generation sources (coal, natural gas, nuclear, etc.) and by the regulatory framework. In states that produce electricity from low-cost coal, electricity will be inexpensive, making it harder for renewable energy to compete for customers. Where, for instance, environmental regulations require stricter emission controls, those states will be producing more electricity from more expensive natural gas, making renewables more attractive to customers. As the market data suggests, solar energy is most attractive now in natural gas states like California and those in New England and the Mid-Atlantic.

Finally, we come to energy policy. In Freeing the Grid, we look at state net metering policy and the associated interconnection procedures. This set of policy facilitates the process of a customer plugging an on-site renewable energy system to the grid and receiving credit for energy they produce. When we began the annual report five years ago, California and, of all places, New Jersey were the top solar states, far ahead of the other 48—talk about unevenly distributed! Since the first edition of the report in 2007, where we had five states earn an ‘A' grade in net metering, many states have caught up and this year we are happy to note that there are 17 states with an ‘A' grade.

While policymakers cannot do much about technology and geographical variations in climate, they can help renewable energy by leveling the regulatory field and harmonizing the patchwork set of policies we now have in the country. Many policymakers have followed our guidelines for the best practices, we hope many more do. It is our hope that many more states earn an ‘A' in future editions of Freeing the Grid and we are here to help them do just that.

The future of renewable energy policy is here, it’s just not very evenly distributed—yet.