Renewable energy is hot. It has incredible momentum, not only in terms of deployment and costs but in terms of public opinion and cultural cachet. To put it simply: Everyone loves renewable energy. It’s cleaner, it’s high-tech, it’s new jobs, it’s the future. And so more and more big energy customers are demanding the full meal deal: 100 percent renewable energy. The Sierra Club notes that so far in the US, more than 80 cities, five counties, and two states have committed to 100 percent renewables. Six cities have already hit the target. The group RE100 tracks 144 private companies across the globe that have committed to 100 percent renewables, including Google, Ikea, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Nike, GM, and, uh, Lego.
The timing of all these targets (and thus their stringency) varies, everywhere from 2020 to 2050, but cumulatively, they are beginning to add up. Even if policymakers never force power utilities to produce renewable energy through mandates, if all the biggest customers demand it, utilities will be mandated to produce it in all but name. The rapid spread and evident popularity of the 100 percent target has created an alarming situation for power utilities. Suffice to say, while there are some visionary utilities in the country, as an industry, they tend to be extremely small-c conservative. They do not like the idea of being forced to transition entirely to renewable energy, certainly not in the next 10 to 15 years. For one thing, most of them don’t believe the technology exists to make 100 percent work reliably; they believe that even with lots of storage, variable renewables will need to be balanced out by “dispatchable” power plants like natural gas. For another thing, getting to 100 percent quickly would mean lots of “stranded assets,” i.e., shutting down profitable fossil fuel power plants.