At a successful CLEANPOWER 2024, the American Clean Power Association brought together a diverse panel of experts to discuss the future of renewables in the U.S. and beyond.

Despite some bumps along the way, the future of renewables in general — and wind in particular — is still going strong and showing no signs of stopping. That’s exactly the message that echoed across the halls of the Minneapolis Convention Center at CLEANPOWER 2024.

Movers and shakers across the renewables spectrum shared the spotlight throughout the conference May 6-9 to preach and teach the more than 10,000 in attendance about what’s happening now and what needs to happen in the future in order to attain a better tomorrow powered by clean energy.

Many of those renewables experts were on hand at CLEANPOWER’s Opening Session to celebrate just how far the sector has come as well as to reveal caveats on how far renewable energy needs to go.

“You basically have to face the progress that we’ve made, incredible progress, but we also have to engage the hard truth that 25 years from now, our entire economy needs to be powered by clean energy,” said Jason Grumet, CEO of the American Clean Power Association. “The good news: Clean power is now a core facet of the American economy. We are producing utility-scale power in every state in the country … Now, one out of every two homes in the country can be powered with clean energy. Technology progress has been extraordinary, and we are innovating with pace; we’re innovating with purpose. Costs are coming down at an incredible rate. At the same time, technology is leaping forward. The performance of our facilities is leaping forward.”

According to American Clean Power officials, more than 10,000 attended this year’s CLEANPOWER show in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Courtesy: Wind Systems)

Thinking outside the box

Some of those technological strides include the development of green hydrogen, which is a testament to the success of national policy, according to Grumet.

“After decades of really unproductive battles, we now have a forward-looking strategy that is anchored in a shared idea of innovation, and investment and the private sector is responding,” he said. “In the next five years, we will double the cumulative investment in clean power in our nation’s history. We’re bringing back American manufacturing with 150 new announced facilities.”

To put a “face” on these accomplishments, one needs look no further than the success of RWE Clean Energy.

“As a renewable energy company with a growing U.S. presence, we are grateful for your support of our industry’s top priorities, like ensuring the swift implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act and the bipartisan infrastructure law,” said Andrew Flanagan, CEO of RWE Clean Energy. “RWE is committed to investing $60 billion in renewables globally by 2030, a third of that here in the U.S. Our global renewables operating capacity will grow to 65 GW by 2030.”

But RWE’s success story doesn’t end there. After a year of substantial growth, the company is the No. 3 renewable energy company in the U.S., according to Flanagan.

“Our growth is further backed by a robust development pipeline of onshore wind, solar, energy storage, and hydrogen projects, as well as our seabed leases in New York, California, and Gulf of Mexico, a total 6 GW of offshore potential,” he said. “We’re making critical investments to develop, construct, and operate renewable projects across the country to feed the growing demand for energy in the United States. In partnership with local communities, we’ll make significant investments that will improve the quality of life of our host community base, while also securing our energy independence. RWE believes the U.S. will continue to lead in the global-energy transition.”

Energy expansion

Looking at some of what makes up RWE’s success, it becomes apparent that what might be considered non-traditional clean-energy projects are suddenly becoming mainstream and the buzz of the industry, according to Sandhya Ganapathy, CEO of EDP Renewables North America and a member of the management team of EDP Renewables, the fourth largest renewable energy producer in the world.

“There is an energy expansion, and I think there’s a significant amount of work that all of us have put on the ground to see where we are today,” she said. “When I think about some of the key things that have led us to where we are today, of course, there is the demand side of the equation. On the ground, in terms of just putting projects out there, it’s not just traditional wind, which the industry starts off with. I think just the breadth of technologies, right from onshore wind to solar to batteries to hydrogen to offshore wind to floating solar, all of those things that we are doing on the ground, I think it’s phenomenal, it’s disruptive, and I can’t wait for the next 25 years.”

Results such as these are a definite indicator that the U.S. continues to move in the right direction. For example, 80 percent of new power brought to the grid was from clean-power technology. Unfortunately, according to Grumet, democracy has not been keeping pace.

“Inefficient decision-making and inadequate infrastructure are barriers to our long-term progress,” he said. “Last year, we made more progress than ever before — 34 GW of clean power. We’re moving faster than ever before, but not nearly fast enough to actually achieve our mid-century goals. This is why the American Clean Power Association every day with (Minnesota) Governor (Tim) Walz and others are advocating for aggressive permit rule. It’s why we’re working in regions to try to have the markets actually reward the quality of the power we’re producing. It’s also why we’re fighting against restrictive local ordinances and misinformation that’s designed to slow our progress.”

“Clean power is now a core facet of the American economy,” says American Clean Power President Jason Grumet. (Courtesy: Wind Systems)

Walz was also on stage at CLEANPOWER to echo some of Grumet’s sentiments.

“Everybody in this room knows that the future is going to belong to those who embrace and figure out and work together to get us to that clean-energy standard, to get us to that renewable standard; it makes sense across the board here in Minnesota — this is nothing new,” he said. “Clear back in 1994, we became the second state of the union to set a clean standard mandate for our state. And then we followed up with that in 2007 with one of my predecessors, Governor Tim Pawlenty, who got us a renewable portfolio standard, and set an ambitious goal in 2007 to get to 25 percent renewable energy by 2025. Well, last week it was announced Minnesota has reached 54 percent renewable energy.”

Part of Minnesota’s renewable energy goals are to be at 100 percent by 2040 — ambitious, to be sure, but Walz emphasized that plan is not just aspirational.

“I’m so proud in Minnesota, whether it’s our utilities, whether it’s our contractors, or whether it’s the folks that actually put the steel in the ground, our building trades and our union members, who have been leading on this front forever, training their members to embrace this, making sure Minnesota led in wind energy,” he said. “IDW was building, on their own money, towers to train their folks, to not only build the towers, but to make sure that they were safe and reduce the cost for folks who are putting these things in.”

And with strategies in place, Walz said Minnesota is working hard to ensure those 2040 standards will be in place when the time comes.

“We’re not naive; you know this — the easy part is that first 50 percent,” he said. “It’s going to get harder and harder to get there, and we’re going to have to be more focused. And we in Minnesota acknowledge our permitting laws are outdated for where we need to go. And when we talk about permitting reform, just to be clear, no one in this room is talking about cutting standards, whether it’s safety standards or environmental standards. But we do need to acknowledge there are things that we’re doing that are too cumbersome. They don’t fit where we’re at; they add costs, and they make it more prohibitive to get where we need to go. So, I’m really glad the legislature’s working to try and get us a bill out this year. … It is organized chaos, as many of you know on this. But the focus is there to try and get there.”

National strides

Luckily for the industry, strides aren’t just being made in Minnesota. Signs are being seen across the nation, according to Susan Nickey, ACP Board Chair and executive vice president and chief client officer of HASI, a leading investor in climate solutions.

“We stand at the cusp of an energy decade unlike any other; the pace of change right now is historic, and the energy transition is closely interconnected with megatrends, shaping the future of our economy and our country,” she said. “The pace of change right now creates this opportunity we have, and right here, right now, it’s bigger than we’ve ever seen in this industry. Most of you are aware of the explosive new growth projections in our U.S. market. I feel like I see a revised upward projection every week and across all markets. This growth is being driven by several factors, including AI, which is fantastic, but requires so much power. The manufacturers who are re-establishing the U.S. as their base. The ongoing electrification of homes and our transportation. We need new powers in ways we did not even predict just one year ago.”

A lot of that stems from the need for the electrification of the industrial sector, according to Nickey.

The jobs the energy sector creates are far beyond simple and present opportunities for a hungry workforce. (Courtesy: Wind Systems)

“Globally, the premium value for derived-from-clean-carbon molecules is further driving electrification of our industrial sector; right now, here we’re even seeing gas drilling in the U.S. being electrified. All industries are seeking more of our clean electrons,” she said. “Let’s consider the numbers for a minute. … We added a record 34 GW of renewable projects last year, and that’s equivalent to — think about this — a new 200-MW project every other day in one year. And how about energy storage? Last year, we doubled our new battery additions to 8 GW.”

Continued investing

Investments in renewable energy have also taken off over the last year, according to Nickey.

“All that capacity was funded by a staggering $88 billion of investment; that’s an 80 percent increase over 2022,” she said. “Also, we are witnessing the birth of a brand-new financial market, the tax credit transfer market. Many of you are already active in this market, which only shows how much we needed it to seize the growth opportunity right here in front of us. The new transfer market brought in $7 billion in its first year, and I believe we’re only scratching the surface.”

With all the growth in the pipeline, this dedication to a carbon-free energy future is going to be a daunting task filled with challenges to the supply chain as well as the workers who will be an invaluable asset in order to achieve success. Fortunately, those potential hurdles are being carefully considered and studied.

“So many industries get created and you wonder: Is there sustainable job growth? Industries come, and the worry becomes: Are they going to eliminate jobs? Are they going to create jobs? And this is an industry today that has tremendous potential for everybody in the room and, quite frankly, everybody in our nation that’s looking how to retool their lives and work,” said Jose Mas, CEO of MasTec Inc., one of the largest and most diversified infrastructure service providers in North America. “Whether it’s executive leadership jobs, whether it’s jobs in management, or whether it’s construction jobs, this is an industry that’s radically changing the way America looks, and we’re at the forefront of it. At MasTec, we’re blessed to be able to build the things that we’re talking about all the way from the renewable assets to the transmission lines and distribution lines and feed that into homes and businesses and the job opportunities that exist for our people are unbelievable, and they’re great jobs.”

Needed jobs

Mas also pointed out that the jobs the energy sector creates are far beyond simple and present opportunities for a hungry workforce.

“For so many years, people have wondered: Do we keep pushing people into these skilled labor positions? And the reality is that it’s an incredible opportunity to build a really good middle-class life,” he said. “Wages are really high, and it’s a great place for people to come and experience a new growing part of our economy. For us, it’s a long-term investment. The number of jobs that are going to be required, people aren’t waiting on the street to come in and install a wind turbine or install a solar panel. They’re jobs that we have to train; they’re big investments that we have to make in training programs in schools. The unions are doing it as well. So, it’s just an incredible opportunity for us as businesses and even us as individuals to really engage in this industry and build our careers.”

Ganapathy expects that workforce growth to increase exponentially as well.

“I think, 10 years down the road, the industry would be much bigger,” she said. “Today, we talk about a half a million people employed. (In a decade), we’d be talking about a million-plus people … Of course, from a technology perspective, there is a lot of innovation happening that we have to be able to deploy the scale that is required or the demand that we are seeing now.”

“Clear back in 1994, we became the second state of the union to set a clean standard mandate for our state,” said Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz. (Courtesy: Wind Systems)

Keeping policy makers engaged

To keep the ball moving, making politicians understand the necessity for clean energy will be paramount. Strides have already been made, of course, with the Inflation Reduction Act and the bipartisan infrastructure law, but it can’t stop there, and Grumet promised it was a main goal of ACP to ensure that it doesn’t.

“While the legislative process was a little bit of an ugly duckling, clean-energy incentives are maturing into a beautiful swan,” he said. “We’re bringing economic incentives and jobs and financial benefits to counties all around the country. The significant majority of these investments are actually going into conservative parts of the country, and it’s giving us the ability to create a very broad industry coalition. We’re actually expanding our capacity to support the ACP members and particularly the workforce. We have a charitable foundation called The Clean Power Foundation. The Clean Power Foundation has made a commitment to dramatically increase the efforts to train and support and engage and nurture the best workforce in the world. One of the things that I’m pleased to announce … is a new Clean Power Institute effort that’s going to standardize training and guidelines, and we’re going to talk about all the companies that have been a key part of that. We have 30 companies that have signed up for that already, and we expect much, much more to come.” Those initiatives are all just part of a greater framework to escort the U.S. into a greener, more sustainable energy future.

“We are not just creating jobs in wind, solar, and storage; we are also powering the most important industries and economic sectors, helping them create thousands of jobs across all 50 states,” Nickey said. “The urgency of unlocking our renewable project pipeline underscores ACP’s top priorities: transmission build out, grid modernization, and market reform. And yes, I believe that realization has finally settled in with our policymakers, too. Grid enhancing technologies that can expand our existing grid capacity are already here. ACP is working hard right now to affect these grid solutions, along with the permitting and the policy reforms necessary to build out our transmission systems, all of which we sorely need. I have no doubt that we are up to the challenge of delivering all those clean electrons and to energize our country’s economic prosperity and our national security for years to come. Together, we can make it happen.”