With all this talk of low oil prices, it’s easy to feel a sense of déjà vu. After all, plummeting oil prices in the 1980s, brought on by nations eager to ramp up exports, dealt a fatal blow to a then-fledgling renewable energy industry. Demand for solar and wind sputtered and the companies that sold them didn’t gain much ground for nearly two decades. Proponents still refer to those years as the “valley of death.”
As oil prices have dropped steadily over the past six months, however, forecasts for renewables have remained strong. Renewables are still predicted to generate one-third of the nation’s new electricity in the next three years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. It’s a promise that investors still seem wary of as shares for solar and wind have trended down on the perception that falling crude prices will threaten renewables once again, according to a post on Forbes by staff from the Environmental Defense Fund, a New York-based advocacy group.
A few key developments between then and now have positioned U.S. renewable energy companies to succeed regardless of spikes or drops in the price of oil. These principles should largely hold true not just for the U.S. but also around the world, according to analysts at Bloomberg. “The collapse in world oil prices in the second half of 2014 will have only a moderate impact on the fast-developing low-carbon transition in the world electricity system,” they said in a statement last month.
So what’s changed since the 1980s? First, renewables no longer compete directly with oil to generate electricity in the U.S. “Oil used to be one-sixth of our power sector -- 17 percent of energy came from oil,” Michael Webber, director of the Energy Institute at University of Texas at Austin, says. Now, oil is used mostly for heating homes or to make gasoline, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Solar and wind stand safely apart from those sectors. Renewable projects in developing nations, though, might not be so lucky -- utilities and governments there may still turn to oil for cheaper power, according to the Bloomberg analysts.
In the U.S. today, renewable sources instead compete with coal or natural gas in power plants. This might still be a problem if, say, natural gas suddenly became dirt cheap, which could have easily happened with a steep drop in oil prices. For a long time, the prices of oil and natural gas went hand in hand because gas was largely produced as a byproduct of drilling for oil. Historically, oil prices held steady at between six and 12 times higher than the price of gas, according to Forbes.
But about five years ago, natural gas prices began breaking apart from rollicking oil rates with the discovery of new gas reserves. “Industry and media reports have interpreted the recent underperformance of gas prices versus oil prices in North American gas markets as an indication of an important structural shift,” noted a 2011 paper on the trend by the International Monetary Fund. Many companies still produce natural gas as a byproduct of oil but the link between their rates isn't nearly as strong as it once was. This separation has insulated the cost of natural gas from dropping and posing stiffer competition for renewables.
Lastly, new policies have jump-started renewable energy projects across the country and guaranteed their place in the nation’s energy mix. Thirty states require utilities to generate a certain percentage of power from renewable sources and seven have voluntary goals along those lines. “Renewable energy portfolio mandates don't care about oil prices,” Webber says. “You still need a certain percentage to come from renewables or biofuels.”
Even with all that good news for renewables, Bloomberg analysts don't think that the entire industry escapes unscathed by cheap oil. Companies that make electric cars or biofuels, for example, could suffer as they compete with gasoline. Overall, though, demand for renewables continues to grow. Last November, analysts from Bernstein Research put it like this: "Renewable energy is a technology. In the technology sector, costs always go down. Fossil fuels are extracted. In extractive industries, costs [almost] always go up," as reported by CNBC. Creating a kilowatt of energy from solar power costs less than 1 percent of what it cost in 1977, according to website CleanTechnica.
Or, in other words: “The story should not be how falling oil prices will impact the shift to clean energy, it should be how the shift to clean energy is impacting the oil price,” Michael Liebreich, chairman of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, said in a statement.