#Solar100’s Amy Harder: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the (Energy) Galaxy

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As a veteran reporter, Amy Harder works to identify and contextualize what’s impacting the economics, politics, and technological advancement of energy. Readers consult her work to make sense of the vast and changing energy landscape.

In this interview, Harder talks about renewable energy’s bellwether markets, what makes for standout journalism in the era of growing climate concern, and why the “energy transition” is actually an “energy addition.”

A “lifer on energy”

Richard Matsui: You’ve basically been a lifer on energy. How did you first begin writing about energy?

Amy Harder: I sort of just fell into it. I had always known I wanted to do journalism. My original plan was to go to law school after college, and then be a legal journalist. Of course, in hindsight this plan makes no sense, because I would have accrued mountains of debt and before going into a career that isn’t known for being incredibly lucrative. But after college I ended up coming out to Washington DC from Washington State for an internship. From that internship, I got a job at a DC based publication called National Journal, where I covered Obama’s Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, his first SCOTUS nominee. When that ended, and I had nothing to cover, so my editor suggested I cover energy. That’s how I fell into it.

My first big energy interview was with T. Boone Pickens, the big oil and gas tycoon, when he dipped his toes in wind for the first time. I look at reporting on energy as peeling back an onion; there’s so many different areas and angles. I can cover solar, wind, and fossil fuels. I can cover climate change. They’re all deeply connected, and energy is under-reported and underappreciated.

Richard Matsui: Was it that multifaceted nature of this industry that kept you here?

Amy Harder: The multifaceted part is really compelling to me. Especially in contrast with politics. I was on the congressional leadership team for a brief period when I was at National Journal, and I really didn’t like it. Covering strict politics is just not for me, even though my neighbors in DC seem to like it. I don’t get bored because I get to cover so many different aspects of energy to cover, which is important to me. Energy is also an important topic, which is good for my job security because there always seems to be plenty of jobs.

Climate change and journalism

Richard Matsui: Has energy journalism changed over the course of your career, and if so, how has it changed?

Amy Harder: It has changed a lot, and I would say most of the changes have come over just the last couple of years since Trump became president. A few months ago I wrote about how and why my beat has increasingly included climate change in my weekly column for Axios, Harder Line. There’s a whole host of drivers for that. One is that Trump, by denying it’s a problem, makes it a more controversial issue. There’s also a growing public concern, and the plummeting costs of renewable energy technologies makes renewables a more well-known topic that both Democrats and Republicans support. All those factors together have shifted my work to include discussions around climate change.

What hasn’t changed is the fact that we need energy to power our daily lives, and most of that comes from fossil fuels. That’s changing rapidly, but most of the world is still powered by fossil fuels. What we’re now dealing with is how fossil fuels are heating up the planet, which is why I’ve been focusing on the axis of our energy use and climate change.

Richard Matsui: I entered the solar industry in 2007, back when panels were literally more than 10x more costly than they are today. The narrative within the energy industry has adapted accordingly, though it still feels like the broader public equates “solar” with “expensive.”

Amy Harder: I think energy knowledge is low for the average person, because it’s something we take for granted. And unfortunately, failed outliers like Solyndra are still mentioned here in Washington even though they’re not representative of the industry. However, on the positive side, renewable energy is becoming more bipartisan. If you look at wind, most is in Republican districts. The disagreements happen when we start talking about the policy that supports renewable energy, because the tax credits that continue to support solar and wind are more supported by Democrats than Republicans.

I’m hoping to do some stories in coming months about companies that, because the cost of renewable energy has dropped, are enabling consumers to choose renewable energy for the same price as their default electricity from their utility. That’s not possible in every state, depending on what regulations are at play. You wouldn’t have seen much of that several years ago because the prices weren’t as low.

Watershed events & Bellwether markets

Richard Matsui: We’ve witnessed a dramatic expansion of the Overton window when it comes to energy policy, whether it be the Green New Deal at the federal level or its various incarnations at the state level. Given your experience covering the energy beat, are there specific watershed events or bellwether markets you’re watching that will indicate the policy direction for the country?

Amy Harder: California is one good example of that across the board. Now you’ve seen California’s leadership in doubt because of what the Trump administration is doing, particularly on auto standards. I look at this from a very broad angle.

In 2012 the International Energy Agency released a report called the Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas about how gas was going to become a dominant energy source, and fast forward a few years, we can see that’s what’s happening. That was when the Sierra Club launched their Beyond Natural Gas campaign, which was a turning point. It was the beginning of many environmentalists turning away from natural gas after they had been more supportive. This natural gas trend extends beyond just this fuel because it affects all other electricity sources— wind and solar and coal and nuclear power. Over this same time period, the cost of wind and solar dropped, while support for natural gas lessened among both environmental groups and key Democratic politicians. That’s one point that I look back at as the canary in a coal mine: It was the beginning of the end for widespread environmental support for natural gas.

Richard Matsui: It feels like environmental groups are switching support toward renewables as they reject natural gas. Is that what you’re seeing?

Amy Harder: Yes definitely. They are increasingly saying, “Wind and solar are able to replace natural gas.” A lot of experts are saying that we’ll still need natural gas as a backup for some time, but there’s a big push to exclusively rely on wind and solar, particularly here in the United States.

Richard Matsui: At McKinsey’s Sustainability Summit last month, someone pointed out that the market cap of all the publicly traded coal companies in the US has fallen by 95% in the last five years.

Amy Harder: That’s amazing.

Richard Matsui: Right? It’s become my new favorite statistic. The implication I read is that financial markets can sustain a legacy industry in a stable equilibrium for decades, even as the tectonic plates of underlying technologies slowly shift against that equilibrium. And when that equilibrium finally breaks, when capital markets converge on a new consensus for a future that doesn’t involve that legacy industry, the supply of capital for that industry can vanish virtually overnight. I suppose we’ll see whether the same breakage occurs with natural gas.

Amy Harder: Right. Michael Bloomberg, former New York City mayor, recently launched a $500 million Beyond Carbon campaign. When he initially helped bankroll the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, that was easy because he was going with the tide. I think it will be a lot more difficult to push natural gas out of the equation.

At least in the United States, gas is used for a lot other than electricity, which renewables are currently not able to be used for, like direct heating and petrochemicals used in plastics. From a global perspective, natural gas produces very little traditional air pollution compared to coal.

The United States is very focused on renewable energy because it’s a lot cheaper and there isn’t a huge electricity demand. In countries like China though, natural gas use has been increasing significantly because it offers much cleaner air pollution than coal.

Richard Matsui: Agree that natural gas has uses beyond electricity, though it’s also true that coal similarly had uses beyond electricity—metallurgical coal is an input for steel production. Looking at natural gas through the prism of coal’s recent history could be the right way to forecast how capital allocation will play out over the coming decades.

Amy Harder: Though coal is very much a dominant input in steelmaking. The IEA regularly publishes on that topic. I agree that natural gas as a power source will be the first to go as renewables get ever cheaper and battery costs continue to fall, and we’re already seeing it in some places.

Nuclear controversy 

Richard Matsui: What has been the most controversial piece you’ve written?

Amy Harder: In 2016, when I was at the Wall Street Journal, I wrote a piece about how some environmental groups were softening their opposition to existing nuclear reactors. There was a whole slew of these reactors shutting down because of economic reasons and some parties were saying that because of climate change, they should be kept open if they’re safely operating. Long story short, the Sierra Club and other groups were very displeased with this story. They claim I misquoted them, although I remain committed to the fact that I did not. The reaction to that story shows just how controversial nuclear power is among the environmental community. The Union of Concerned Scientists, a respected environmental science group, came out with a study last year calling to keep some nuclear plants open, citing climate change concerns . I think my story was on the mark.

Richard Matsui: Energy Twitter gets very heated when the deployment versus R&D debate comes up. The wind and solar people will tend to say, “We already have the tools. You just need mass deployment of existing technologies.” The nuclear people tend to argue for more R&D and say that the existing tools are inadequate. Can you contextualize that debate for us?

Amy Harder: It’s definitely one subset of the broader debate about which tools and technologies society should support to address climate change. A lot of wind and solar advocates will advocate for building now with solar and battery technologies to back it up. Other parties are a bit more skeptical. Bill Gates invests in this industry, and he thinks not only that battery technologies aren’t going to be able to do as much as some would hope, but that electricity is only a quarter of the problem. You’re seeing a big debate about it, which is getting more heated as people aren’t seeing action. My take on the matter is, that it’s such an immense problem that (and I know it sounds cliché) it really is everything plus more.

Richard Matsui: That’s how it usually gets solved on Energy Twitter, when someone finally says, “We should actually do all of the above,” and everyone says, “Yeah, okay.”

Amy Harder: The problem is that everyone has profits to make, whether you’re in wind or solar, or nuclear power and natural gas.

I’m very reserved when it comes to Twitter. I try not to engage in too much back and forth from a public perspective, because number one, it’s a time waster. Number two, I think it misses a lot of the politeness and thoughtful engagement that you get in a private exchange.

Richard Matsui: One of the hottest topics in solar industry right now is the potential extension of the Investment Tax Credit. What is your perspective on that?

Amy Harder: The 2015 budget deal was an incredible example of Washington grand bargaining. Lawmakers extended wind and solar tax credits for five years and lifted the oil export ban. At that time, backers of the tax credits said, “We’re not going to come back and ask again, we’re done.” And now we’re seeing them coming back to ask for extensions. If Congress does extend the solar tax credits, I expect it to be short-lived. With this increase in innovation and Republicans coming back to the table to talk about climate change–but not supporting any new big policies–I do see a chance for a continued subsidized way of addressing climate change. We hear valid arguments from wind and solar executives that the oil and gas industry continues to get their subsidies, so solar and wind should be able to keep theirs, too.

What makes a standout reporter?

Richard Matsui: Can you name a few journalists in the clean energy journalism space whose work you think stands out?

Amy Harder: Julia Pyper at Greentech Media has done great work—you interviewed her as well. James Temple at the MIT Tech Review is great. Gavin Bade, who just went from Utility Dive to Politico, has some great work. Russell Gold, my former colleague at the Wall Street Journal, just came out with a book all about renewable energy and transmission lines that is really good. There are a lot of good reporters in the clean tech space, but these ones stand out to me.

Richard Matsui: What makes these reporters stand out?

Amy Harder: I admire journalists who don’t give into talking points, who don’t take an activist role. Being balanced is important. I think there’s a bit of alarmism in reporting on climate change, which is tangential to cleantech reporting. Acknowledging the difference between capacity factor and generation and things like that is wonky but important.

The ‘Energy Addition’ vs ‘Energy Transition’

Richard Matsui: Are there other trends within energy, in either business or policy , that the solar industry should pay more attention to?

Amy Harder: One thing I find really interesting is the role of China in the renewable energy space. Early last year, solar was the first industry to receive tariffs, and it didn’t quite hit the big headlines. I covered it extensively, and it was interesting to learn that these Trump administration tariffs are actually the third round over the last several years. Every time these tariffs were placed, the Chinese and other Asian producers eventually lowered their price, and that’s what happened again. One could argue that the world owes a lot of gratitude to China for reducing the prices of solar. That reduced price has probably come at the cost of a reduced local manufacturing base Your take on the issue depends on how you view China. Is that okay that China and other Asian countries are producing all of these cheap solar panels? People who care about clean energy, climate change, often say yes. People who care about domestic manufacturing would probably say no.

Another issue I’m following is storage for both wind and solar. Tesla has been really bullish on solar plus batteries. I was recently in Australia, which is doing test cases of virtual power plants where Tesla is working with local governments putting solar panels and batteries in people’s homes. The Tesla executives I talked to see storage as integral for both wind and solar. It’s interesting to see that solar is catching on in that sense, because it’s much harder to put a wind turbine on somebody’s house than it is a solar panel. Out of that trip to Australia, I wrote a column saying the key to unlocking wind and solar is making it last.

Richard Matsui: TechCrunch recently ran an article that effectively said that the “end of history” has already been written, so to speak, for energy. They posited that if energy generation business is driven purely by economics, as solar and storage costs continue to fall , renewables end up as inevitable winners. I think I’d speak for most solar people when I say that’s how we view the future. Of course, policy can interfere with this future that the renewable energy industry is betting on. What is your perspective?

Amy Harder: I don’t agree (or necessarily disagree) with the premise that wind and solar are absolutely going to win the day. Wind and solar are going to continue to grow significantly. So is natural gas, certainly absent aggressive policies on climate change and in areas outside of electricity, like petrochemicals used in plastics. Bloomberg New Energy Finance recently issued some data that shows Europe is going to be the quickest to ramp up wind and solar over fossil fuels, and the United States is going to be on the slower end precisely because of our dependence on natural gas, which is 36% right now for electricity. That’s not even including the other uses for gas. Sometimes I get the sense there’s an assumption by climate change activists and renewable energy executives and advocates that the media should be pro-renewables because they help address climate change, but I’m neither pro- nor anti-renewables, or any energy source for that matter.

Richard Matsui: I can see why reporting is tricky when there’s multiple conflicting sources of credible forecasts.

The sands are shifting underneath our feet here, right? When I helped to start McKinsey’s solar practice back in 2007, I built our model forecasting the cost of solar panels in 2020. We’re almost there. The model predicted that solar panels would cost $2 a watt in 2020. At the time, that forecast was considered incredibly aggressive because panels back then cost $5 a watt. So an incredibly aggressive forecast can become an incredibly conservative (and flat-out wrong) forecast in just 10 years. I understand how reporting accurately the reality must be intrinsically challenging in energy because it involves multi-decade investment timeframes, even as the underlying economics are changing rapidly .

Amy Harder: I agree. Renewable energy costs are plummeting and installments are skyrocketing. But at the same time, carbon emissions continue to increase around the world.

We talk about the energy transition, but in fact it’s an energy addition. All of this renewable energy is largely being added on top of the fossil fuels we already have. In 1987, 81% of global energy consumption was from fossil fuels. 30 years later, it was still 81%. It’s shifted around. Coal has dropped and gas has risen. Wind and solar are booming, but there’s just so much energy demand, particularly in Asia, that it’s often not displacing fossil fuels. These discussions are very region-dependent. India is developing a ton of renewable energy and not relying as much on natural gas, in part because of infrastructure limitations. China is both a leader in wind and solar and increasing their natural gas usage. For energy-hungry nations, these energy sources aren’t mutually exclusive. Big picture, emissions are still going up. Our energy demand is still going up. That’s not to discount the incredible advances in renewable energy, but I think many people miss the big energy picture sometimes.