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The Death of 'Alternative Energy'

GREENTECH MEDIA — Fifteen years ago, when I joined the early ranks of clean energy entrepreneurs, we were nearly dead in the water on climate. Oil was $15 per barrel, Al Gore’s groundbreaking movie 'An Inconvenient Truth' hadn’t come out, and a solar panel was something that powered a calculator.

In 2005, I went to my first "alternative energy conference” in Aspen, Colorado. I was asked to speak at the event, and hadn’t paid much attention to the agenda. Upon arrival I found the audience consisted of coal, oil and gas executives.

It turns out that “alternatives” in the energy space in 2005 actually meant new methods for extracting old fossil fuels: tar sands, “clean coal” and a new thing called fracking. This, according to all of the other speakers, was the future.

I didn’t walk away optimistic about our coming transition. Forecasters weren’t wearing their rose-colored glasses either.

What a difference a decade makes

In the first quarter of 2017, renewable energy accounted for 20 percent of all U.S. electricity, while fracking has gone mainstream. On the flip side, six publicly traded coal companies declared bankruptcy from April 2015 to 2016, while coal production had its steepest annual decline since 1958. And after much hype, the number of operational clean coal power plants in the U.S. remains firmly stuck at…zero.