US Renewable Energy Eclipses Fossil Fuels For Second Year Running, Says BNEF

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The US renewable energy industry installed 16 GW of clean energy in 2015, which is 68% of all new capacity installed.

These are the primary findings from Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s (BNEF) Sustainable Energy in America Factbook report released this week, released in conjunction with the Business Council for Sustainable Energy (BCSE).

A Permanent Shift?

“Two thousand fifteen will surely be remembered as a watershed year in the evolution of US energy, as the industry passed important milestones and the federal government finalized critical new policies,” the authors of the report wrote.

“The already rapid de-carbonization of the US power sector accelerated with record numbers of coal plant closures and solar photovoltaic system commissionings, while natural gas production and consumption hit an all-time high. Concurrently, the US continued to enjoy greater benefits from energy efficiency efforts as economic growth outpaced the growth in electricity consumption.”

All of these milestones meant that the US power sector’s CO2 emissions fell to its lowest annual level since the mid-1990s, with a “negligible to positive” impact on customers “as prices for electricity and fuel remained low by historic standards and customer choices expanded.”

Bloomberg also concluded that, “Perhaps most importantly, many of the key changes seen in 2015 are likely permanent shifts, rather than temporary adjustments due to one-time events.”

“2015 clearly marked a turning point for American energy,” said Lisa Jacobson, President of the Business Council for Sustainable Energy. “As we consider the post-Paris world, we should acknowledge that we’ve entered a new era here in the United States. We now have both the tools and the capacity to achieve carbon reductions and cost savings along with economic growth. Now our job is to continue to build on the progress we’ve made.”

Wind Drives 2015 Progress

US Wind TurbineThat progress included a massive year for the renewable energy industry, which installed 16 GW of new capacity, accounting for 68% of all new capacity installed in the US in 2015 — the second year in a row that clean power growth that eclipsed fossil fuel capacity additions. Wind power was the main driver of this growth, with 8.5 GW of new wind turbines installed around the country. This drive was primarily the result of developers attempting to take advantage of the thought-to-be expiring Investment Tax Credit — which was promptly extended in by Congress in December.

“This is a long-term trend,” said Colleen Regan, a BNEF analyst who follows North American power markets. “System costs have really come down for renewables, which makes the case for installing them a lot stronger.”

“Wind power is two-thirds cheaper than it was six years ago, and after installing eight gigawatts of clean wind energy last year we’re going to keep this American success story going,” said Tom Kiernan, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association, commenting on the report. “Now that there’s long-term policy certainty in place, and with states and utilities increasingly looking to lock in low-cost wind energy to reach their Clean Power Plan carbon reductions, now is a great time to invest in American wind power. Wind energy is well on its way to reliably supplying 20 percent of the country’s electricity by 2030.”

Solar deployment reached 7.3 GW in 2015, with solar PV additions across both distributed and utility-scale sectors hit new records of 2.9 GW and 4.4 GW respectively.

Investment In Clean Energy Paying Dividends

Importantly, demand for energy flatlined during 2015 at the same time as gross domestic product grew 2.4%. This continues a multi-year trend, with US energy consumption falling 2.4% since 2007 while GDP has grown by 10%. Energy productivity — the ratio of US GDP compared to energy consumed — improved in line, growing by 2.3%, following a 1.1% increase in 2014. Interestingly, while BNEF concede that the US economy is playing its part, “estimates put forward by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy indicate that as much as 60% of the energy intensity improvements seen since 1980 are due to efficiency gains, with only 40% the result of structural changes in the US economy.”

This decoupling between energy consumption and economic growth is a vital proving ground for electricity industries the world over. For many years experts claimed that there could never be such a decoupling, but recent developments in the US and China are proving that assumption to be inaccurate.

US clean energy investment also rose, up 7.5% from 2014 to $56 billion in 2015, with $30.2 billion of that investment heading to solar. $11.6 billion was invested in wind energy development, while another $11.1 billion was poured into technology to improve grids, boost efficiency, develop storage systems, and other ways to better manage power usage.

A long list of key observations from the report can be found here, as well as links to the Sustainable Energy in America Factbook report itself.

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Joshua S Hill

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