In early 2020, all indications were that it would be a robust decade for the renewable energy industry. Consumer awareness of the need for zero emissions was never higher. Costs of solar and wind had fallen exponentially since the turn of the 21st century. But COVID-19 and associated economic downturns presented major challenges for the renewable energy industry, as it did for businesses around the world. Are we still on track for a clean energy future?
In the final debate of the 2020 US presidential election season, Democratic candidate Joe Biden said, “I would transition away from the oil industry, yes … The oil industry pollutes, significantly. It has to be replaced by renewable energy over time.” Previous US elections have seen little attention paid to the climate crisis.
But public awareness of the existential crisis that confronts us has increased considerably. Pew Research Center data reveals that the share of Americans who say global climate change is a major threat to the well-being of the US is at 60% in 2020, up from a previous level of 44% in 2009.
A clean energy future powered by 100% renewables is within reach, if predictive data included in the newly released doc from Environment America called “Renewables on the Rise 2020” become a reality. Wind and solar energy apparatus are now everyday parts of the US energy landscape — the US produces almost 4x as much renewable electricity from the sun and wind as it did in 2010.
Over the last 10 years, more US residences and businesses have shifted away from polluting energy and embraced renewable sources. Clean energy is sweeping across the US, according to the report.
- Solar energy: In 2019, the United States generated over 30 times more solar power than it did in 2010, enough to power 16 million average American homes.
- Wind energy: In 2019, the US generated more than triple the amount of wind power it did in 2010, enough to power over 33 million homes.
- Energy efficiency: In 2018, energy efficiency programs across the US saved more than one and a half times as much electricity as they did in 2010, enough to power nearly 2.5 million homes.
- Electric vehicles: There were nearly 330,000 electric vehicles sold in the US in 2019, up from virtually none just a decade earlier.
- Energy storage: The US saw a 20-fold increase in utility-scale battery storage from 2010 to 2019.
A Decade of Change, A New Path toward a Clean Energy Future
The technologies needed to harness and apply renewable energy are advancing rapidly. And researchers from a wide variety of academic and governmental institutions have developed a variety of scenarios suggesting renewable energy can meet all or nearly all of our society’s needs. Technology advances are also making renewable energy technologies more efficient and effective.
More than 100 global financial institutions have publicly acknowledged the need to transition away from fossil fuels. And some of the world’s largest oil and gas companies have recognized the opportunity of the energy transition, demonstrated by last year’s collective $3.4 billion investment in low carbon energy technologies.
The US Department of Energy has continued to promote the idea that the widespread availability of rooftop solar has transformed individual ratepayers into energy “prosumers” who can actively influence energy markets by strategically deploying their ownership of solar assets, instead of passively consuming up kilowatt-hours.
According to a study by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), generation costs for onshore wind and solar PV have fallen between 3% and 16% every year from 2010 to 2019. The cost of utility-scale solar PV electricity fell 82% from 2010 to 2019, while the cost for onshore wind electricity fell by 39% in the same time period.
Renewable energy is only expected to get more affordable across the board. Experts predict that the cost of solar PV utility systems will fall by 17% from 2020 to 2025, and solar PV is expected to be among the cheapest sources of power available by 2050.
BloombergNEF predicts that the cost of utility-scale lithium-ion batteries will fall by 52% between 2018 and 2030, and the US will exceed 100 gigawatts of installed battery storage by 2040, an almost 100-fold increase from current capacity.
New technologies that reduce energy consumption are becoming increasingly popular, such as LED lighting, which uses up to 80% less energy than traditional incandescent light bulbs. By 2027, the Department of Energy estimates LEDs could save 348 terawatt-hours of electricity, which is equivalent to the annual electrical output of 44 large power plants. (Even so, the NRDC sued the US Department of Energy for once again altering its energy efficiency standards-setting process to make it more difficult to seek rigorous energy-saving levels for America’s appliances and equipment.)
According to NREL, offshore wind, with its potential for domestic electricity-generating capacity of more than 2,000 gigawatts (GW), could supply enough electricity to meet the needs of the entire US 2x over.
Municipalities & Businesses are Taking Action toward a Clean Energy Future
To accelerate progress, a growing number of states, cities, and businesses are adopting bold renewable energy targets and goals. Hawaii set the first 100% renewable energy target in 2015, and has since been joined by California, New Mexico, Maine, New York, Virginia, and Washington.
Local governments, utilities, and companies are also taking action. 165 cities and towns across the country have joined Sierra Club’s Ready For 100 campaign, which sets goals for 100% renewable energy. There are also 60 additional commitments in the works.
The “Renewables on the Rise 2020” report notes that several utilities, including Xcel Energy, the Platte River Power Authority, and MidAmerican Energy, have made commitments to source their electricity from carbon-free or renewable sources.
And the organization RE100 has also collected 100% renewable energy commitments from over 260 companies, including IKEA, Google, and Facebook.
Today, wind, solar, and geothermal power provide nearly 10% of our nation’s electricity. That’s just a starting point for the US to meet all of its energy needs — for electricity, transportation, and industry — with clean, renewable energy. Yes, it will take new policies and programs in place to achieve that goal.
The environmental and economic benefits of using renewable energy, though, are significant and include:
- generating energy that produces no greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels
- reducing air pollution and bettering the health of all
- diversifying the energy supply and reducing dependence on imported fuel
- creating economic development and jobs in manufacturing and installation
- halting water pollution and strains on water resources by competing with agriculture, drinking water, or other important water needs
- increasing our safety by protecting us from the hazards of extracting, transporting, and processing dangerous fuels