Between 2011 and 2020, US wind, solar, and geothermal generation grew at an annual rate of 15%. If those forms of renewable generation were to continue to grow by 15% per year, wind, solar, and geothermal would produce enough electricity to meet all US current electricity needs by 2035. This new finding comes as leaders in Congress work to advance legislation that would invest in the nationwide transition to clean power, and 9 states have already enacted legislation committing to 100% clean electricity. The time is right for the US to redouble its commitment to a clean energy future and adopt the public policies that can make it a reality.
Dramatic growth has occurred in renewable energy and many types of clean energy technologies. No longer are renewables a rarity; instead, nearly every community in the US embraces clean energy of some sort. Still, there remains much work to be done to convert the promise of renewable energy into a cleaner, healthier, and more sustainable future across the entire US — but we now know it is possible.
That’s the theme of “Renewables on the Rise 2021” from the Environment America Research & Policy Center and Frontier Group. Authors Sarah Nick, Tony Dutzik, and Emma Searson offer a retrospective of the US in renewables adaptation just a decade or so ago and relate how much closer we are now to a clean energy future. The report zooms in on states that have made the most progress in adopting solar and wind energy, increasing battery storage capacity, improving energy efficiency, and transitioning to electric vehicles.
A Clean Energy Future is Right Before Us
Truly clean, renewable energy is defined in the report as:
- Virtually pollution-free, producing little to no global warming pollution or health-threatening pollution
- Inexhaustible, coming from natural sources that are regenerative or practically unlimited. No matter how much we use, there will always be more.
- Safe, with minimal impacts on the environment, community safety, and public health, and those impacts that do occur are temporary, not permanent
- Efficient, representing a wise use of resources.
Although all energy sources must be deployed responsibly, solar and wind energy generally meet these criteria, as do many types of ocean, tidal, and geothermal energy. Energy efficiency technologies also count as “clean energy” – delivering continuous environmental benefit at limited to no environmental cost.
Virtually every day there are new developments that increase our ability to produce renewable energy, apply it to a wider range of energy needs, and reduce our overall energy use. “Renewables on the Rise 2021” asks us to envision continued innovations as the foundation of an economy powered entirely by clean, renewable energy.
In 2020, the US produced almost 4x as much renewable electricity from the sun and the wind as in 2011, with wind and solar producing 11% of the nation’s electricity in 2020, up from 3% in 2011. It has been proven that clean energy can power US homes, businesses, and industry, as renewable energy prices falling and new energy-saving technologies are being developed every day.
The last decade has seen explosive growth in the key technologies needed to power the US with clean, renewable energy.
- Solar energy: The US produces over 23 times as much solar power as it did in 2011, enough to power more than 12 million average US homes. In 2011, solar rooftops and utility-scale solar power plants produced 0.14% of US electricity; in 2020, they produced 2.3% of US electricity. In 2019, the 2 millionth solar PV system was installed, and an additional million installations quickly followed by summer 2021.
- Wind energy: The US has nearly tripled the amount of wind power it produces since 2011, enough to power over 31 million homes. In 2011, wind turbines produced 3% of the nation’s electricity; in 2020, they produced 8.4% of US electricity.
- Energy efficiency: Electric efficiency programs across the US saved over 17% more energy in 2019 than in 2011, as states ramped up their investments in efficiency. In 2019, these programs saved enough electricity to power more than 2.5 million homes.
- Electric vehicles: In 2011, just over 16,000 battery and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles were sold in the US. As of December, 2020, cumulative sales had grown 100-fold to nearly 1.7 million vehicles. By mid-2021, plug-in electric vehicle sales had surpassed 2 million.
In fact, Emma Searson, co-author of the report, told CleanTechnica,
“Electric vehicles have become an integral part of our transportation system already and are poised to replace even more of their polluting counterparts in the years ahead. With a record of steady progress behind us and the combination of industry shifts and state policy leadership casting a rosy outlook for the road ahead, we can now reimagine the future of transportation in America as all-electric and emission free.”
And the State Winners Are…
California, Texas, and North Carolina saw the most solar power growth from 2011 to 2020, while Texas, Oklahoma, and Iowa topped the charts for wind power growth. California, Texas, and Illinois added the most battery storage from 2011 to 2020. In terms of progress beyond electricity generation, Maryland, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts were the states with the most improvement in savings from electric energy efficiency programs from 2011 to 2019. California, New York, and Florida top the rankings for both cumulative electric vehicle sales through 2020 and public EV charging ports.
Recommendations to Promote a Fully Clean Energy Future
The US has a history of adopting strong, proven policies to accelerate the deployment and use of renewable energy. “Renewables on the Rise 2021” says that the most important steps that federal, state, and local governments can take are to:
- Set ambitious targets for renewable energy, following the example of the 9 states and nearly 200 cities and towns that have committed to getting 100% of their electricity from clean or renewable sources of energy within the next several decades. The most effective renewable energy targets will also include strong intermediate goals that ensure continuous progress in renewable energy adoption over time.
- Set similar targets for the adoption of specific clean energy technologies, including solar power, offshore wind energy, and energy storage. These technology-specific targets can ensure a market for new and developing sources of clean energy, increasing the confidence of would-be investors in clean energy and creating economies of scale that bring prices down.
- Establish strong incentives for renewable energy adoption, including extension of federal tax credits that have helped to fuel the growth of renewable energy over the last decade and local and state clean energy incentives. Policy-makers should expand and improve existing clean energy incentives to make them easier to use and to ensure that they deliver benefits to everyone wanting to participate in the drive toward a clean energy future.
- Ensure that utility regulations and policies fully and fairly compensate investors in clean energy technologies, such as energy storage and distributed solar power, for the benefits they deliver to the environment, society and the electric system. Utility regulators should implement or continue net metering for rooftop solar customers, which has been a key enabler of the growth of solar energy capacity, or adopt similar compensation structures that support continued rapid growth in rooftop solar.
- Encourage the transition to electric vehicles and electric buildings through strong clean cars standards, local commitments to transition to electric transit and school buses, and policies to support fuel-switching in residential and commercial buildings from gas and oil to electricity.
- Support the integration of technologies and practices that will enable America to take full advantage of its renewable energy potential, including the integration of energy storage into the grid, the development of resilient local microgrids powered by renewable energy, and the appropriate expansion of transmission infrastructure to allow for the transport of renewable energy from the places where it is abundant to the places where it is needed.
- Encourage continued steady progress on energy efficiency by continuing and expanding local, state, utility and federal programs and policies, including utility energy efficiency programs, building energy codes, and appliance efficiency standards.
Infographics provided by Environment America Research & Policy Center and Frontier Group. Both are part of The Public Interest Network, which operates and supports organizations committed to a shared vision of a better world and a strategic approach to social change.