Renewables on the Rise: A Look at How Far We’ve Come

(3BL Media/Justmeans) — When you’re climbing a big mountain, sometimes it’s good to turn around and see how far you’ve come, even if you still have a long way to go. Certainly, the transition to a clean energy economy is a huge mountain, but the folks at the Environment New York Research & Policy Center, have given us a breathtaking look back on what has been accomplished on this climb over the past ten years. At a time when so little is getting done in Washington, and what little movement there has been, has been in the wrong direction, it’s heartening to see how much has been accomplished, primarily as the result of efforts by other actors.

The group reports in Renewables on the Rise, that “Clean energy is sweeping across America, and is poised for further dramatic growth in the years ahead. “

Here are some highlights.

  • America produced almost 8 times as much electricity from sun and wind as we did in 2007, and those two sources combined to produce 10% of the nation’s total for the first time this past March.
  • At the same time, the country is using nearly 10% less energy per capita than a decade ago. Nearly all of that decline was in fossil fuels. [in 2007, fossil fuel consumption was 85.927 quads, compared to 2016 when it was 78.569].
  • Breaking it down further, solar produced 43x more power than ten years ago, while wind produced 7x as much.
  • Energy consumption fell 14% relative to GDP, which should put to rest the idea that more energy is needed to grow the economy.
  • Electric vehicle sales surged in 2016 by 40% to 157,000 vehicles
  • Utility scale energy storage grew twenty-fold between 2007-2016.

The report also breaks down the data along several dimensions including geography. Not only did no one region of the country dominate the renewable scene, neither did political affiliation. A number of traditional “Red states,” including Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona and North Carolina played leading roles in the deployment of solar or wind technology.

New technology is playing a major role in the acceleration. Back in 2007, 3- 4MW wind turbines were the norm, with the first prototype 6MW unit just going into service. By 2016, entire farms of 8MW turbines had been deployed. Offshore wind farms, where the largest turbines are generally used, and where the wind blows more steadily, have, after a slow start, been gaining acceptance, even here in the US. Likewise, solar panel efficiency has increased by 18% since 2010. That means that either putting solar on your house will cost less, or that you can get more of your power from the same number of panels today than if you had bought them earlier.

Speaking of cost, not only has the cost of solar and wind, fallen by 54 and 41% respectively, between 2008-25, but the authors forecast that wind power costs will continue to fall an additional 24-30% by 2030 and that by 2025, solar will be cheaper than coal, even without factoring in all the health impacts that mining and burning coal bring to communities near and far.

Still, in spite of these impressive gains, if we to continue at the current rate of renewable growth, we would only reach 57% of electricity needs by 2050. This is not enough to counter the impacts of climate change and contain temperature rise to 2˚ C or less. This underscores the need to redouble the commitment to clean energy and increase the rate of conversion, as many have already done.

In fact, nearly 50 countries including Germany, have already pledged to rely 100% on renewables by that time, as have as many as 29 US cities, such as Portland, OR.

Not everyone agrees that a goal of 100% renewables by 2050 is achievable, or even desirable.

The Union of Concerned Scientists is focusing on an 80% goal. Meanwhile, the Energy Innovation Reform Project, a pro-nuclear group, argues that a 100% renewables approach might not be the most cost-effective. Mostly the concerns focus on intermittency and the question of grid reliability.

No doubt, this debate will continue for years to come, but the fact that today we’ve only just hit the 10% mark, shows that going full speed ahead on renewables is definitely the right strategy for now.