July 23, 2018

No Longer a Novelty, Clean Energy Technologies Boom All Across the US

A new report documents the democratization of renewables, energy storage and electric vehicles in America.

 It was 1997, and stakeholders were working hard to help craft the first renewable energy standard in the State of Massachusetts, which ultimately passed as part of an electric utility restructuring act. At that time, the notion that Massachusetts would be one of the top solar states in the country was almost laughable, recalls Rob Sargent, who currently leads the energy program at Environment America.

Today, renewable energy is taking off in virtually every state in the nation.

A new report and interactive map released this week by Environment America takes stock of U.S. clean energy progress to date. It finds that leadership is no longer concentrated in select parts of the country, but that it is distributed across states with varying economic and democratic makeups.

“You’re seeing an evolution that’s happening everywhere; and it will be interesting to see what will happen 10 years from now,” Sargent said.

The Renewables on the Rise report highlights how much has changed in a relatively short period of time, which can be easy to forget.

Today, the U.S. produces nearly six times as much renewable electricity from the sun and the wind as it did in 2008, and nine states now get more than 20 percent of their electricity from renewables.

Last year, the U.S. produced a record amount of solar power, generating 39 times more solar power than a decade ago. In 2008, solar produced 0.05 percent of electricity in the U.S. But by the end of 2017, solar generation reached more than 2 percent of the electricity mix — enough to power 7 million average American homes.

Wind has also seen dramatic growth over the last decade. From 2008 through 2017, American wind energy generation grew nearly fivefold. Last year, wind turbines produced 6.9 percent of America’s electricity, enough to power nearly 24 million homes. And the forecast shows even more growth as America’s offshore wind industry begins to take off.

Meanwhile, the average American uses nearly 8 percent less energy today than a decade ago, thanks in large part to energy efficiency improvements.

The U.S. transportation fleet is also transforming. Last year, all-electric vehicles broke past 100,000 annual sales for the first time, with 104,000 units sold. As recently as 2010, the number of EVs on American roads numbered in the hundreds, even including plug-in hybrid vehicles. Now there are more than 20 pure-electric models on the market, ranging from affordable commuter cars to ultra-fast luxury vehicles.

On the energy storage front, nine of the 10 states that have added the most battery storage capacity to date had zero utility-scale battery capacity in 2008. California, Illinois and Texas are among the battery storage state leaders. In one benchmarking development, a bid to build solar-plus-storage in Arizona beat out competing bids for new natural-gas peaker plants.

The report leverages data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, the Auto Alliance and the Solar Energy Industries Association, among others.

Thanks to policies like the renewable portfolio standard Sargent and others helped to pass, the report shows Massachusetts saw 247-fold growth in solar generation over the last decade, with an increase from 10 gigawatt-hours in 2008 to 2,554 gigawatt-hours in 2017. Massachusetts is now a top 10 state for solar growth.

California is the clear U.S. solar leader, but solar market expansion isn't limited to politically progressive states. Georgia, for instance, is also on the top 10 list. The Southern state produced just 1 gigawatt-hour of solar in 2008. A decade later, Georgia generated 2,364 gigawatt-hours of solar — just shy of the production in solar-incentive-friendly Massachusetts.

In other parts of the country — and Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa and North Dakota in particular — strong wind resources have made wind power the predominant renewable energy source.

Announcements such as Xcel Colorado’s proposal to retire two coal plants and deploy 1,800 megawatts of solar and wind, paired with 275 megawatts of battery storage, and NV Energy’s plan to build more than 1,000 megawatts of new solar and 100 megawatts of battery storage, seem to indicate the U.S. clean energy boom will continue.

But that’s not a guarantee. Distributed energy resources are facing pushback as utilities figure out how to integrate and manage new technologies on the grid. Large-scale renewables are also coping with opposition as these resources compete head-to-head against conventional energy sources, including coal, nuclear and even natural gas.  

“People are starting to notice that renewables are happening, but they still think of it as a niche part of our energy mix — and it is a small fraction of it,” Sargent said. “But if renewable energy keeps growing at the rate it's grown over the past 10 years, the notion that you could meet all our current electricity needs with renewable energy is not that far-fetched.”

Getting all the way to 100 percent renewable energy is controversial, though, both technically and politically. Even in California, where there’s widespread support for renewables, a 100 percent renewable energy proposal failed in the state legislature last year. And while the bill (SB 100) is now moving through the legislature once more, lawmakers have had to loosen up the language around “100 percent renewable energy” to also include “eligible zero-carbon resources.”

Still, Sargent is generally optimistic about the future.

“There are very, very few places where someone adopts a clean energy policy and then says, ‘That was stupid; let's get rid of it,’” he said. “Partly because once you do it at scale, it’s cheaper. Also because people see it and like it and want more of it — there’s growing public acceptance of it.”

The challenge he sees is that while clean energy is growing substantially in states across the nation, there will ultimately need to be some form leadership at the top, at the federal level — which he said doesn’t exist right now.

“It’s frustrating to have one foot on the accelerator and one on the brake,” Sargent said. “We’d go a lot faster if we weren’t doing that.”

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