The ink is dry on the historic global climate agreement signed in Paris earlier this month, and now the really hard work must begin: achieving the promised long-term emission reductions that will help keep global average temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius.
In the near term, the U.S. has committed to economy-wide emissions reductions of 26–28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025; and the nation’s electricity sector needs to play a major role in accomplishing that goal.
Fortunately, efforts to curb power sector carbon emissions—our nation’s largest source of global warming pollution—gained a lot of momentum in 2015. Looking back at the last year, I see nine clear signs that the clean energy transition is well underway all across the country.
1. Clean Power Plan finalized!
In August, the EPA finalized the Clean Power Plan, placing the first-ever national limits on carbon emissions from our nation’s power plants. The plan requires fossil fuel power generators to cut carbon pollution by 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, and represents the largest carbon emission reduction measure in our nation’s history. Most states are actually already well on their way to compliance, and thanks to some improvements the EPA made in the final rule, wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources—as well as energy efficiency—are now even better positioned to help states meet their emission reduction targets.
2. Renewable energy cost declines fueling strong growth in solar and wind
The cost of building new solar and wind projects have never been more competitive. Solar PV costs have fallen by more than 50 percent in the last five years, while the price of wind energy, particularly in the central U.S., is averaging less than 2.5 cents per kWh—an all-time low. These positive cost trends are helping both industries achieve new growth milestones.
The wind industry now has more than 70,000 MW of installed capacity and is supplying 5 percent of our nation’s power. U.S. solar installations will soon pass 25,000 MW, and solar is on track for yet another record-breaking year of development. Recent news of an agreement by Congress to provide a long-term extension of the federal tax incentives for wind and solar will help fuel continued rapid growth.
3. Offshore wind breaking ‘ground’ in U.S.
After nearly 15 years of anticipation, the U.S. offshore wind industry got underway with the first offshore wind facility beginning construction this past summer in Rhode Island. Expecting to be operational by next fall, the Block Island Wind Farm could help usher in a new era of renewable energy growth along U.S. shores.
4. States reaching new heights with stronger renewable electricity standards (RES)
State-level RES policies in 29 states have proven to be one of the most successful and cost-effective means of driving new renewable energy development in the United States. Historically, most of the 29 states with RES requirements have periodically revisited—and strengthened—their renewable energy targets.
In 2015, several states significantly upped the ante for what it means to be a clean energy leader. For example, in May, Vermont upgraded from a renewable energy goal to a new 75 percent by 2032 standard. Then, in June, Hawaii took the even bolder step of requiring that 100 percent of their power come from renewables by 2045. In September, California reasserted its claim as the nation’s largest renewable energy market by increasing its RES from 33 percent by 2020 to 50 percent by 2030. And even more recently, New York’s Governor Cuomo initiated the process to increase its RES to 50 percent by 2030 as well, as part of an overall effort to reform the state’s utility business model to better serve a cleaner, more distributed power system.
5. Energy efficiency programs ramping up across the country
For the fifth year in a row, Massachusetts held the top spot in ACEEE’s 2015 scorecard of energy efficiency programs. But the real story in this year’s assessment was the 20 states that took actions that improved their scores over the previous year, including “most improved” states like Texas, Maryland, and Illinois. Overall, investments from state efficiency programs provided annual electricity savings equal to 0.7 percent of total electricity sales in 2014, a nearly 6 percent increase over 2013 levels.
6. Southeast states joining the renewable energy revolution
For many years, Southeast states have resisted the transition to cleaner energy sources. But that’s rapidly changing.
North Carolina has emerged a national leader in solar power development, ranking behind only California in new solar PV installations over the last two years, and has its first wind farm under construction. Georgia is also poised to join the national leaders in solar development thanks to a new law that allows third party financing and Georgia Power’s long-term energy plan. And in September, Alabama Power received approval to secure up to 500 MW of new renewable energy to help meet demand from its largest customers.
7. Major corporations plugging directly into renewable energy
With wind and solar costs being so competitive and a need to reduce carbon liabilities, more and more major corporations are bypassing utilities and investing directly in new renewable energy projects. Whether it’s through on-site projects or long-term power purchase agreements, companies are creating new development opportunities in the increasingly popular voluntary renewable energy market. A growing number of companies across the country are directly investing in solar PV, accounting for more than 900 MW of operating power capacity.
8. King Coal continuing to lose steam
The U.S. coal industry has been in general decline for nearly a decade, but total annual coal power generation is on pace to fall by a whopping 12 percent in 2015 compared with 2014, and by 31 percent compared with its historic high in 2007. Electric generation from coal is projected to account for just 34 percent of the total U.S. power supply this year; the lowest level since before World War II.
The year’s precipitous decline stems from both the retirement of older, inefficient coal generators—by September, 71 coal units totaling nearly 11,000 megawatts of power capacity had shut down—and the increased competition facing many other coal generators that is resulting in their less frequent use. More coal plant retirement announcements are likely in 2016, as competition from natural gas, renewable energy, and energy efficiency ratchets up further.
9. Clean energy opponents losing ground (and support)
Anti-clean energy front groups largely failed once again in 2015 in their efforts to undermine state-level clean energy policies. An even stronger sign that the clean energy transition is upon us is the waning support such anti-science groups are receiving. It is becoming more and more difficult for major corporations—including those in the fossil-fuel industry—to defend their affiliations with groups that stymie clean energy policies and spread disinformation about clean energy and climate change.
This year alone we’ve seen BP, Shell and American Electric Power leave the American Legislative Exchange Council, budget shortfalls hit the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, and the Koch-funded Beacon Hill Institute forced to sever ties with its long-time host Suffolk University. Just last week, Volvo announced it would leave the National Mining Association, and described that group’s lobbying against the Clean Power Plan as “quite crazy.” Politicized efforts to obstruct progress will no doubt continue into 2016, but we are now in a strong position to ensure they fail once again.
These are the top stories and trends from 2015 that make me optimistic about the transition to a clean energy economy, but there are so many more to choose from what was a remarkable year. What’s on your list?