2021 Year in Review: Five Stories of Clean Energy Progress

December 17, 2021 | 9:00 am
Workers installing solar panelsDennis Schroeder/NREL
John Rogers
Energy Campaign Analytic Lead

The end of the year can be a fine time for taking stock, and that’s true in the energy space just as in our personal lives. Lots of stories of clean energy progress caught my eye for 2021. Here are five of them–about renewable energy technologies and markets that seem particularly worthy of note and celebration.

1. Solar roars

The year isn’t over, but it’s already clear that it will be another record breaker for US solar. By the end of the third quarter, the country had already chalked up another 16,000 megawatts (MW) of large-scale, commercial, community, and residential solar, according to energy research company Wood Mackenzie (WoodMac). Solar is on pace to far outperform even record-breaking 2020, during which 19,200 MW was installed.

Other metrics of solar’s soaring-ness in 2021: Total US solar installations sailed past the 100,000 MW mark this year. That means there’s enough US solar capacity to generate the equivalent of some 20 million typical households’ electricity use.

And, according to WoodMac, solar accounted for more than half—54 percent—of new power generating capacity installed in Q1-Q3, Q3 was the first-ever quarter with over 1,000 MW in residential solar installations, and “[o]ne out of every 600 US homeowners is now installing solar each quarter.”

2. Wind soars

Land-based wind in the United States is also having a fine year. Through Q3, installers had stood up another 7,300 MW, according to the American Clean Power Association (ACP). That makes the first three quarters of this year the best ever for US wind. And, as with solar, wind’s strong 2021 performance comes on the heels of a record-breaking 2020.

By the end of Q3, the total for US wind capacity had risen to almost 130,000 MW, or enough to meet well over 40 million households’ electricity needs.

3. Even more offshore

Offshore wind, while still early stages in this country, has also been generating all kinds of positive signs and palpable progress in 2021.

The Biden administration threw some important weight behind offshore wind early on this year with its announcement in March of a goal of 30,000 MW by 2030. That’s more offshore wind capacity than Europe, the world leader, has installed so far, and five times what got installed globally during 2020. It also fits well the amount of offshore wind that states have already committed to; having a willing partner for that in the federal government is key.

The administration has demonstrated that willingness with important progress. That includes getting the first two project proposals through the federal permitting process (off Massachusetts and off Rhode Island/Long Island) and moving other projects into the environmental review stages. The administration has also announced seven new areas that they’ll be assessing for possible offshore wind leasing, off the East, West, and Gulf Coasts.

The progress led to the first groundbreaking (or at least sandshoveling) in November, on Cape Cod. Steel in the water (a ways offshore) should be following soon.

4. Renewables add up

The renewable energy progress in recent years is visible not just in the solar arrays on rooftops and wind turbines in fields, but in the electricity generation numbers.

As of September, generation from wind and solar across all sectors was a stunning 15 percent above the total for the same period in 2020, according to the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA). And that’s before all those new megawatts from 2021 have made their presence fully known.

A low year for hydroelectric power has somewhat offset gains in solar and wind, but the EIA is projecting that renewables in total will still account for 20 percent of US electricity supply for 2021, and 22 percent in 2022.

5. Worldwide progress

Progress here at home has been echoed in progress abroad, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), which noted: “Despite rising costs for key materials used to make solar panels and wind turbines, additions of new renewable power capacity this year are forecast to rise to 290 gigawatts (GW) [290,000 MW] in 2021, surpassing the previous all-time high set last year…”

The IEA called out China, India, and Europe, along with the United States, in particular as markets to watch for serious near-term renewables expansion.

Eye on the horizon

It’s important to note progress; it’s also important not to ignore challenges. While December can be a good time for looking back, I’m also keeping an eye on what’s ahead, on what’s likely to keep the momentum in the right direction—and what threatens to push back.

Just a sampling of what’s worthy of attention: What Congress does (the half of Congress that’s actually willing to address climate change head-on) in the very near term via the Build Back Better Act (the budget reconciliation bill) will make a huge difference in the trajectory of clean energy in this country over the next decade. The bouncing-back-from-Covid supply-demand mismatch dynamics that have been hitting across the economy aren’t sparing clean energy. And we need new electric transmission, and electricity market reforms, to make sure we’re as welcoming as possible to all the renewables we’re counting on.

Through it all we need to pay serious attention to how the transition to clean energy happens at all levels and with each technology. We need to focus on how power sector decisions get made, for example. How costs and benefits get shared. How we focus not just on ramping up renewables but on getting rid of the air and water pollution from fossil fuel generation as quickly as possible. On who gets to be part of the solar revolution, and under what conditions. On what kinds of jobs get created and how we make sure we bring along those whose jobs are tied to the old ways of doing things in the energy sector.

We need a rapid transition to clean energy and we need to make sure we do it right, with a focus on people.

It’s a lot to consider, and a lot to do.

But it’s worth taking a moment to note, and celebrate, the clean energy progress in 2021. Because if we get this right, there’s a whole lot more clean energy where that came from.

About the author

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John Rogers is a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists with expertise in clean energy technologies and policies and a focus on solar, wind, and natural gas. He co-managed the UCS-led Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative, a multi-year program aimed at raising awareness of the energy-water connection, particularly in the context of climate change, and motivating and informing effective low-carbon and low-water energy solutions.