6 Clean Energy Milestones to Watch For

February 27, 2019 | 9:44 am
Richmond Builds
John Rogers
Energy Campaign Analytic Lead

Update 3/1/19: The introduction was updated to reflect the fact that the 10% figure included other non-hydro renewables.

Clean energy superstars have been on a tear in recent years, and those superstars—solar, wind, energy efficiency, electric vehicles, and others—have had me watching for signposts on our journey to a clean energy future.

My focus on clean energy milestones has been turbocharged by the latest figures for how we make electricity in this country, and the news that we passed yet another notable milestone in 2018: solar panels, wind turbines, and other non-hydro renewables provided more than 10% of our power mix last year (more than four times what those technologies were contributing just a decade before).

So what clean energy milestones can we hope to hit next in this country? Here are 6 I’m watching for.

1. Wind hits 100,000 megawatts

Wind’s progress in recent years has been a marvel to behold. From less than 1% of our electricity mix just over a decade ago, this technology has grown to be a serious player.

The milestone math: The recently released year-end figures from the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) showed that by the end of 2018 we hit 96,488 megawatts (MW) of wind power, across 41 states. The US industry has installed 7,000-9,000 MW each of the last few years, and as of December, says AWEA, had 16,521 MW under construction. New wind farms tend to go online late in each year (with 50-80% of additions in Q4).

So we look set to hit 100,000 MW—100 gigawatts (GW)—of wind power in just a few months. That’ll be enough capacity to meet the equivalent of 30 million US households’ electricity needs.

2. Solar hits 2 million (rooftops)

The rooftop market is an important piece of the overall solar photvoltaic (PV) picture, and, in many parts of the country, the most visible evidence of the clean energy revolution (when we remember to look up).

This is another milestone that would have been hard to grasp just a few short years ago, when solar would barely show in calculations of our electricity mix. And we hit the 1 millionth PV system less than three years ago.

The milestone math: In 2017, says Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, we gained 300,000 distributed (small-scale) systems, putting the US total at close to 1.6 million systems. Preliminary results for last year suggest residential solar grew about by about the same amount in 2018 as in 2017.

All that adds up to the 2-millionth solar rooftop being in our very near future, if we haven’t already covered it in solar panels.

As a bonus (Milestone 2b, maybe), I’ve also got my eye on solar’s own 100,000 MW level. We’re at around 64,000 MW now, and projected to gain 12,000-15,000 MW a year over the next several years. So we’d be looking at hitting that numerically interesting threshold sometime in the year 2021.

3. Renewable energy hits 20% of US electricity

Exciting though solar and wind and their 10% mark are, they’re just pieces of the renewable energy story. Hydropower has been a piece of the mix for more than a century, and  biomass and geothermal are also in there.

The milestone math: With hydro at 6-7% and solar and wind at 10% and growing, we’re getting close. If solar and wind continue their brisk pace, we could be looking to hit the 20%-renewables mark as early as next year.

4. Offshore wind hits 1,000 megawatts

After all those high-flying numbers above, a 1,000 MW target may not seem like much. And Europe’s offshore wind industry (with a 25-year head start) is at more than 18,000 MW.

But getting to 1,000 MW in this country with offshore wind will be a neat, tangible milestone in our journey from a little to a lot—from the one five-turbine/30-MW offshore wind project in existence in the US at this point, to a future where turbines off our coasts are contributing seriously to cleaning up our power sector and growing our clean energy economy.

The milestone math: Yeah, we’re at 30 MW now, but there are thousands of megawatts of projects under development. Some combination of the Vineyard Wind project (800 MW, off Massachusetts), Revolution Wind (700 MW, between Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island), South Fork (130 MW) off Long Island, or projects off New Jersey, Maryland, or even Virginia (12 MW) would do the trick. And the next megawatts should be springing from the water in the next couple of years.

Credit: J. Rogers

5. LED A-type bulbs hit 1 billion

If we’re talking about clean energy milestones, it’s good to include energy efficiency—the energy we’re not having to use because we’re doing more with less. It isn’t always the easiest thing to quantify, but there are options (check out ACEEE, for example).

For these purposes, I’ve picked a prominent, palpable proxy for our progress (and a personal favorite): light bulbs. Specifically, the uptake in LED bulbs that are “A-type”—the shape we all knew and loved back in the old, inefficient days (before curly-cue compact fluorescents).

The milestone math: While white LEDs have been broadly available for only a few years, they’re rapidly gaining market share. The latest Sustainable Energy in America Factbook from BNEF and the Business Council for Sustainable Energy shows that the number of A-type LEDs in use in the US grew from essentially nothing in 2010 to 200 million in 2015 and 436 million in 2016. So that billion-bulb milestone has got to be right around the corner, if we haven’t already hit it.

BloombergNEF/Business Council for Sustainable Energy, Sustainable Energy in America Factbook 2019

6. Electric vehicles hit 2 million

When we’re talking clean energy and momentum, America’s roadways are another place where there’s progress to celebrate. The move to electric vehicles has been another story, one good for our move away from dirty fossil fuels (and a whole lot of fun for EV drivers).

The milestone math: EV sales have been taking off, and there are now 1 million battery-electric and plug-in hybrids in the US. At current rates, says my colleague David Reichmuth, we’re likely to double that tally within 2.5 years, meaning we’d hit the 2 million mark in 2021.

And more!

These 6 milestones are just a taste of the different indications that our clean energy momentum is real, serous, and growing—and just a glimpse of some of the technologies in play. And, of course, the US is just a slice of the clean energy momentum story throughout the world.

But those are some milestones we’ll watch out for, and report back to you on.

In the meantime, I’m plenty happy to add to this watchlist. If you’ve got clean energy milestones you’re looking to see in the near future, feel free to add them below.

Because every one of these is testament to the now-ness of clean energy, and worth a little celebration—even as we zip on by them to the next ones on our lists.