Clean Energy 2020 Year in Review: 3 Bad-News Stories, 2 Good, 1 Write Your Own Ending

December 16, 2020 | 12:15 pm
Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash
John Rogers
Energy Campaign Analytic Lead

In this year-like-no-other, the fate of clean energy has definitely been a mixed bag. Here are 6 top clean energy stories from 2020: 3 bad-news ones, 2 good-news, and 1 about which only time will tell.

First, the bad news:

1. (-) The pandemic

It’s really hard to start from anywhere but COVID. Its effects have been not just its far-reaching public health impacts, but also the devastating consequences for workers, families, and the economy. And, while it certainly wasn’t just an energy story, the pandemic did bring into stark relief the challenges with energy burdens and utility shut-offs many households have faced, and the very inequitable health impact burdens felt by different communities, all of which COVID just built on, with devastating and disproportionate consequences.

2. (-) Clean energy job losses

Like so many other sectors in this COVID economy, clean energy got hit hard. By the end of April, more than 600,000 people had lost their jobs in the suite of industries that includes renewable energy, energy efficiency, and advanced vehicles, as COVID made their work either physically or economically impossible.

And the recovery has been far from complete. As of November, 446,000 people in that sector had still not plugged back in, meaning clean energy jobs were still down 13% from pre-COVID levels. That matters for those workers’ families, their livelihoods, and our transition to clean energy.

And, as with the virus itself, the impacts of job losses have been unevenly borne, with Black and Hispanic clean energy workers continuing to shoulder “disproportionately high levels of unemployment.”

3. (-) Trump administration actions

A whole lot would fit under this particular banner, but here are a few choice (and maddening) Trump administration moves that bear on the energy sector, and that built on such earlier non-winners as the 2019 “Affordable Clean Energy” rule:

  • A rule just last week on harmful particulate matter, from power plants and other sources, that, in the words of my colleague Gretchen Goldman, “prioritized the profits of polluting industries over public health, violating the very mission” of the EPA
  • Another rule, also last week, that revised benefit-cost calculations in ways that, UCS pointed out, “would purposefully diminish or obscure many of the benefits of public health protections and downplay the harmful health impacts of pollution”
  • Others earlier in the year that weakened limits on toxic wastewater discharges from coal plants, weakened methane standards, and backed off on EPA enforcement

All have the effect of putting a thumb on the scales in favor of dirtier and more harmful options, including in the power sector. That’s bad for clean energy, and for all of us who depend on it.

The Trump administration’s insistence on weakening science-based standards and easing back on enforcement of pollution standards is a feature, not a bug, in their governance. But inconsistent and dubious trade policies are another way the outgoing president has also thrown monkey wrenches into clean energy progress, even in recent months. The solar industry estimated that the Trump solar taxes, imposed in 2018, had cost tens of thousands of US jobs by late 2019 (pre-pandemic).

Even so, some positive news:

4. (+) Solar and wind growth

Even a year like this can bring some progress. Despite all the headwinds they’ve faced, both solar and wind have been able to maintain momentum.

For solar, for example, new US residential installations will be basically flat for 2020, and new non-residential (commercial, industrial, and institutional) megawatts will be down from 2019’s tally. But large-scale projects have mostly been able to keep happening, boosted by favorable (but declining) tax incentives, and their successes will be enough to actually propel solar to a record year: We look set to have a total of more than 19,000 megawatts in new solar power capacity, 43% above 2019’s installations, and 20% above the previous record.

Wind power, which like large-scale solar involves a lot of work in the open air (meaning lower risk from COVID), has also successfully pushed forward. As with solar, federal tax policy has been a driver, and so has demand from utilities and companies looking for clean, low-cost power. Those factors combined to make the first nine months of the year the best ever for US wind power, and the US government’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) is projecting 2020 will be a record year, by a fair margin.

Energy storage, too, unwilling to be left behind, just had by far its best quarter ever, and is on track for its own record year.

5. (+) Renewables gaining on coal

The “down to the wire” story of 2020 is whether renewables generation surpasses coal in the US power sector for the first time in modern history.

One factor is lower electricity consumption, with greater residential demand more than offset by lower commercial and industrial use. Because no-fuel resources like wind and solar typically get used before fuel-based ones, lower demand means more-expensive coal loses out.

But their shifting positions relative to each other are also because of renewables’ steady climb in recent years, and coal’s inability to economically compete against both renewables and natural gas.

Which will end the year on top is yet to be seen. While renewables made substantial gains early in the year—beating out coal in more than 70% of days in the first six months of the year—unfortunately coal caught up during the US’s heat wave-burdened summer, and the two are now neck in neck. EIA is projecting only that each will be at 20% of the nation’s electricity supply for the year.

And the TBD:

6. (?) The transformation to come

Arguably one of the biggest stories of the year for clean energy has yet to be written. The election last month may bring all kinds of changes for clean energy.

A Biden administration, rooted as it will be in science and facts, will certainly be more favorably disposed toward clean energy, climate action, and environmental justice, and the to-do list for administration actions is long. Rejoining the Paris climate agreement, as President-Elect Biden has pledged to do on day 1, will be an important step for getting us back on track, but it’s just the first of many.

Because some changes will need legislative action, making faster headway on progress will depend on Congress being similarly attuned to the need to act on climate. And that chapter in particular is still in draft mode, pending the outcome of Georgia’s runoff election. Progress will need to start with Congress’s willingness to make the necessary investments to help the economy—including states, cities, towns, and households—recover from this unprecedented year and the damage wrought by the outgoing administration. And Congress can’t let clean energy’s momentum stall.

Meanwhile, states and others will continue to be powerful drivers of clean energy progress. One place to watch will be the California Air Resources Board, a powerful force for forward momentum in a key state, and “a check on national policies” over the last four years, as new management takes over.

Plus, state legislative sessions are still going, and some may bring last-minute progress even in 2020, as is our hope in Massachusetts. Also key will be companies’ and institutions’ vocal demand for renewable energy, which has been another powerful factor in clean energy’s growth, and which will depend in part on the pace of the economic recovery.

On to better things in 2021

Relegating the bad-news stories to history, and to 2020, will depend on us making smart choices in 2021. I write this as the death toll from COVID in this country has just exceeded 300,000 people—but also as the first US vaccinations are taking place. The pandemic’s trajectory, and the US economy’s, remain to be seen (and, in large part, depend on us).

Clean energy’s progress in 2021, too, depends on us. We’re not where we wanted to be, based on four years ago. But the sector has still been—even in the face of the pandemic, and of everything that the Trump administration has thrown at it—one of the fastest-growing, most innovative, most brimming-with-possibility pieces of our economy. Job creation, improved public health, more environmental justice: Clean energy can offer it all…

…but none of that is automatic. The record engagement we have seen in 2020 can and needs to carry into and through the year to come. The progress—the acceleration—we need will need us. We have to continue to ensure our leaders make decisions about the power sector that serve us well, in the near and long terms and even through crises. We’ll have to truly reckon with decades of disproportionate harm from our electricity choices, and all the while drive for environmental justice across our society. We need to be ready to help clean energy be the high quality job creator we know it can be.

The new year fast approaches. What progress comes with it is up to you and me.

Posted in: Energy

Tags: 2020, clean energy, renewables

About the author

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John Rogers is energy campaign analytic lead 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.