Clean Energy’s Progress, in One Simple, Uplifting Graphic

April 17, 2019 | 10:00 am
Photo: AWEA
John Rogers
Energy Campaign Analytic Lead

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News about global warming can be sobering stuff, and some visual presentations are particularly effective at conveying the bad news. As serious as climate change is, though, it’s important to remember that we have some serious responses. A new way of looking at US wind and solar progress helps make that eminently clear.

Sobering graphic

If you, like me, find yourself at times swinging between a sense of the challenge of climate change on the one hand, and the excitement of clean energy on the other, you might appreciate the need for balance and perspective.

The progression of our effects on the global climate are captured powerfully (and frighteningly) in a viral graphic from UK climate scientist Ed Hawkins that shows variations in global temperatures since 1850. While it varies by month and year, the trend shown in the GIF is really (really) clear: The passing years have brought higher and higher temperatures.

Serious, sobering stuff, given all that comes with that global warming.

So it seems like we need things to counterbalance graphics like that, at least in part—not to take the pressure off, but to remind ourselves of where we’re making important progress, and laying the groundwork for a whole lot more.

Graphical remedy

One option is to take a look at what’s going on with clean energy in the power sector—and wind and solar, in particular, which have been marvels to behold in recent years.

A new graphic does just that, looking at the shared contribution of wind and solar to our nation’s electricity generation, in much the same way as the Hawkins graphic does: month in and month out, as the years roll by. Here it is:

The graphic, from the Union of Concerned Scientists, draws on electric power sector data from the US Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA), and includes wind power, large-scale solar, and (importantly, given that it too often gets ignored) the increasingly significant contribution from small-scale/rooftop solar.

And this little GIF has a lot to say. It begins with wind and solar’s humble status early last decade, when wind barely registered, and solar wasn’t a factor at all. From there the spiral sure picks up steam, as each year has brought online more wind turbines (now 58,000 and climbing) and more solar panels (on nearly 2 million American rooftops, and far beyond).

On a monthly basis, the contribution of wind and solar has shot past 3% (2010), past 6% (early 2013), past 12% (April 2018)—where every additional 1% is the equivalent of more than 4 million typical US households’ electricity consumption. And on an annual basis, that progress has translated into the electricity contribution from just those two technologies going from 1 in every 71 kilowatt-hours in 2008 to 1 in every 11 in 2018.

And the graphic clearly conveys the momentum poised to carry solar and wind far beyond. There’s a lot more progress coming, it declares—clean energy milestones to be watching out for (and making happen).

Credit: J. Rogers/UCS

Why it matters

To be clear, the new graphic and all that it represents shouldn’t cause us to lose sight of what really matters: from a climate perspective, what’s happening to overall carbon emissions, and the resulting temperature changes. It’ll take a lot more clean energy—a lot less fossil energy—in our electricity mix to help us deal with climate change.

But the progress on clean energy is really important because of the power sector’s still-substantial contributions to our carbon pollution, and the need for a lot more action. And that progress also matters because the power sector is crucial for cutting carbon pollution from other sectors, through electrification of stuff like transportation (think electric vehicles) and home heating (heat pumps!).

That’s why keeping our eyes on stats like these is key: We need to celebrate the progress we’re making, even as we push for so much more.

Sartorial solar splendor on its way?

Meanwhile, it turns out that the Hawkins graphic in stripe form has gone on to become the basis for a line of must-have clothing and more.

We can hope that the good news about the progress of US solar and wind becomes just as desirable a fashion accessory.

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.