The Climate Strike Inspires. So Do These 5 Signs of Clean Energy Progress

September 16, 2019 | 4:10 pm
Photo: Matt Heid
John Rogers
Energy Campaign Analytic Lead

The week that begins with the Climate Strike this Friday, September 20, is going to be loaded with heavy, serious messages rooted in the science that tells us, in no uncertain terms, that things aren’t moving in the right direction on climate change, in so many ways.

As you stand with the brave student strikers, or are a brave student striker yourself, or as you attend some of the many events happening during Climate Week, you’ll find yourself surrounded by portrayals of the harm that our heat-trapping ways are already bringing upon so many.

It’s also true, though, that some things are moving in the right direction—including in the power sector. Clean energy progress certainly doesn’t take away from the urgency of the climate crisis, or our need to really get our act together on addressing it. But getting inspired and inspiring others to act becomes that much easier when we get the seriousness of climate change and understand the seriousness of the climate solutions we’re already rolling out.

So here, to keep in mind and share as you rise up for climate action, are 5 images of progress—of technological clean energy momentum—to help you balance an overwhelming sense of the need to act with an overwhelming sense of the possibility of acting. Because addressing climate change isn’t easy, but the tools are definitely there.

Image 1: Solar’s growth

Solar power’s growth in the US over the last decade has been a sight to behold, and graphs like the one below should feel empowering. Rooftop solar alone now graces some 2 million US buildings. And we’ve added enough solar panels on rooftops, in large arrays in deserts, and everywhere in between in each of the last few years to generate zero-carbon electricity equivalent to 1-1.5 million typical households’ demand.

Growth in the number of solar power systems, by quarter—tens of thousands of systems each and every month. (Source: Wood Mackenzie and the Solar Energy Industries Association)

Image 2: Wind power’s growth

Wind power has been another marvel to behold. With the growth to some 100,000 megawatts of turbines, we now have enough wind turbines to meet the electricity needs of some 30 million US households. (And wait till offshore wind gets into the picture.)

Wind power’s climb to 100,000 megawatts. (Source: American Wind Energy Association)

Image 3: Wind and solar’s contribution

The growth in our installation of solar panels and wind turbines has meant having an ever-increasing share of our overall electricity demand being met by those technologies. On an annual basis, we’ve upped the electricity contribution from solar and wind from 1 in every 71 kilowatt-hours in 2008 to 1 in every 11 in 2018.

How it adds up: the contribution from wind and solar, by month.

Image 4: Coal’s decline

A welcome corollary to the growth of renewables is the drop in coal generation, and even, in some places, the advent within a region of days with zero coal generation. That change isn’t all due to clean energy—a certain other fossil fuel has been stepping into the breach—but renewables, and energy efficiency, have been increasingly important pieces of that progress. And the bevy of commitments to zero-carbon energy, including at the state level, is upping the pressure for non-emitting electricity options, and against fossil ones.

Coal’s waning position in one region of the country. Each stripe represents one day, and the color/shade corresponds with the coal portion of that day’s generation: black = 21%, white = near 0%, and indigo = coal-free. (Credit: Emma Spellman, Union of Concerned Scientists.)

Image 5: Energy storage’s growth

Energy storage systems (batteries and the like) are a key tool for modernizing our grid, improving our resilience to natural disasters, incorporating higher and higher levels of variable renewables like wind and solar, and improving equity. And that’s been another area of noteworthy growth.

US energy storage deployment, by quarter. Energy storage works at a range of levels—in homes and businesses, or at the level of the electric grid’s distribution or transmission systems. And all those areas are seeing important progress. (Source: Wood Mackenzie U.S. Energy Storage Monitor Q3 2019.)

The tools are there

I’m incredibly grateful for the leadership and passion that will be on full display over the coming days, and for the youth who have stepped out in front because of the lack of leadership from generations like mine. The climate crisis is real, and serious, and frightening, and we are indeed at a crossroads on climate action. That’s incredibly important for us to understand.

We should know too, though, that when we make the right decision at the crossroads—when we finally turn toward a path of sanity and safety—there’ll be a whole host of tools at our disposal, waiting for us on that new path.

So after all of us together power through the Climate Strike and Climate Week, we adults owe it to our youth, and to ourselves, to make sure that the images and indications of progress, on energy and across our society, grow to be much more a part of the story than the images of climate impacts. And we all owe it to the future to make this progress an ever-bigger reality.

My reality, my hope. (Credit: J. Rogers/UCS)