2016: Another Monumental Year for Clean Energy

The latest Sustainable Energy in America Report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) shows that the march toward a renewable energy future continues, unabated.

BNEF presents several positive and encouraging pieces of information in its report, stating that the “rapid pace of renewable energy deployment accelerated … and and the economy grew more energy efficient than ever.” BNEF and its research partners found that not only did renewables installations grow, but energy prices also dropped. (Remember when the fossil fuel industry argued that renewables would increase consumer energy prices?). Energy-efficiency also rates increased.

Moreover, researchers say that GDP growth and energy demand are officially decoupled. Energy consumption is decreasing but GDP is rising, mostly due to efficiency and cheaper renewables and natural gas.

The renewable energy generating capacity added in 2016 was nearly double that of natural gas – 76 gigawatts (GW) versus 39 GW. This is the latest bit of data that flies against the conventional wisdom that the reason we’ve seen such a shift away from coal is due to cheap natural gas. Yes, it played a role, but renewables did too and are now the fastest-growing electricity sector.

The report was not all good news, though. BNEF found an increase in both total gas production and, especially concerning, shale gas production — which surged 79 percent percent. The tar-sands-like extraction process is an environmentalist’s nightmare.

This shows that we need to shift focus. The electricity sector, once the chief source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, has seen a remarkable shift toward greater sustainability. Unfortunately, the other chief source of emissions — transportation — remains mired in a dirty fuel system and reliant on gasoline and diesel.

Cheap gas only means that more people are driving more – vehicle miles traveled hit a record high last year. While there are more and more electric cars for sale, they still only account for a tiny fraction of sales and are, unfortunately, seeing their impact diluted by the increased sales of large, gas-guzzling SUVs and trucks.

From the report:

“The return to less fuel efficient vehicles and low gasoline prices have resulted in two consecutive years of rising gasoline consumption. In 2016, sales of gasoline rose 3.3 percent to 136 billion gallons, only 1.5 percent below the all-time peak achieved in 2005 and 7.1 percent above the recent trough achieved in 2012.”

Meanwhile, investment in other forms of sustainable transportation, such as efficient mass-transit systems, remains in limbo due to the new administration in Washington. The Department of Transportation recently withheld of funds for Caltrain electrification in the San Francisco Bay Area – a project that would have widespread positive mobility and sustainability impacts – worrying many in the region and beyond.

Still, there is much to be optimistic about. We’re heading in the right direction. Now we just need to focus, bring more renewables online faster, and target greening the transportation sector just as we have, successfully, shifted the electricity sector from dirty fossil fuels toward clean, affordable renewables.

Image credit: Max Pixel

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Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

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