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Sustainable Energy in America, By the Big — No, HUGE — Numbers

Kate Zerrenner headshotWords by Kate Zerrenner
Energy & Environment
Sustainable Energy in America

BloombergNEF and the Business Council for Sustainable Energy have released a 2020 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook, which looks back at the last decade in energy, and one thing is clear: it’s been a wild ride.

Statistics don't lie: sustainable energy has made huge strides in 10 years

I started working in clean energy in 2005, and had had a front seat view during this one long ride. Within a few years, the country came out of a multi-year recession and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (known as ARRA or simply “The Recovery Act”) was poised to deliver $90 billion of investment in clean energy-related investments.

The landscape of energy was beginning to shift in dramatic fashion. In 2010 and 2011, Texas and California entered into devastating multi-year droughts. The Golden State's ground-breaking climate program, the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (known as “AB32”) went into effect in January of 2010. The rest of the decade was a head-spinning time for sustainable energy, as the Factbook clearly shows.

Some of the highlights within the Factbook show the giant strides made over the course of the decade:

  • Utility-scale renewable energy was an emerging technology in 2009, and it is now under-bidding traditional energy resources on economic grounds;
  • Battery technology, long held to be the key to making renewable energy scalable, is now one-tenth its 2009 cost;
  • 85 million smart meters are installed around the country, compared to 9.6 million at the start of the decade, handing consumers greater decision-making power in their own energy use;
  • Households are spending record low proportions of their budget on energy (down 22 percent over the decade) due to energy efficiency and energy management improvements; and,
  • Renewable energy is now the cheapest generation source in many power markets in the U.S.

Climate changes risks have made clean tech investments an imperative

As clean energy surged through the decade, so did climate change impacts, making these advancements even more necessary. The 2010s saw heatwaves from the Arctic to South Asia, including the hottest years on record from 2015 to 2019, floods, droughts, coral bleaching, wildfires, and record-breaking hurricanes. And in 2019, carbon dioxide levels passed 410 parts per million, the highest level in three million years. Unfortunately, adapting to this new reality is a necessity, but a faster than business-as-usual transition to low-carbon energy (and no-carbon energy in the case of energy efficiency) should help mitigate the intensity of future extreme weather events.

All of these leaps made in the past decade are also critical for ensuring more resilient energy systems. Renewable energy systems more easily lend themselves to a distributed grid, thus reducing vulnerability of central power grids and stations. And while renewable energy can be more susceptible to the whims of nature, the fact that power markets are diversifying their energy sources means that the vulnerabilities can be dissipated. Further, because energy efficiency, solar PV, and wind use no or negligible amounts of water, they provide a more resilient scenario in heat- and drought-prone areas. Water is needed for cooling fossil fuel- and nuclear-powered energy, and if the water is too low or too hot, generation may need to be curtailed: not a pleasant prospect when demand for air conditioning will spike.

Technology is advancing too, with innovations in the resilience of renewable energy systems themselves. The achievements in clean energy highlighted by BNEF and BCSE’s new Factbook show how fast an industry can move when given the right signals—both financial and environmental. But there is still a lot of work to be done.

Image credit: Unsplash

Kate Zerrenner headshotKate Zerrenner

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

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