Renewables on the Rise
A Decade of Progress Toward a Clean Energy Future
Environment Maryland Research & Policy Center and Frontier Group
Clean energy is sweeping across America and is poised for more dramatic growth in the coming years.
Wind turbines and solar panels were novelties ten years ago; today, they are everyday parts of America’s energy landscape. As recently as 2010, energy-saving LED light bulbs cost $40 apiece; today, they cost a few dollars at the hardware store. Just a few years ago, electric vehicles seemed a far-off solution to decarbonize our transportation system; now, they have broken through to the mass market.
Virtually every day, there are new developments that increase our ability to produce renewable energy, apply renewable energy more widely and flexibly to meet a wide range of energy needs, and reduce our overall energy use — developments that enable us to envision an economy powered entirely with clean, renewable energy.
America produces almost five times as much renewable electricity from the sun in wind as it did in 2009, and currently wind and solar energy provide nearly 10 percent of our nation’s electricity.
The last decade has proven that clean energy can power American homes, businesses and industry — and has put America on the cusp of a dramatic shift away from polluting energy sources. With renewable energy prices falling and new energy-saving technologies coming on line every day, states, cities, businesses and the nation should work to obtain 100 percent of our energy from clean, renewable sources.
Rapid improvements in technology and plummeting prices for clean energy suggest that America has only begun to tap its vast clean energy potential.
Nearly every segment of the clean energy market is experiencing rapid price declines. A National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) survey of clean energy prices found that, from 2010 to 2018, the cost of distributed PV fell by 71 percent and utility-scale PV by 82 percent” change 82 percent to 80-82 percent. Lazard, a consulting firm, found that the cost of land-based wind power fell by 66 percent during the same period. It also reports that renewable sources like certain wind and solar energy technologies are cost-competitive with conventional generation technologies. In Idaho, for example, a record-breaking solar contract was signed in 2019, promising to deliver energy for $2.18 cents per kilowatt-hour.
In a study by NREL found that the cost of wind energy is expected to fall 50 percent by 2030 from 2017 cost levels. One study found that in most cases, building new wind and solar power is cheaper than running existing coal plants. And renewable energy is only expected to get cheaper. Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts that the cost of an average utility-scale solar plant “falls 71 percent by 2050.” It also estimates that by 2030, energy storage costs will fall by 52 percent.
Technology advances are also making renewable energy technologies more efficient and effective. In 2007, the highest-capacity wind turbine in the world was 6 MW, with only one such test prototype actually in operation. This summer, General Electric expects to deploy the first prototype of its massive “Haliade-X” wind turbine, which has a capacity of 12 MW — enough to supply annual electricity for nearly 6,500 U.S. homes.
Advanced new products are also helping to reduce energy consumption. For example, light emitting diode (LED) lighting uses only a quarter the energy of a traditional, incandescent light and lasts up to 25 times longer. By 2027, the Department of Energy estimates that LEDs could save 348 terawatts of electricity — equivalent to the annual production of 44 large power plants.
America’s renewable energy resources are enough to power the nation several times over. The technologies needed to harness and apply renewable energy are advancing rapidly. And researchers from a wide variety of academic and governmental institutions have developed a variety of scenarios suggesting renewable energy can meet all or nearly all of our society’s needs.
The U.S. should plan to meet all of its energy needs — for electricity, transportation and industry — with clean, renewable energy, and put policies and programs in place to achieve that goal.
Repowering America with clean, renewable energy is a key strategy in phasing out carbon pollution by 2050 — a necessary step to prevent the worst impacts of global warming. Transitioning to clean, renewable energy will also improve our health by preventing hazardous air pollution, and increase our safety by protecting us from the hazards of extracting, transporting and processing dangerous fuels.
While clean, renewable energy is advancing rapidly, fully replacing fossil fuels will require additional commitment and action. If the nation were to install as much renewable energy every year as we did in 2018, by 2050 America would be producing enough electricity to only meet 43 percent of today’s electricity demand.
To accelerate progress, a growing number of businesses, cities and states are adopting bold renewable energy targets and goals. More than a dozen states substantially increased their renewable electricity standards. Hawaii, California, New Mexico, Maine, New York and Washington state have all set targets for 100 percent clean energy.
Local governments, utilities and companies are also taking action. 127 cities across the country have committed to 100 percent renewable energy, and six cities have already achieved it. Several utilities, including Xcel Energy, Platte River Power Authority and MidAmerican Energy, have made commitments to source their electricity from carbon-free or renewable sources. The organization RE100 has also collected 100 percent renewable energy commitments from 191 companies, including IKEA, Google and Anheuser-Busch InBev.