Environment North Carolina Research and Policy Center
Clean energy is sweeping across America and is poised for more dramatic growth in the coming years.
Wind turbines and solar panels made up a tiny fraction of our energy infrastructure 10 years ago. Today, they are everyday parts of America’s energy landscape. The number of homes heated with clean, efficient electric heat pumps increased by 28% in a decade from 2005 to 2015. Just a few years ago, electric vehicles seemed a faroff 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 it to a wider range of energy needs, and reduce our overall energy use. These developments enable us to envision an economy powered entirely by clean, renewable energy.
In 2020, America produced almost four times as much renewable electricity from the sun and the wind as in 2011, with wind and solar producing 11% of our nation’s electricity in 2020, up from 3% in 2011.
Between 2011 and 2020, U.S. wind, solar and geothermal generation grew at an annual rate of 15%. If those forms of renewable generation were to continue to grow by 15% per year, wind, solar and geothermal would produce enough electricity to meet all of our current electricity needs by 2035.
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 being developed every day, businesses, cities, states, and the nation should work to obtain 100% of our energy from clean, renewable sources.
The last decade has seen explosive growth in the key technologies needed to power America with clean, renewable energy.
• Solar energy: America produces over 23 times as much solar power as it did in 2011, enough to power more than 12 million average American homes. In 2011, solar rooftops and utility-scale solar power plants produced 0.14% of U.S. electricity; in 2020, they produced 2.3% of America’s electricity. In 2019, the 2 millionth solar PV system was installed, and an additional million installations quickly followed by summer 2021.
• Wind energy: America has nearly tripled the amount of wind power it produces since 2011, enough to power over 31 million homes. In 2011, wind turbines produced 3% of the nation’s electricity; in 2020, they produced 8.4% of America’s electricity.
• Energy efficiency: Electric efficiency programs across the U.S. saved over 17% more energy in 2019 than in 2011, as states ramped up their investments in efficiency. In 2019, these programs saved enough electricity to power more than 2.5 million homes.
• Electric vehicles: In 2011, just over 16,000 battery and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles were sold in the U.S. As of December 2020, cumulative sales had grown 100-fold to nearly 1.7 million vehicles. By mid-2021, plug-in electric vehicle sales had surpassed 2 million.
• Battery storage: In 2020, the U.S. had over 1.7 GW of battery storage capacity. America’s battery storage capacity grew more than 18-fold from 2011 to 2020 and grew by 67% in 2020 alone.
• Heat pumps: The efficiency of heat pumps has improved to the point where they are now an attractive and realistic option for homes across the country. In 2015, 12% of all U.S. homes with heat used heat pumps, up from just 8% a decade earlier. Shipments of efficient air-source heat pumps from U.S. manufacturers nearly doubled between 2011 and 2020, increasing by 10% in 2020 alone.
The recent growth in renewable energy across America is due in part to strong and supportive public policies. To accelerate the transition to clean energy, cities, states and the federal government should:
• Set ambitious targets for renewable energy, following the example of the nine states and nearly 200 cities and towns that have committed to getting 100% of their electricity from clean or renewable sources of energy within the next several decades. In addition, governments should set specific targets for deployment of key clean energy technologies, such as solar power, offshore wind energy and energy storage.
• Establish strong incentives for renewable energy adoption, including extension of federal tax credits that have helped to fuel the growth of renewable energy over the last decade and local and state clean energy incentives. Policy-makers should expand and improve existing clean energy incentives to make them easier to use and to ensure that they deliver benefits to everyone wanting to participate in the drive toward a clean energy future.
• Ensure that utility policies fully and fairly compensate investors in clean energy technology for the benefits they bring to the environment, society and the electric system through mechanisms such as net metering for rooftop solar systems, and adopt policies for permitting and interconnection that make adoption of clean energy technologies easy and hassle-free.
• Encourage the transition to electric vehicles and electric buildings through strong clean cars standards, local commitments to transition to electric transit and school buses, and policies to support fuel-switching in residential and commercial buildings from gas and oil to electricity.
• Support the integration of technologies and practices that will enable America to take full advantage of its renewable energy potential, including the integration of energy storage into the grid, the development of resilient local microgrids powered by renewable energy, and the appropriate expansion of transmission infrastructure to allow for the transport of renewable energy from the places where it is abundant to the places where it is needed.
• Encourage continued steady progress on energy efficiency by continuing and expanding local, state, utility and federal programs and policies, including utility energy efficiency programs, building energy codes, and appliance efficiency standards.