PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center
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. Energy-saving LED light bulbs cost $40 apiece as recently as 2010; 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 and the wind as 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.
The last decade has seen explosive growth in the key technologies needed to power America with clean, renewable energy.
- Solar energy: America produces over 40 times more solar power than it did in 2009, enough to power more than 9 million average American homes. In 2009, solar rooftops and utility-scale solar power plants produced 0.07 percent of U.S. electricity; in 2018, they produced 2.53 percent of America’s power. In 2019, the 2 millionth solar PV system was installed, and experts expect this number to double in five years.
- Wind energy: America has more than tripled the amount of wind power it produces since 2009, enough to power over 26 million homes. In 2009, wind turbines produced 2.1 percent of the nation’s electricity; in 2018, they produced 7.2 percent of America’s power.
- Energy efficiency: According to a survey by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), electric efficiency programs across the U.S. saved more than twice as much energy in 2017 as in 2009, as states ramped up their investments in efficiency. In 2017, these programs saved enough electricity to power more than 2.5 million homes. Investments in natural gas efficiency programs have also realized massive energy savings, and in 2016 saved 340 million therms of natural gas – equivalent to the usage of over 500,000 homes.
- Electric vehicles: Building an economy reliant on clean, renewable energy means ending the use of fossil fuels for all activities, including transportation. There were over 361,000 electric vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2018, up from virtually none in 2009. Electric vehicle sales surged by nearly 86 percent in 2018 over 2017. In the first seven months of 2019, electric vehicle sales were up 14 percent over that same period in 2018. In 2018, the millionth electric vehicle was sold in America.
- Energy storage: Expanding the ability to store electricity can help the nation take full advantage of its vast potential for clean, renewable energy. The United States saw an 18-fold increase in utility-scale battery storage from 2009 to 2018.
Figure ES-1: Clean Energy Technologies Have Seen Dramatic Growth Since 2009.
Clean energy leadership is not concentrated in one part of the country. Rather, it is distributed across the United States, in states with different economic and demographic makeups, driven by a combination of clean energy attributes and policies that have helped clean energy measures succeed.
- Solar energy: California, Arizona, North Carolina, Nevada and Texas have seen the greatest total increases in solar energy generation since 2009. California’s landmark “Million Solar Roofs” program, which accelerated the state’s solar industry in the mid-2000s, along with its strong renewable electricity standard and other policies, helped to trigger the dramatic rise of solar power there.
- Wind energy: Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa and Illinois experienced the greatest total increases in wind energy generation from 2009 to 2018. Texas’ policies to upgrade its grid to accommodate more wind power from rural west Texas played an important role in the boom.
- Energy efficiency: Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, Michigan and California saw the greatest increases in the share of electricity saved through efficiency measures, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. By 2017, Rhode Island was implementing efficiency measures designed to save the equivalent of 3 percent of 2016 statewide electricity sales.
- Electric vehicles: California, New York, Washington, Florida and Texas have seen the most electric vehicles (EVs) sold. Five of the top 10 states for EV sales require that a certain percentage of each automakers’ sales be zero-emission vehicles, including California, which is home to nearly half of the nation’s electric vehicles.
- Energy storage: California, Illinois, Texas, West Virginia and Hawaii lead the nation in additions to battery storage since 2009, though the industry is still in its infancy. By the end of 2018, California accounted for over a quarter of the nation’s total battery storage capacity. California’s aggressive adoption of energy storage was due in part to a California Public Utilities Commission requirement that utilities increase energy storage capacity; additions also increased rapidly in response to the Aliso Canyon natural gas leak, for which energy storage was used to minimize grid disruptions.
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 80 to 82 percent. Lazard, a consulting firm that conducts an annual levelized cost of energy survey, 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.
- One study by NREL found that the cost of wind energy is expected to fall 50 percent by 2030 from 2017 cost levels. Another 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 will fall 71 percent by 2050. It also estimates that by 2030, energy storage costs will fall by 52 percent.
- Technology advances are 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. Today, an entire wind farm of 8 MW turbines is generating electricity off the coast of England; according to DONG Energy, which led the project, a single revolution of the blades on just one turbine can power a home for 29 hours. This summer, GE 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. From 2009 to 2015, the percentage of homes with at least one energy-efficient lightbulb in the house – typically either an LED or CFL bulb – increased from 58 percent to 86 percent. 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 for 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, before accounting for non-electricity energy needs.
- 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.
America has already made incredible progress toward getting its energy from clean, renewable sources. Policymakers at all levels should fully commit to repowering America with clean, renewable energy.