The latest Sustainable Energy in America Factbook showed that 2017 was a landmark year in energy efficiency and renewable energy: wind and solar installations surged and greenhouse gas emissions declined to the lowest level that they have been in 25 years. At the same time, the US economy grew by 2.3% while total energy consumption declined by 2.6% as our energy system became cleaner and more efficient.
The Sustainable Energy in America Factbook is released yearly by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) and the Business Council for Sustainable Energy (BCSE). This report provides industry information and trends for the US energy economy with an in-depth look at the energy efficiency, natural gas, and renewable energy sectors as well emerging areas such as battery storage and sustainable transportation. It is important to note that NRDC’s definition of sustainable energy varies in some ways from the report’s definition. For instance, NRDC’s position is that natural gas is not a sustainable form of energy and that not all types of biomass are inherently renewable or low carbon. However, we do believe that the report provides many reasons for optimism about milestones in energy efficiency and renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar.
Highlights from the Report
1. Renewable energy installations are on the rise, while emissions have declined.
Renewable energy is increasingly more cost-effective than fossil fuels regardless of efforts to stymie the clean energy transition by the federal government. In 2017, generation of renewable energy increased from 15% to 18% of the US power mix. Renewable sources (mostly wind, solar, and hydroelectric) now generate almost as much energy as US nuclear power plants. More than 18 gigawatts of renewable energy were added in the past year making renewables the largest contributor of new installations — surpassing the capacity of new fossil fuel plants built. Generation from renewable energy sources grew by 14% since 2016.
Non-hydroelectric renewables contributed about 413 terawatt hours of generation, which is equivalent to the consumption of approximately 38 million residential electricity customers. Overall, US greenhouse gas emissions fell to 6.4 gigatons of carbon dioxide, which is the lowest that emission levels have been since 1991.
Emissions from the power sector also fell by 4.2% in 2017. Lower emissions from the power sector is a major driver in economy-wide decline of greenhouse gas emissions. For the second year in a row, electric sector emissions have been lower than emissions due to transportation.
2. Utilities and developers invested more in infrastructure, such as expanded transmission and smart meters, that support the growth of clean energy.
Investing in transmission is important in connecting areas with high renewable energy potential to areas with the highest energy demand. Recognizing the need to improve grid operations and facilitate clean energy growth, utilities and independent developers invested 10 percent more in electric transmission development in 2017 than in 2016.
On the consumer side, smart meters have been installed in over half of U.S. electric customers allowing utilities and clients to have better access to information about electricity use patterns. Utilities and state policy makers are also creating incentives for customers to use smart thermostats, and 20 states offered rebates for smart thermostat purchases in 2017. This helps customers monitor their energy consumption and potentially reduce their energy demand or shift the time of the day where they use the most energy.
3. The number of energy efficiency jobs as the amount of installed renewable energy generation increased.
Energy efficiency continues to be the leading source of clean energy jobs, providing employment to 2.2 million people in 2016. While jobs in the solar industry declined by 4 percent in 2017, 29 states saw an increase in jobs. Overall, the solar workforce has increased by 168 percent since 2010.
In 2016, the electric storage sector created 91,000 jobs. In 2017 alone, the energy storage sector grew rapidly as the total amount of non-hydropower storage capacity increased by 33 percent, contributing to economic growth.
The US economy grew by 2.3% in 2017. At the same time, customer spending on electricity decreased and annualized electricity consumption declined by 2.6%. This supports the trend that the US has effectively decoupled Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and electricity consumption which is discussed further in the NRDC’s latest annual energy report. In the last decade, energy usage has decreased by 1.7% even as the GDP has increased by 15.3%. Energy efficiency continues to be an important driver of this trend. As discussed here, energy efficiency is a cost-effective way to reduce emissions, create clean energy jobs, and reduce customer bills.
4. Sales of electric vehicles (EVs) increased as the price of battery storage declined.
Sales of US battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) surged by 23% in 2017. The price of lithium-ion battery packs decreased by 65% since 2013, accelerating BEV sales. About 749,000 electric vehicles were on the road by the end of 2017, as EVs contributed to a larger percentage of new vehicle sales than in 2016. The transportation sector was the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions for the second year in a row, so advances in clean transportation technology are important in meeting our overall carbon reduction goals.
Opportunities for Clean Energy Leadership
Despite the federal government’s recent anti-clean energy moves, such as implementing tariffs on solar panels and withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, state and local actors have shown their commitment to reducing emissions. For example, the membership of the US Climate Mayors has grown to over 380 cities which account for 2.6 gigatons of carbon emissions, which is almost 40% of total US greenhouse gas emissions in 2017. Forty-three states and D.C. have adopted net metering, a policy that supports solar development. Corporations have also stepped up as 125 corporations have pledged to source 100% of their energy from renewables.
While the progress described in the Sustainable Energy in America Factbook is very encouraging, there is still a lot of work to do to in 2018 to set us on track to meet the clean energy vision and decarbonization goals outlined in NRDC’s Clean Energy Frontiers report.
Policy makers at the local, state, and federal level have an important role to play in adopting and following through on strong energy efficiency and renewable energy goals. NRDC and the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) have released a set of recommendations that will help guide policy makers and utilities as they work towards accelerating the clean energy momentum. Utilities and consumers (corporate, residential, and industrial) must also continue to push the envelope to develop innovative ways to continue to create a cleaner and more efficient energy system while creating jobs and bolstering economic growth.
By Sneha Ayyagari, Schneider Sustainable Energy Fellow
This article originally appeared on the NRDC blog and was republished with permission from NRDC.