What a difference a year can make. Even before the last weeks tick away, 2015 stands out as a remarkable and dynamic year for climate and energy in the United States.
Read on for five bold trends that are beginning to reshape our economy – and our national discourse on climate change.
1. Investments in Renewables Soar
I admit it: For years, I thought renewable energy was more hype than reality. I’m happy to report that recent data proves me wrong.
In just five years, solar panel prices have fallen 80 percent, and solar capacity installed worldwide grew more than six-fold. The overall cost of solar per kilowatt-hour, meanwhile, plummeted 50 percent.
For the first time in history, energy from the sun is as cheap as traditional energy in states such as Arizona, California and Texas.
The proof is in the pudding. Apple, for example, recently signed an $848-million power agreement with a solar provider – bypassing the electric grid. A deal of this magnitude shows where solar is today, and where it is headed.
2. Energy Storage Bursts onto the Scene
If price has been the main barrier to clean energy adoption at vast scale, variability remains a second obstacle – though likely not for much longer.
Because the sun shines when people are at work, and goes down before they get home and fire up air conditioners, furnaces and electronics, there is a mismatch between when most solar energy is produced and most is needed. The key to unlocking a match is energy storage – what Deutsche bank calls “the missing link of solar adoption.”
This was the year that breakthroughs in energy storage became inevitable with Tesla first out of the gate and other companies following close behind. With firms such as GE and Lockheed Martin now part of the contest, hundreds of millions of dollars of capital is flowing toward research, development and commercialization.
In fact, Deutsche Bank predicts energy storage is headed toward market readiness, with incremental storage costs likely to drop from about 14 cents per kilowatt-hour to about 2 cents within the next five years.
3. Clean Power Plan Enjoys a Head-Start
The recently finalized Clean Power Plan puts long-overdue limits on carbon pollution from America’s power plants and will cut emissions by more than 30 percent by 2030, while preventing 90,000 childhood asthma attacks annually.
The interesting trend here is that while compliance is not required until 2022, many states are earning a big head start. Just look at Texas. While some politicians in Austin were quick to denounce the pollution limits as unaffordable, the facts paint a very different story.
The sky is not falling, it turns out. The sky is generating wind power.
Thanks in part to West Texas wind, current trends alone can carry the state to 88 percent of its 2030 power plant pollution reduction goal, while generating clean energy jobs and economic growth.
4. Fossil Fuel Scrutiny Ramps Up
While trends suggest a bright future for renewable energy, fossil fuels continue to produce two-thirds of the energy we use. But scrutiny is growing from the public, investors and the media.
2015 was the year methane popped on the national energy policy agenda. It’s a key issue because every ounce of methane emissions undermines the potential climate benefits of natural gas relative to other traditional fuels. New federal methane rules are a first step to meeting scrutiny with solutions and mark a needed trend toward regulating this potent greenhouse gas.
As New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer recently put it, “As long-term investors, we understand that strong methane emissions regulations will help to stimulate capital investment in the energy sector, reduce reputational risk and improve performance.”
5. Corporate Climate Action Goes Mainstream
General Motors. Walmart. Goldman Sachs. IKEA. These are just a few of the 81 companies that are already supporting the White House’s climate initiative in the run-up to the United Nations-led climate talks in Paris this fall. All signed the American Business Act on Climate Pledge.
This outpouring of corporate support shows that climate action has finally gone mainstream. And it’s no wonder. With Americans acknowledging the reality of climate change by increasing margins, and supporting action to cut fossil fuel pollution by a clear majority, the signal to business leaders is unequivocal.
And because getting ahead of climate can unlock new business models, energy savings and lesser risk, the business case is a stool with many solid legs.
2015 is the year when we can truly say that our national energy landscape began to change in tandem with climate awareness. So much so that even some lawmakers who resisted change may now be reaching a tipping point.
Ben Ratner is a senior manager at the Environmental Defense Fund. He manages corporate engagement initiatives to minimize methane emissions from the oil and natural gas industry. His focus is developing innovative collaborations across diverse stakeholder groups to build the leadership, technology and information necessary to reduce emissions aggressively and cost effectively.