Making Sense of a Crazy Year

Despite the damage, positive trends endure.
NRDC's 5th annual energy report, October 2017
Credit: NRDC

Despite the Damage, Positive Trends Endure

Calling 2017 crazy is an understatement of epic proportions. We saw attempts by a marginalized President and congressional Republicans to unravel decades of environmental protections and clean energy progress as fast as they could. If a policy has his predecessor’s imprint on it, Trump was out to kill it. If anything has saved us so far it has been the incompetence of the Trump Administration that has prevented the worst abuses. Slow to appoint able people and beset by resignations and federal indictments, Trump’s tenure has been bumbling and chaotic.

The list of proposed environmental and energy rollbacks is depressingly long, but many of these face intense legal fights and are as unpopular with the public as is Trump himself. They are legally shaky and vulnerable to litigation and NRDC is leading the counterattack to block their implementation.

From abandoning the Clean Power Plan to bailing out coal and nuclear power, and even attempted rollbacks of worker protections from black lung disease, there seems to be no action the Trump administration won’t take to prop up energy sources that have passed their sell-by date.

Trump has nominated mediocrities, corrupt figures, and climate deniers to fill key administration posts, eliminated science advisory committees and has sought to pack the judiciary with far-right wing jurists and incompetents. The administration is squeezing out hundreds of civil servants from federal agencies rendering them less able to protect the health of America’s people and special places.

Meanwhile, back on Earth

Despite the damaging administration policy proposals, positive renewable energy trends have endured and are prospering.

The world has held the line on climate progress and international markets for fossil fuels with a few notable exceptions, are drying up.

States, cities and businesses large and small have stepped up to fill the leadership gap created by the national government, and enormous strides continue to be made despite the hostility of the administration and Republican-led Congress. As reported in NRDC’s 5th annual Energy Report:

“Dozens of clean energy records have been shattered across the United States in the last year and a half. Solar energy is growing at an unprecedented rate and the first U.S. offshore wind farm now provides clean electricity off the coast of Rhode Island. Grid operators and utilities are implementing new techniques and grid improvements that allow us to integrate more clean energy into America’s electricity system without compromising reliability. At the same time, states and utilities have increased their energy efficiency investments, reducing energy waste and energy costs across the U.S. economy. Taken together, the United States is slashing climate-changing and other harmful pollutants even as national energy spending hits record lows.”

Renewable energy progress remained robust in 2017 as states, red and blue, benefited from the cost reductions for wind and solar and even Congress resisted the administration’s proposed retroactive elimination of tax credits that have helped build a job creation juggernaut across the country.

Here’s a sampling of things going right in the face of these political headwinds:

  • Renewable generation now makes up 14% of all electrical generation, excluding biomass.
  • Historically low renewable prices are being seen across the nation and around the world. The Austin City Council approved a solar power purchase agreement that analysts say could be the cheapest of its kind ever, as low as $21 per Megawatt hour (MWh).
  • The cost to generate solar power has decreased by 80% in less than a decade.
  • The average wind power purchase agreement (PPA) (a long-term contract for a portion of energy from a power plant), has fallen from $70 per MWh in 2009 to $20 per MWh in 2015.
  • China plans to invest a staggering $367 billion in solar generation by 2020.
  • Coal related carbon emissions reached their lowest levels since 1978.
  • Thanks to energy efficiency and demand response, Electricity, energy costs made up only 4% of household spending this year, the smallest share ever recorded.
  • In the West, the effort to get better use and efficiency from the power grid continues to make progress as California and other western states contemplate the leap to organized energy markets, saving money, creating renewable energy jobs, and reducing pollution.
  • The Western Energy Imbalance Market (EIM), operated by the California Independent System Operator, has been a huge success, providing benefits of $173.72 million and reducing CO2 emissions by 176,241 metric tons by replacing dirtier sources, like coal or gas plants with solar and wind power.
  • Efforts to reform renewable energy transmission siting are coming to fruition as well-designed and transmission projects, like the Boardman to Hemingway project linking Oregon and Idaho renewable resources to the western grid are being approved.
  • New transmission siting tools using advanced mapping techniques—such as those pioneered by the Western Electricity Coordinating Council (WECC)—are helping avoid resource and wildlife conservation conflicts.

The positive trends we have worked so hard to start seem likely to endure the political turmoil of the next few years.

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