Reality, Denial, Delay and Progress: The Paradoxes of 2018

Part of NRDC's Year-End Series Reviewing 2018 Climate & Clean Energy Developments

For the majority of Americans in both parties concerned with climate change, 2018 was a very weird year. The political tides seemed to continuously be in flood against climate progress at the national level, while the undertow of scandal within the Trump administration had a somewhat equivalent effect on efforts to roll back progress.  A sweeping national election result repudiated the Trump administration’s agenda and restored some much-needed checks and balances. Concern about the effects of climate-related disasters, including epic fires and floods helped drive the historic plebiscite and may have set the table for progress on climate action for 2019. The forces of denial are weakened and the demand for progress is much louder.

While it is easy to get fixated on the retrograde climate policies of the federal government under Trump, the fact is that remarkable progress was made this year, especially in renewable energy integration and developing the technology and infrastructure to transform the way we fuel the world’s largest economy. As Trump and his minions stood the nation down, cities, states and private companies and even individuals stepped forward to take up the slack and keep the U.S. relatively on course to meet its Paris agreement commitments.


Here’s a sampling:


California mandated 100% clean energy by 2045. This is an amazing commitment to transform how we power the world’s fifth largest economy. The governors elect of Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Nevada, Oregon and Maine have all pledged to move toward 100% clean energy on varying timetables, by 2050 at the latest.  


Renewable Energy made up the largest amount of capacity added to the grid in 2018. Changing price dynamics, climate and economic goals continue to drive the trend.


Renewable energy costs dropped precipitously again in 2018, changing the face of the power sector in electrical systems around the world. New renewables now compare favorably with natural gas in many places. Some wind and solar developers made low-cost offers to utilities that even included battery storage to create a lower cost hybrid product.


Electricity storage costs have also declined remarkably, including battery storage, opening up new options to ease the integration of variable renewable power into the grid and creating a massive economic opportunity for the technology.


Regional electricity markets are taking off in the western U.S.. New markets are proposed and the western energy imbalance market (EIM) surpassed $500 million in benefits. New utilities are continuing to join the EIM. This in a region where regional grid integration was unthinkable a decade ago.


While a legislative effort to allow the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) to expand its wholesale day-ahead electricity market across the entire region barely fell short in Sacramento, interest in regional markets in the West continues to grow. The adoption of California’s 100% clean energy mandate means that a regional wholesale electricity market will be needed more than ever, especially to keep the cost of meeting this ambitious goal affordable.


Renewable energy employment is up worldwide according the International Renewable Energy Agency, with more than 10 million people working in the field in 2018. In the U.S., 3.2 million people were working in clean energy jobs this year.


Demand for coal-fired electricity is crashing and, ahem, burning. Even foreign markets for U.S. coal are expected to shrink as China’s demand for coal-fired electricity is believed to have peaked and declined in 2018. Coal and coal related  jobs have shrunk dramatically over the last decade, with only about 53,000 people employed as coal miners in the U.S., according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. As the Washington Post has pointed out, the fast food chain Arby’s employs more people than the entire coal industry.


Cities, Counties and regions are setting audacious climate goals and working together to accomplish them. While their efforts are nothing new, they continue to build a nationwide momentum in defiance of Trump rollbacks.


Finally, major corporations are demanding access to clean energy when they locate new facilities, creating economic benefits and jobs in red states. This June, the New York Times reported that “19 large corporations announced deals with energy providers to build 2.78 gigawatts worth of wind and solar generating capacity, equal to one-sixth of all of the renewable capacity added nationwide in 2017, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Business Renewable Center.”


This is not to diminish the awesome magnitude of our climate challenge, which will require major actions on the part of all the world’s governments. Until we can break through on a bipartisan approach to reducing greenhouse gases in the U.S. we will be hamstrung in our efforts to maintain a livable planet for future generations. But neither are we blocked from making progress, as the impressive and only partial list above shows.