Clean Energy Expansion and Clean Power Plan Work as a Great Team to Keep up Climate Progress

This post was co-authored with my colleague, Starla Yeh.

In climate action, as in sports, momentum can be tangible. Just this week, the Golden State Warriors needed a major shift in momentum to win the Western Conference Finals after falling behind 3 games to 1. In game 6, sharpshooter Klay Thompson led the way for the Warriors, powering them to victory. That laid the groundwork for unanimous MVP Steph Curry to take over in the next game, propelling Golden State to help them win the series and keeping their team’s path to the championship on track.

Just like Klay laid the groundwork for Steph, clean energy expansion is laying the groundwork for the Clean Power Plan (CPP).

Due in large part to the recent extension of federal tax credits for wind and solar energy, clean energy is unanimously expected to continue its rapid growth over the next several years. And in 2022, the Clean Power Plan is ready to take over, keeping our climate progress on track.

As NRDC reports in its latest issue brief, various industry and government sources conducting independent power sector forecast analyses reach the same conclusion: clean energy is expected to continue its rapid growth over the next six years thanks in large part to the extension of tax credits for wind and solar projects approved by Congress and signed into law last December. This clear trend is also driving down carbon pollution from the power sector, and makes reaching the Clean Power Plan limits even easier than we had originally projected. However, the issue brief also stresses that these trends are neither guaranteed nor permanent, and we’ll need the Clean Power Plan to keep the power sector on the right course in the long term.

Let’s walk through each of these key takeaways and talk teamwork in clean energy and climate progress.

First, the studies agree: renewable energy will continue on a strong growth trajectory for the next six years, nearly doubling today’s levels by 2021. It is especially remarkable that the four studies we surveyed reached similar conclusions about how much renewable generation is expected to grow because each relied on different model representations of the electricity sector and a range of input assumptions. Independent projections from Rhodium Group (RHG), the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), M.J. Bradley & Associates (MJB&A) and Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) suggest that renewable capacity could nearly double between 2015 and 2021. As shown in the figure below, utility-scale capacity is expected to reach around 160 GW in 2021, compared with 88 GW at the end of 2015. And rooftop solar represents another source of strong expected growth, climbing from around 11 GW at the end of 2015 to around 40 GW in 2021.

Similar to the unanimous vote for Steph Curry as the MVP, this type of consensus among industry analysts doesn’t happen very often. RHG, NREL, MJB&A, and BNEF each used different modeling platforms in their analyses. The models themselves are programmed differently and all have independent features and inputs; yet, they all reach similar conclusions on the growth of renewable energy over the next six years. It’s hard to argue with this kind of consensus.

Yet another independent source finding similar and consistent levels of renewable capacity growth through the early part of the 2020’s decade is the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC). NERC is the nation’s overseer of electric grid reliability (NERC) and reaffirmed last month in its latest assessment that the transition to clean energy is accelerating and would not disrupt safe and reliable electricity services.

However, without additional policy drivers, the healthy development rate for renewable energy could slow as the federal tax policies phase down by 2022.

This brings us to the second key takeaway. By the early 2020’s, we’ll need smart policies to keep up the progress. The Clean Power Plan’s flexible and achievable limits, which are expected to reduce pollution by roughly one-third from 2005 levels in 2030, are set to do just that. Since 2005, the U.S. power sector – the largest source of carbon pollution in America – has reduced its carbon emissions by 20 percent as a result of federal and state support for renewable energy and energy efficiency, rapidly falling costs for solar and wind technologies, improved air pollution standards, and low natural gas prices. Because of that progress and continued momentum as a result of expected renewables growth, the limits are even more achievable than was originally expected. MJB&A demonstrates the power sector is well-positioned to meet, and even exceed, the Clean Power Plan’s goals.

Finally, there are numerous benefits of investing in clean energy and efficiency: job growth, lower energy prices, cleaner air, and climate protection are just a few.

Clean energy and energy efficiency are smart investments for states and utilities. Forward-thinking states have recently taken steps to ambitiously strengthen their Renewable Portfolio Standards. Power companies are forging ahead with strong commitments to renewable energy investments. Four of the country’s largest utilities, including Duke Energy, NextEra Energy, Southern Company and MidAmerican Energy Company, have recently announced additions to their renewable energy portfolios. Duke Energy company spokesman Randy Wheeless was recently quoted in an SNL news article (subscription required) saying on the topic of renewable energy, “We’re finding that it’s competitive. It makes good business sense.”

It makes good sense for you and me too. Investing in clean energy and efficiency benefits our households and businesses. In 2013 alone, state renewables policies saved customers up to $1.2 billion as a result of lower electricity prices, supported nearly 200,000 renewable energy-related jobs, and provided over $5 billion in health benefits from improved air quality. We urge states to strengthen their clean energy policies in parallel with Clean Power Plan activities to maximize benefits for their citizens.

Let’s fast forward to game 1 of the NBA Finals last night. Steph and Klay played an important role, but they also needed big contributions from their bench players to get the job done. The renewable energy tax credits and the CPP are game-changers, but we’ll need a deep bench of federal and state clean energy policies, like energy efficiency and renewable energy standards, to win on climate and protect against the worst impacts of global warming.

We are making important progress towards a clean energy future that will protect us and future generations from the dangerous environmental and public health hazards of climate change. But we must keep up the momentum with smart policies, like the Clean Power Plan, to ensure that we stay on this path and achieve our long term climate goals.

Renewable energy growth gives us a great head start on meeting the Clean Power Plan limits. The Clean Power Plan will keep us on track, and the U.S. can and must build on this progress to further accelerate its transition towards a clean energy future.