Renewables 2016: The Best of Times But Are The Worst Ahead?

New solar jobs—35,000 of them—were just some of the good news about renewable energy this year. To keep that good news coming, we need to be vigilant about the dangers President-elect Trump poses to clean energy's momentum.
Credit: Lexey Swall

Part of NRDC's Year-End Series Reviewing 2016 Energy Developments

The incredible strides renewable energy made in America this year, combined with the election of Donald Trump, remind me of that famous quote from A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

The truth about clean energy this year, and over the last several years, is that thanks to age-of-wisdom type leadership at the federal, state, local, and corporate levels, we, as a nation, are already moving full steam ahead into the clean energy future that the American people overwhelmingly desire. But that critical progress can be dangerously slowed by our newly elected president, who’s famously said—and falsely, too—that wind and solar power don’t work “on a large scale.”

Indeed, the Trump administration aims to try to put the brakes on clean energy progress and all the benefits it provides. The president-elect has vowed to overturn the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, an important driver of clean energy deployment. His allies in Congress might attempt to overturn important clean energy incentives, such as the Production Tax Credit for Wind Power (PTC) and the Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC), which help level the playing field for clean energy; and his administration can try to undo the smart policies the Obama administration has developed for siting renewable energy projects on public lands.

The Trump administration can't do these things unilaterally. And NRDC and our allies will fight the Trump administration every step of the way if it tries. Still, it’s not inspiring that the president-elect just appointed as secretary of energy former Texas Governor Rick Perry, a man who has no energy chops whatsoever—past secretaries have had academic credentials or industry experience—and who, during the 2012 presidential campaign, famously promised to eliminate the Department of Energy, if only he could remember which department that was.


Perry’s environmental record is abysmal. But during his time in office, he presided over a huge expansion of wind powerTexas gets more of its electricity from wind than any other state—and, importantly, the transmission infrastructure needed to get that power to big cities. Texas fights far below its weight class when it comes to solar, with only 341 megawatts installed as of November 2015. But when the Governor’s Mansion was rebuilt, Perry had photovoltaic panels installed on the roof and a ground-source heat pump, to save money

In this new era, we need to be vigilant. After all, Americans of all political stripes love clean energy. So the question for our new officials is whether they will continue to take the people’s lead and fight climate change, create good jobs, clean up our air, and save consumers big money on energy. Or whether they move hard and fast toward a winter of despair, ceding clean energy leadership to countries like China and Germany that are only too happy to beat us at what has been, until now, our country’s game.

But Trump’s election shouldn’t suck out of the room all the attention clean energy’s progress deserves. So let’s get back to the best-of-times stuff, shall we?

In 2016, wind and solar power, combined, supplied at least 6.6 percent of the nation’s electricity, up from less than 0.6 percent only 10 years ago—an 1,100 percent increase. Clean energy jobs are growing by leaps and bounds. In January, the solar industry announced it had added more than 35,000 full-time positions in 2015, creating jobs at a rate 12 times higher than the economy as a whole. Overall, clean energy employed more than 400,000 Americans in 2016, many of them people with only a high-school education. What’s more, wind and solar power prices continued to plunge at dizzying rates; solar prices were 18 percent lower this June than the one before, helping to lower utility bills for consumers. By January of 2016, wind power tumbled to a seven-year low of about $0.02 per kilowatt-hour. All of which means that in some regions, wind and solar power are now the least expensive forms of electricity available, cheaper even than dirty fossil fuels.

Here are some more milestones: As of September, wind power grew to more than 5.2 percent of our electric mix, enough to power 20 million homes. Another 5 million-homes worth, 20 gigawatts, is in the works, thanks in large part to the extension late last year of the federal PTC. In 11 states, wind power supplied at least 10 percent of electricity. In Iowa, that number topped 35 percent.

Another important turning point: The nation’s first offshore wind power project—the Block Island Wind Farm, off the Rhode Island coast—came online this week; there are 10 more projects in various stages of development. Massachusetts this summer enacted legislation that will spur 1,600 megawatts by 2027; New York’s clean energy agency, NYSERDA, is about to become the first state agency in the nation to bid into a U.S. Department of Energy auction for offshore wind power leasing rights, in an effort to streamline deployment, safeguard marine ecosystems, and lower costs for consumers; and, this September, the U.S. Departments of Energy and Interior issued their national strategy for fast-tracking offshore wind.

Turn, Baby, Turn

BREAKING: The nation's first offshore wind project, located in Rhode Island in waters off Block Island, began generating electricity today, officially launching a clean energy technology that has the potential to power millions of U.S. homes and businesses. NRDC worked with the project developer Deepwater Wind and others to help capture the full potential of offshore wind—and to protect neighboring endangered North Atlantic right whales. Kit Kennedy, Director of NRDC's energy and transportation program, explains the significance of today's announcement: Read NRDC's full statement on today's announcement:

Posted by NRDC on Monday, December 12, 2016

The nation’s first offshore wind power project came online this week. And there are plenty of opportunities for more, with the help of smart policies. 

It was the season of light for solar, too. In February, the country celebrated its 1 millionth solar installation. By the end of June, more than 4,000 megawatts of the stuff had been installed—800,000 homes-worth—with an additional 10,000 megawatts slated by year’s end, thanks, in part, to the federal ITC extended last year.

In 2016, corporations became huge buyers of clean energy. Last week, Google announced it will get 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources in 2017; it uses as much power as the City of San Francisco. This year, 17 leading companies headquartered in the United States, with combined revenues of more than $826 billion, joined the business group RE100, whose members, including Apple, General Motors, and Procter & Gamble, aim to “aid the transition to a low carbon economy” through their market-transforming efforts.

States and cities have also continued to be major clean energy drivers. Arizona and Michigan are talking about upping the amount of clean energy that utilities will have to provide. And five states—California, New York, Hawaii, Oregon, and Vermont—and Washington D.C., home to a full 20 percent of the American population, now intend to get at least 50 percent of their electricity from renewable sources. Excitingly, there are cities that want to double that. This year, Los Angeles (population 4 million) and Denver (600,000) joined San Diego (1.35 million), San Francisco (837,000), Salt Lake City, St. Petersburg, Boulder, and 15 other cities that are already planning to get a full 100 percent of their electricity the clean way.

If any elected official wants to create new, quality jobs and improve the lives of Americans, impeding clean energy progress would be pure age of foolishness.

The longest night of the year will soon be upon us and 2016 will be at our backs. With our members’ muscle, our staff’s hard work, and clean energy’s pollution-free power, wisdom, light, and hope will drive out the darkness of this election season once again.