Santa Claus Coming to Town? Maybe. Wind & Solar? Definitely.

Wind and solar power continued to make great gains in 2019. Would they have made greater gains with a more supportive president? Absolutely. Are the gains enough to stave off the worst effects of the climate crisis? Not by a longshot.

Solar power is growing explosively.

Wind and solar power continued to make great gains in 2019. Would they have made greater gains with a more supportive president? Absolutely. Are the gains enough to stave off the worst effects of the climate crisis? Not by a longshot. But it’s some comfort to know that clean energy is thriving. A big reason why wind and solar keep making gains is that states, cities, companies and individuals across the country are taking up the climate fight by investing in these renewable resources.

Onshore wind power in the U.S. officially passed 100 GW in October of this year. Looking forward, the Energy Information Agency also expects that a record breaking 14.3 GW of wind will come online in 2020. If realized, the United States would have about 122 GW of wind capacity by the end of next year.

Similarly, the solar market is going gangbusters. In the third quarter of 2019 alone, the U.S. installed 2.6 gigawatts (GW) of solar PV, bringing the total amount of installed solar in the country to 71.3 GW, enough to power 13.5 million homes. Residential solar—the kind that typically goes on rooftops—saw its best quarter in history, and the utility-scale solar pipeline now stands at a record 45.5 GW. Looking forward, total installed U.S. solar capacity is expected to more than double over the next five years.

In 2010, wind, solar and geothermal made up just 2.7 percent of our electricity mix. By the end of 2018, these technologies had grown to provide 9 percent of the mix. These gains are driven in large part by innovation and scale, which have lowered the costs of renewable energy dramatically. In the past year alone, the average cost of electricity from new onshore wind, offshore wind, and solar photovoltaics fell by 10, 24, and 18 percent, respectively. It is now cheaper to build and operate new wind and solar projects than to continue to operate many existing coal plants.

Even without tax credits, new wind and solar are often cheaper than existing coal.

At the start of 2018, only Hawaii—which accounts for just 0.2 percent of U.S. electricity sales—had made a commitment to obtain 100 percent of its electricity from renewable resources. As 2019 closes, state and utility 100 percent clean energy commitments cover 44.5 million homes and businesses—equal to about a quarter of all U.S. households—and nearly 24 percent of all electricity consumed in the country. (See NRDC’s 7th Annual Energy Report for more details.)

Five states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico passed legislation with 100% goals in 2019 alone. Of those, New York made arguably the most aggressive commitment when it passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act in July. The law commits the state to achieve 70 percent renewables from the electricity sector by 2040 and achieve economy-wide net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Cities have also gotten in on the act. Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 campaign lists 147 cities that have committed to 100 percent renewables. Of those, 51 have joined in the last year. Twenty-five cities have been selected as part of the American Cities Climate Challenge (ACCC) to go broader and deeper, and they’re currently on track to beat the climate goals set by the Paris Agreement.

How are they getting there? Sixteen of the 25 ACCC cities are procuring renewables to power their city halls and meet their other municipal electricity needs. Cincinnati is a big early leader on this front. City Halls are also convening businesses and community organizations to procure renewables—Philly’s Climate Collaborative is a great example of this.

In addition to state and city policies, companies are buying renewables left and right. As the price of renewables has plummeted, these purchases have steadily increased. The low price of wind and solar make buying renewable power smart business. 2019 was an amazing year for corporate power purchase agreements (PPAs), especially in the U.S. At the end of November 2019, 14.5 GW of new renewable energy PPAs had been signed by private businesses, up from record-breaking 2018 levels of 9.1 GW. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), the volume of signed renewable PPAs in October and November of 2019 alone were greater than the total amount of signed PPAs 2009-2014. 

Historical corporate renewable purchases through power purchase agreements (PPAS)


NRDC, based on data from BNEF

2018 was the first year in two decades that renewables didn’t grow globally. However, according to the International Energy Agency they expanded by 12 percent in 2019. The agency forecasts that renewables will be the world’s fastest-growing source of electricity, going from 25% of the total mix in 2018 to 30% by 2024. However, the IEA states that while market growth is positive, renewables “need to be growing far more strongly” to meet existing climate goals. To meet “the Paris Agreement climate goals, curbing air pollution, and achieving universal energy access around the world … much greater efforts are required.”

What do we need to do to build the momentum that wind and solar already have? Our recommendations from last year remain critical: fix the markets, value flexibility and integrate distributed resources. And we need states, cities, companies, regular people and, yes, eventually the federal government to keep growing demand. 2019 was a good year for wind and solar, but we can and must do better.

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