US-Brazil 20% renewable commitment is a good start; we can do more

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President Obama and his Brazilian counterpart, Dilma Rousseff, announced a pretty impressive clean energy commitment at their joint White House appearance yesterday . Representing the world's second-largest greenhouse gas polluter and the world's 7th, respectively, they pledged that each country would get 20 percent of its electricity from non-hydro renewable sources, like solar and wind power, by 2030.

Wind Farm near Pine Bluffs, WY. Photo Credit James Adams

Given that power plants are the world's and our nation's largest climate polluter, that's great news for all of us: for everyone affected by increasingly dangerous extreme weather events that have been turbocharged by climate change; for Americans looking for good jobs in the fast-growing clean energy sector; for consumers of all types hoping to save money on their energy bills; for everyone who wants cleaner air for their kids to breathe; for states working to meet their carbon-cutting targets under the EPA's Clean Power Plan to cut greenhouse gas pollution from the nation's fossil-fuel-burning power plants; and for us as taxpayers, too. Collectively, we pay billions of dollars for the healthcare costs associated with burning fossil fuels. And, in 2012, our tax bill to clean up after extreme weather events totaled $96 billion--more than $300 per American.

So committing to 20 percent by 2030 is a great start, but only a start. As a nation, we currently get only about 7 percent of our electricity from non-hydro renewable energy. By 2030 we can get a lot more than 20 percent. (My colleague wrote about the significance for Brazil, here).

Action at the state level is a great model. Already, for instance, California and New York have plans in the works to get 50 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030. Hawaii will get at least 40 percent and has committed to 100 percent by mid-century. And Vermont is promising big numbers, too. As it is, 10 states now get at least 14 percent of their electricity from non-hydro renewable energy, including five--Iowa, South Dakota, Idaho, California, and Kansas--that get more 20 percent. (Iowa leads the pack, with 28.5 percent from wind power alone. And California, our most populous state, with almost 39 million residents, gets 22 percent, not counting its considerable rooftop solar resources, and is on track for 33 percent by 2020.)

The plummeting costs of solar and wind power mean that, next to energy efficiency, these are often the least-cost resources available to utilities in many areas. In Texas, for instance, Austin's municipal utility, Austin Energy, just received bids for 600 megawatts of solar power at less 4 cents a kilowatt hour. Pretty mind-blowing, right? And much less that it would have paid for polluting power. In Oklahoma, in 2013, American Electric Power, one of the country's largest investor-owned utilities, bought three times more wind power than it initially planned, because wind power offered such good value to ratepayers.

Thanks in large part to smart government policies--state renewable electricity standards, and federal and state tax incentives like the solar Investment Tax Credit that sunsets at the end of 2016 and the now-expired federal Production Tax Credit for wind power--thanks to utility renewable energy programs and local government efforts, clean energy costs are now lower than ever. That's because these policies have jumpstarted demand, and in so doing, have sped economies of scale, driven investment in improved technologies, and increased competition in the marketplace. Now, new technologies, like taller wind turbine towers and more efficient solar cells, are propelling costs down further still.

No wonder, then, that a forward-looking group of US senators has introduced legislation that would enable utilities to get 30 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030. (Companion legislation will be introduced in the House of Representatives soon.) Our friends at the Union of Concerned Scientists estimate this legislation can not only create an almost 11 percent reduction in power-sector carbon pollution--that's over and above state renewable electricity and energy efficiency standards already on the books--but also save Americans $25 billion on energy between now and the target date. It can increase business investment in renewable energy by $106 billion, generate $4.3 billion in operations payments, most of it paid out in the form of wages, and pay $2.6 billion in property taxes to local governments for essential services like education, police and fire protection. And the legislation can help farmers and ranchers stay on their land, too, by providing $830 million in wind power lease payments.

The US Department of Energy thinks getting 20 percent of the country's energy from wind power alone by 2030 is eminently doable, with the right policies in place. That would not only cut carbon pollution from power plants by 8 percent, it would save 173 billion gallons of fresh water a year. It would cut consumer energy costs by 1.5 billion annually, and save 6,200 lives between now and 2030 due to reduced air pollution. Did I mention their estimate of 375,000 jobs?

But why stop there? The National Renewable Energy Laboratory says we can get at least 80 percent of our electricity from renewable sources by 2050. And there's an even more ambitious plan in circulation, from The Solutions Project. It posits we can get a full 100 percent of our energy--not just our electricity but our energy--from renewable sources by 2050, with a kind of full court press you see during a war mobilization.

President Obama's and President Rousseff's commitment today are downpayments on that promise and that possibility. With renewable energy, 20 percent by 2030 can be just the start.