Dueling Powers: Both Clean and Dirty Energy Are Advancing

The U.S. energy sector has entered a new phase in the energy transition: renewable energy and energy efficiency are clear economic winners, but fracked gas and oil have spurred a worrying buildout of polluting fossil infrastructure amid the worsening climate crisis. NRDC’s Seventh Annual Energy Report published today digs deeper into these energy trends, highlighting the actions that states, cities, and businesses are taking today to drive real climate progress and the obstacles standing in the way.

Clean Energy Opportunities and Dirty Energy Challenges details the last 1.5 years of U.S. energy trends and news, exploring the emerging opportunities—and roadblocks—on the path to a safer climate future. It comes in the same week that the Trump administration began the steps to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement to reduce emissionsthe worst possible time for America as the world’s second-largest emitter to abandon global climate leadership.

In the fall of 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) called on the global community to limit the increase in warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels to avoid the most catastrophic and irreversible effects of climate change. We are feeling the impacts of the climate crisis today: extreme heat waves, deadly wildfires, unprecedented ice loss, more frequent and intense storms, and record flooding that hit America’s farm belt especially hard in 2018 and 2019.

Achieving this more ambitious goal will require aggressive action. The IPCC estimates the world needs to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution by 45 percent within the next 11 years (by 2030) and achieve net-zero GHG emissions by 2050 to remain on track for 1.5°C. Unfortunately, overall levels of climate-warming carbon emissions rose in the United States in 2018, for the first time in five years. This occurred even as coal consumption in the U.S. fell to the lowest levels in 40 years—driven partly, at least, by the continued and expensive rush to gas that threatens to lock in polluting infrastructure for decades to come. Also for the first time in five years, more natural gas plants were built than renewable energy facilities. These new gas-fired facilities will emit about 52 million tons of carbon pollution annually, equivalent to the pollution from all of Arizona’s power plants each year.

Even more worrisome, the increase in climate-warming pollution was a global trend: carbon emissions worldwide were estimated at an all-time high in 2018, 2.7 percent above 2017 levels.

However, even with the Trump administration’s attempts to withdraw from the agreement to cut emissions, there is reason to be hopeful in the United States. Despite stalled (and sometimes backward) momentum at the national level, there have been groundbreaking commitments from states, cities, utilities, and businesses to rise to the climate challenge in the last year and a half.

Clean Energy Wins

As clean technologies achieve economies of scale, the costs of wind and solar energy continue to plummet. In the past year alone, the cost of generation from onshore wind, offshore wind, and solar photovoltaics fell by 10, 24, and 18 percent, respectively. Building a new wind or solar farm is now often cheaper than running an existing coal plant. As renewable energy has become an economic winner—and as supporting technologies such as battery storage have advanced—what is and is not economically achievable has radically changed:

  • Since the start of 2018, five states—plus D.C. and Puerto Rico—have committed to 100 percent clean or renewable electricity (joining Hawaii, which passed the first 100 percent renewable energy target four years ago). Another seven states have recently set (non-binding and/or non-legislated) goals to pursue 100 percent clean electricity.
  • Nine utilities also have voluntarily committed to 100 percent carbon-free electricity in the last year and a half. In total, state and utility 100 percent clean energy commitments cover over 44.5 million U.S. homes and businesses—equal to about a quarter of all U.S. households—and nearly 24 percent of all electricity consumed in the country
  • More than 140 U.S. cities have also adopted 100 percent clean electricity goals.

Energy Efficiency Advancements

In the face of federal rollbacks of efficiency standards (like appliance and lighting standards), cities, states, and utilities embraced energy efficiency, taking advantage of one of the most cost-effective options for reaching their climate targets and decarbonizing the U.S. economy. Efficient systems use less energy, which means less carbon pollution in the atmosphere from fossil fuel generation and lower utility bills for consumers.

  • California established the nation’s first net-zero electricity building code, ensuring that most new single-family homes and low-rise apartment buildings consume no more electricity than it generates from on-site renewable energy (like rooftop and community solar).
  • Washington, Colorado, and Hawaii joined states like Vermont in setting energy and water efficiency standards for a range of appliances that will save residents more than $3 billion on their utility bills over the next 15 years.
  • Since 2017, individual cities have taken more than 250 major actions to advance smarter energy use agendas through building and transportation policies, utility efficiency programs, and community initiatives that account for social equity in energy planning.

Cleaning Up Transportation

The transportation sector is now the leading source of GHG emissions in the United States, having overtaken the power sector a few years ago. The Trump administration has proposed to freeze national fuel economy standards and block states like California from setting their own, more aggressive rules. States and industry alike have fought this attempt to prolong our dependence on oil; in fact, four major automakers (Ford, Volkswagen, Honda, and BMW) voluntarily agreed in the summer of 2019 to follow a modified version of California’s stricter fuel economy standards. And many are going further, working together to tackle the climate-warming and health-harming emissions released from our cars and trucks:

  • In September 2019, Amazon announced the largest purchase ever (by far) of electric vehicles by a business: 100,000 electric delivery vehicles will be on the streets delivering packages by 2024. UPS has announced that it is ordering electric trucks from manufacturers including Tesla, Workhorse, and Thor and rolling out battery-assisted bicycles for UPS delivery workers in cities.
  • Nine states and the District of Columbia, working together as members of the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI), are set to finalize by the end of 2019, the policies, emissions reduction goals, and investment strategies that will cut climate pollution from vehicles and deliver low-carbon transportation to communities disproportionately burdened by transit pollution.
  • California, along with nine other states, also set targets to greatly increase personal electric vehicle sales.

Driving Clean Energy Further

The U.S. energy trends of 2018 highlight both the opportunities and the challenges facing the nation: Coal is in decline, electric vehicles and grid energy storage are emerging as cleaner mainstream options, and renewables are on the rise—but so are gas and oil.

These clean energy opportunities and dirty energy challenges are obvious when looking at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) projections for 2018 from a decade ago. Economy-wide, coal use was 47 percent less in 2018 than the DOE projected 10 years ago. Wind and solar capacity are more than four-fold higher than projected. DOE’s gas and oil projections have also proven false, though the changes in these metrics are much more troubling. Gas use was 27 percent higher than projected, while domestic oil production was almost 70 percent higher than the DOE anticipated a decade ago.

Comparing DOE's Decade-old Projection of 2018 versus Actual 2018 Energy Outcomes

While progress has been uneven, the U.S. energy system has still seen a momentous transformation in the last decade: energy spending is down, clean energy production is upand the ever-improving economics of clean energy will only drive further change. Clean energy is not only cheaper, it is our best weapon against climate change. To learn more, take a look.

About the Authors

Amanda Levin

Policy Analyst, Climate & Clean Energy Program

Sophia Ptacek

Program Assistant

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