Today’s Wind and Solar Can Lead to a Safer Climate Tomorrow

This is part of a series of blogs on NRDC’s new report, "America’s Clean Energy Frontier: The Pathway to a Safer Climate Future."

Experts agree that staving off the worst impacts of climate change will require the United States and other nations to reduce carbon emissions by at least 80 percent (from 1990 levels) by the middle of the century. The extreme weather dominating the news this fall make it more clear than ever that we need to get this done. But what is the best way to make the deep carbon cuts we need? Renewable energy needs to play a major role.

New, comprehensive modeling by NRDC and Energy + Environmental Economics (E3) outlines a cost-effective pathway to a climate-safe future that relies on today’s proven clean energy solutions. The big news here is not just that we can do it. It’s how—with a bold and rapid expansion of energy efficiency, renewable energy and the electrification of vehicles and buildings with clean power, all supported by a modernized grid. We don’t need to wait for new breakthroughs, and we don’t need to rely on risky or costly strategies like nuclear power, biomass, and carbon capture and storage (CCS).

What we do need is to keep pushing forward—hard—on existing clean energy solutions. On the renewable energy front alone, we need 70 percent of U.S. electricity to come from wind and solar power.

This blog focuses on what we need to do under this climate pathway on the renewable energy front—we will need at least 13-fold increase in wind and solar by 2050, alone, to achieve this vision. That might sound ambitious, but given the dizzying pace of renewable energy development, it’s definitely within reach, and it represents less than 1 percent of our solar potential and less than 10 percent of our wind. U.S. wind and solar have grown 23 percent and 60 percent, respectively, over the past decade. Their growth accounts for more than half of all the new power added to our electric system. And according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, this rapid expansion of renewable energy is a long-term trend.  

The sun may set, but the savings are rising

Steep price declines have played a major role in this growth and will continue to do so. The cost of solar PV (generation from photovoltaic panels) has declined by almost 85 percent in less than a decade. Analysts expect solar to become the lowest-cost form of new power in the United States by 2023–even after federal tax credits expire—and to be less expensive than existing fossil generation by 2027 across the country. In some parts of the country, solar is already cheaper than fossil fuel energy. 

At the same time that solar prices have been plummeting, the average price for electricity from wind (bought through what are known as long-term power purchase agreements of PPAs) have dropped more than 70 percent, from $70 per megawatt-hour (MWh) in 2009 to less than $20/MWh in 2016, according to the Department of Energy. That’s at the bottom end of the average for wholesale power, which ranged from $20 to $45/MWh in 2016 depending on the region, and it means lower utility bills and cleaner air for consumers, too.

Wind off our shores

To reach the levels of wind power required by 2050 in our modeling scenario, however, the federal government and states will need to adopt policies to pick up the pace of the nascent U.S. offshore wind industry. The first offshore wind facility was launched off Rhode Island in December 2016, and today 14 more are in the planning phase. The DOE sees the potential for 22 GW of offshore wind by 2030, but that won’t be enough to match the growth called for by our analysis. To get there, we’ll need federal policies such as a tax credit targeted at offshore wind and we’ll need the Department of Interior to continue to map out appropriate areas for offshore wind development. 

And we’ll need west coast states to join offshore wind state leaders like New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Maryland in committing to scale up offshore wind, just as European countries have done for the past twenty years.

How can we ensure that renewable energy continues to move forward at the rate we need to secure a safer climate future? Smart state policies, such as strong renewable portfolio standards that require a specific amount of electricity generation to come from renewable resources, reforming utility business models, and enabling renewable electricity purchases by consumers and corporations to spur investment in clean energy are more critical than ever.

Meanwhile, large-scale renewable energy projects should be “smart from the start” and sited to avoid conflicts with environmental, military, or community concerns. As noted above, we need to tap just a fraction of our potential; we can build the renewables we need and protect our land and wildlife. Maintaining federal tax credits for renewable projects also gives the industry the certainty it needs to plan for future expansion—a luxury enjoyed by the oil and gas industry for more than a century. (The most recent federal tax incentives extension is projected to add 220,000 jobs and inject $23 billion into the US economy in 2017 alone.)

Why model?

No model purports to predict the future, but models are the best tools we have to evaluate the risks and benefits of the energy choices we make as a country. Our analysis shows that smart and timely investments in energy efficiency, renewable energy, clean vehicles, and a stronger electricity grid will lead us to a safer future if we continue to scale them up. By the same token, if we fail to act, we will lock ourselves into a dirtier energy system and leave ourselves vulnerable to the most dangerous impacts of climate change. 

Some might say that calling for an electric system that relies on 70 percent renewable energy is revolutionary. But this is America, and we didn’t get to where we are  by being afraid to buck the system. We need a clean energy revolution today for a safer and more prosperous tomorrow. 

About the Authors

Nathanael Greene

Senior Renewable Energy Advocate, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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