NRDC Report: US Clean Energy Transition Irrevocably Underway

NRDC’s Fourth Annual Energy Report published today brings optimistic news in a moment of uncertainty in the federal government: the nationwide momentum for clean energy is undeniable and irresistible because clean energy now costs less than dirty energy. Our report, Accelerating Into a Clean Energy Future, includes extensive new evidence of the transition from climate-polluting fossil fuels to renewables and energy efficiency. Coal-fired generation is at historic lows and electricity generated from solar panels, wind turbines, and other renewable resources is at historic highs, thanks mostly to potent economic forces integrated with federal, state and local policy.

Our report highlights many major positive trends:

Electricity

There has been a precipitous decline in coal generation (and consumption) of historic proportions. Energy markets have swiftly moved from coal toward natural gas, solar, and wind energy, while the demand for nuclear energy and hydropower electricity has remained flat, as shown by the graph below. Until 2008, coal out-produced natural gas, wind, and solar energy combined by a factor of 2; however, in 2015 natural gas, wind, and solar together produced 5 percent more electricity than coal. The fact that clean energy costs less than dirty coal cannot be denied. And that means lower utility bills for consumers as well. In fact, another recent NRDC report found that states that most conspicuously failed to invest in clean energy, including renewable energy and energy efficiency, are paying for it with both increased electricity bills and higher power plant pollution emissions from fossil fuel-fired electricity generation. 

Energy Efficiency

Our report finds that there also have been significant gains in efficiency—the most cost-effective way to meet our energy needs, avoid building power plants, and cut people’s utility and transportation bills. Due to energy efficiency, annual U.S. energy consumption is about the same now as in 2000, despite growth in the economy (Gross Domestic Product) of 30 percent over that period. And in 2015 alone, energy saved through appliance standards was equivalent to the amount of electricity required to meet the needs of 43 million U.S. homes, almost a third of the nation’s residential sector.  

Transportation

The transportation sector also has positive news, with oil consumption only slightly higher than in 1973, the year of the first “oil shock” from turmoil in the Mideast. Oil consumption has increased over the past three years, but only slightly despite sharply lower gasoline prices, due to strong fuel economy standards and vehicle electrification policies. Continued strengthening of these standards remains critical for achieving oil consumption reductions. 

Carbon

U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2015 were down 12 percent from the 2005 levels—a significant reduction of climate-harming pollutants. And the historic global climate negotiations in Paris led the United States to pledge economy-wide cuts up to 28 percent below 2005 greenhouse gas emissions levels by 2025, which the president-elect should uphold

State and local policies can lead the way

Our new administration can and should continue to build on all these clean energy advances. However, whatever happens over the months ahead in Washington, DC, state and local authorities and the private sector will continue to embrace the market trends that support pollution-free energy. California has weighed in recently by enacting  a ceiling on carbon pollution emissions of 40 percent or more below 1990 levels by 2030, raising its renewable energy targets to 50 percent by 2030, and doubling the amount of energy efficiency to be achieved over that same period. Meanwhile, more than one-fifth of the U.S. population now lives in a state with a goal of at least 50 percent renewable energy.

Utilities must also be leaders in pressing for regulatory reforms and embracing policies that reward customers for saving energy. Utilities should align shareholder incentives with environmental goals and adapt to new technologies, all while ensuring equitable treatment of all customers.

And the good news is that NRDC’s Fourth Annual Energy Report reaffirms that, regardless of partisan ideological differences and even the possibility of climate naysayers in prominent federal roles, our clean energy transition is unstoppable for all the right reasons: lower bills, more jobs, and cleaner air.

About the Authors

Ralph Cavanagh

Codirector, Energy program

Kala Viswanathan

Schneider Sustainable Energy Fellow, Energy & Transportation program

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