2018 Clean Energy Year in Review: Reversing Trump Rollbacks

Part of NRDC's Year-End Series Reviewing 2018 Climate & Clean Energy Developments

Sass Peress, Renewz Sustainable Solutions Inc./Creative Commons

Many of us learned in high school about Newton’s third law of physics: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. 2018 was a lesson in physics: the Trump administration’s furious assault on pollution protections has, in turn, catalyzed a powerful and growing movement that is pushing back against these misguided rollback attempts.

This year was filled with signs that the climate resistance momentum is building, as state champions and businesses are heeding the mounting wake-up calls from scientists to redouble efforts to accelerate the transition to clean energy. The progress is widespread and gaining momentum, from renewable energy commitments to strides in energy efficiency to getting more electric vehicles on the road.

Renewables on the rise

Our annual clean energy report, America’s Climate Crossroads: Pushing Clean Energy Higher & Faster, clearly shows wind and solar energy are winning the battle against coal. Renewable energy now accounts for 16 percent of the U.S. electricity supply (and 43 percent of new capacity in the first half of 2018), with more than half of that 16 percent coming from wind and solar resources. The rise of renewable energy, along with low natural gas price, drove down U.S. coal consumption levels in 2018, set to be the lowest in 39 years. (NRDC’s 2018 look at renewable energy progress can be found here.)

The rise in using renewable resources to generate electricity is driven by rapidly falling clean energy prices, but also state and city actions across the country to set strong new renewable energy targets and pollution limits.

In May of this year, New Jersey joined five other states requiring utilities to get at least 50 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2030. With the passage of Senate Bill 100 in September, California committed to 60 percent renewable electricity by 2030, ultimately aiming for 100 percent from zero-carbon sources by 2045. And not to be left behind, New York Governor Cuomo announced this month that he will push for New York to transition to 100 clean electricity by 2040.

Commitments like these create a demand for renewable electricity that utilities cannot ignore, especially given the dramatic reduction in renewable resource costs. Xcel Energy, which serves eight states, just announced a goal to provide 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2050. This makes sense, considering Xcel is the largest utility in Colorado, where Governor-elect Jared Polis campaigned on getting the state to an all-renewable portfolio by 2040, and Denver recently became the 73rd U.S. city to pursue 100 percent clean energy. (Go here for more on 2018 clean energy progress by America’s utilities.)

Increasing energy efficiency

One of the best ways to make our energy system cleaner is to use less energy in the first place.

While NRDC continues to fight the Trump’s administration's attempts to stall progress on new efficiency standards, the good news is that it was not able to stop a separate set of efficiency standards for five U.S. products this year going into effect this year. Thanks to the new energy efficiency standards for these products, which include clothes washers, commercial ice makers and battery chargers, the U.S. will avoid more than 176 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions through 2030.

State and local leaders and utilities have long recognized energy efficiency is the cheapest, cleanest, and fastest way to cut carbon pollution. In 2018, states renewed or strengthened utility energy efficiency programs across the country, and utility program spending has risen to nearly $8 billion annually on such programs, which help customers cut energy waste. In Virginia, Governor Northam is poised to vault the state from laggard to leader with $1 billion in energy efficiency investments, including important funding for low-income energy efficiency. Vermont, already an efficiency leader, passed a new set of efficiency requirements this year for more than a dozen products.

We not only need to keep making our buildings and appliances more efficient, we also need to cut direct carbon emissions from buildings in order to meet our climate goals. NRDC is a thought leader in this area. In California, Governor Brown signed two bills designed to both increase efficiency and reduce carbon emissions from homes and commercial buildings by encouraging clean electric heating and cooling. Pennsylvania's statewide building code will make new buildings in the Keystone state 25 percent more efficient. New York is set to continue its efficiency leadership with a bold new initiative to cut energy demand from homes and businesses.

Fast-tracking electric vehicles

While the Trump Administration attempts to turn back the clock on fuel economy standards, the market for clean cars continues to race ahead. Since 2016, transportation has surpassed electricity generation as the largest U.S. source of carbon pollution. I wrote earlier about NRDC's participation in the 50x50 Commission on U.S. Transportation Sector Efficiency, which has a plan for halving the country's energy use for transportation by 2050. That includes investing in R&D and supporting policies that improve the efficiency of all vehicle types.

The Trump Administration’s attempts is fueling a backlash at the state level. In October, Colorado became the first interior state, and 13th overall, to adopt the state version of clean car standards. California extended its Low Carbon Fuel Standard, which has successfully lowered the carbon intensity of gasoline and diesel.

As my colleague point out, 2018 was the biggest year yet for transportation electrification.  Electric cars reached a U.S. milestone in 2018, passing the 1 million mark for total plug-in models sold. California, long a leader in this regard, set a new goal to put 5 million EVs on the road by 2030 and authorized $738 million in utility investments in charging stations.

More states are following suit, paving the way for electrified transport. Six states including Maryland and Ohio adopted utility infrastructures for EVs, funding the charging stations that will be needed to support growth. An executive order in North Carolina mandates 80,000 zero-emission vehicles by 2025, and Governor Ralph Northam put Virginia on the road to zero tailpipe polluting vehicle when he announced a  $14 million investment in electric vehicle (EV) charging stations across the state,

Carbon pollution caps expand

Carbon pollution caps are another important driver of clean energy.

In January, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy also affirmed the state will rejoin the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). RGGI held its first carbon allowance auction 10 years ago, and since then, it's helped the cut pollution from power plants in the region by more than half. Virginia is moving forward with its plans to join as well, which would bring the number of participating states to 11.

Another set of Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states and Washington, D.C., plan to cut carbon pollution from transportation via the Transportation and Climate Initiative, with Virginia and Pennsylvania on board.

We expect 2019 to be a big year for state leadership on climate policy as new climate champion governors take office in states like Illinois, Michigan, Nevada and Colorado, and with Oregon poised to enact economy-wide carbon cap legislation.

A movement that's building momentum

The Trump administration's withdrawal from the Paris accord has galvanized a broad group of allies eager to fill the climate leadership gap. At the recent Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, climate leaders from both private and public entities around the world sent the message that they won't wait to address climate change. There are encouraging signs that China, India, and other countries are taking significant measures aimed at reducing pollution.

Yet global carbon emissions are still rising. The recent devastating wildfires in California, hurricanes on the east coast, and the likelihood that 2018 will be the fourth- hottest year on record are critical reminders that the fight for a more sustainable energy path is more urgent than ever. We need far more serious action to head off the worst effects of a warming world.

Sadly, we are losing valuable time due to the Trump administration’s pointless attempts to turn back the clock to bring back coal and gas guzzlers. But the administration’s brazen attempts have catalyzed an equal and opposite reaction: a surging climate movement that is pushing back to blunt the Trump attacks and to continue progress on the big, proven clean energy solutions. Fortunately, notable clean energy victories at the state level in 2018, as well as successful efforts to slow the Trump rollbacks, give us great hope that we can reverse the tide and win the war to avert a climate catastrophe.

As the clock ticks down on the its last two years of the Trump administration, we fully expect the pace and intensity of their attacks to greatly increase. In 2019, NRDC attorneys and advocates will continue to fight them every step of the way, while forging the path forward toward a clean energy future.

About the Authors

Roland Hwang

Managing Director, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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