Clean Energy Expansion and Clean Power Plan Work Hand-in-Hand to Keep Up Climate Progress

As NRDC reports in its latest issue brief, various industry and government sources conducting independent power sector forecast analyses reach the same conclusion: clean energy is expected to continue its rapid growth over the next six years thanks in large part to the extension of tax credits for wind and solar projects approved by Congress and signed into law last December. This clear trend is also driving down carbon pollution from the power sector, and makes reaching the Clean Power Plan limits even easier than we had originally projected. However, the issue brief also stresses that these trends are neither guaranteed nor permanent, and we’ll need the Clean Power Plan to keep the power sector on the right course in the long term.

Let’s walk through each of these key takeaways.

First, the studies agree: renewable energy will continue on a strong growth trajectory for the next six years, nearly doubling today’s levels by 2021. It is especially remarkable that the four studies we surveyed reached similar conclusions about how much renewable generation is expected to grow because each relied on different model representations of the electricity sector and a range of input assumptions. Independent projections from Rhodium Group (RHG), the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), M.J. Bradley & Associates (MJB&A) and Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) suggest that renewable capacity could nearly double between 2015 and 2021. As shown in the figure below, utility-scale capacity is expected to reach around 160 GW in 2021, compared with 88 GW at the end of 2015. And rooftop solar represents another source of strong expected growth, climbing from around 11 GW at the end of 2015 to around 40 GW in 2021.

Yet another independent source finding similar and consistent levels of renewable capacity growth through the early part of the 2020’s decade is the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC). NERC is the nation’s overseer of electric grid reliability (NERC) and reaffirmed last month in its latest assessment that the transition to clean energy is accelerating and would not disrupt safe and reliable electricity services.

However, without additional policy drivers, the healthy development rate for renewable energy could slow as the federal tax policies phase down by 2022.

This brings us to the second key takeaway. By the early 2020’s, we’ll need smart policies to keep up the progress. The Clean Power Plan’s flexible and achievable limits, which are expected to reduce pollution by roughly one-third from 2005 levels in 2030, are set to do just that. Since 2005, the U.S. power sector—the largest source of carbon pollution in America—has reduced its carbon emissions by 20 percent as a result of federal and state support for renewable energy and energy efficiency, rapidly falling costs for solar and wind technologies, improved air pollution standards, and low natural gas prices. Because of that progress and continued momentum as a result of expected renewables growth, the limits are even more achievable than was originally expected. MJB&A demonstrates the power sector is well-positioned to meet, and even exceed, the Clean Power Plan’s goals.

Finally, there are numerous benefits of investing in clean energy and efficiency: job growth, lower energy prices, cleaner air, and climate protection are just a few.

Clean energy and energy efficiency are smart investments for states and utilities. Forward-thinking states have recently taken steps to ambitiously strengthen their Renewable Portfolio Standards. Power companies are forging ahead with strong commitments to renewable energy investments. Four of the country’s largest utilities, including Duke Energy, NextEra Energy, Southern Company and MidAmerican Energy Company, have recently announced additions to their renewable energy portfolios. Duke Energy company spokesman Randy Wheeless was recently quoted in a news article (subscription required) saying on the topic of renewable energy, “We’re finding that it’s competitive. It makes good business sense.”

It makes good sense for you and me too. Investing in clean energy and efficiency benefits our households and businesses. In 2013 alone, state renewables policies saved customers up to $1.2 billion as a result of lower electricity prices, supported nearly 200,000 renewable energy-related jobs, and provided over $5 billion in health benefits from improved air quality. We urge states to strengthen their clean energy policies in parallel with Clean Power Plan activities to maximize benefits for their citizens.

We are making important progress towards a clean energy future that will protect us and future generations from the dangerous environmental and public health hazards of climate change. But we must keep up the momentum with smart policies, like the Clean Power Plan, to ensure that we stay on this path and achieve our long term climate goals.

Renewable energy growth gives us a great head start on meeting the Clean Power Plan limits. The Clean Power Plan will keep us on track, though the U.S. can and must build on this progress to further accelerate its transition towards a clean energy future.

About the Authors

Starla Yeh

Director, Policy Analysis Group, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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