We're Winning on Renewable Energy, but We Need to Double Down

Amanda Little

The stories of our time in the United States are by and large stories of failure: our government has failed to contain COVID-19; we have failed to upend structural racism; and we've failed to maintain a respected position in global diplomacy. We've also failed to fix our fraught health care system, to resolve growing income disparity, to create food security, and to pass meaningful climate policy.

This succession of failures has made it hard to recognize our victories along the way, but here's a crucial story of progress we can celebrate: we've been winning on renewable energy. And especially now, as the pandemic continues to send shock waves through the global economy, we need to double down on that progress.

In May, our renewable energy consumption in the U.S. surpassed coal for the first time in modern history. A combination of improving technologies, declining costs, and progressive state-level policies have pushed solar and wind energy installations in the U.S. beyond their projected growth. In 2000, the U.S. had 2.5 gigawatts of installed wind capacity. In 2020, we have nearly 50 times that: 113.43 gigawatts. The solar industry in the U.S. has also seen extraordinary growth -- an average of 50% annually since 2010. There are now more than 750,000 jobs in the U.S. renewable energy sector -- neck and neck with telecommunications. And, jobs in the solar and wind sectors alone outnumber those in coal and gas in 30 states.

"In May, our renewable energy consumption in the U.S. surpased coal for the first time in modern history. The solar industry in the U.S. has also seen extraordinary growth -- an average of 50% annually since 2010."

Heather Zichal and Amanda Little Facebook Live conversation broadcasted on February 18, 2021.

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In Texas, where wind accounts for 17.5% of power generation, some providers are now offering free electricity at night because it's actually cheaper to give energy away than it is to shut the turbines down for the night and fire them back up in the morning. What consumer can resist a cost-free night of charging their devices with carbon-free electricity?

Globally, the rate of growth in renewables has been staggering. Five years ago, electricity from solar and wind was cheaper than new fossil fuel plants in 1% of the world. Now, it's cheaper than new fossil plants in 66% of the world. Another five years from now it will be cheaper everywhere. Last year, nearly 90% of new electricity sources added to the grid in Europe came from solar and wind; 53% in China; and 65% in India.

Going forward, the growth potential for investors is also wildly hopeful. Goldman Sachs recently predicted that $16 trillion can be made within ten years from investments in renewables. But that progress is only possible if we successfully navigate the COVID-19 maelstrom, which has been both a threat and a boon to clean energy.

"Last year, nearly 90% of the new electricity capacity introduced in Europe came from solar and wind. In China, 53% of new capacity came from solar and wind; and 65% in India."

The pandemic has pushed fossil fuel industries to a breaking point. As nation after nation imposed quarantine measures, the global energy demand plunged 6%. The impact has been especially catastrophic for oil and gas producers who now face a massive surplus of product. But, the damage also rippled into renewable energy industries. Lockdowns paused production of solar modules and wind turbines, delayed construction timelines, and interrupted supply chains. The Solar Energy Industry Association predicts a 31% decline of distributed solar in 2020 due to the impacts of the pandemic. BW Research Partnership, a firm that conducts economic and workforce research, reports an 18% loss of the jobs in the renewable energy industry.

But great potential lies further ahead, despite some grim assessments of the long-term impact of COVID-19 on renewable energy growth. The International Energy Agency predicts the demand for renewables will climb. In fact, it already has. When fossil fuel sectors floundered in the early months of the pandemic, wind and solar saw their share of the electricity market grow by 40% in the U.S. -- even as installations slowed and jobs were lost.

"The pandemic has exposed the volatility and vulnerability of the fossil fuel industry. It has also revealed the advantages of renewable energy technologies..."

The pandemic has exposed the volatility and vulnerability of the fossil fuel industry. It has also revealed the advantages of renewable energy technologies, which by comparison, are on a stable trajectory of increasing usage and declining costs. In May, BP vowed to become net-zero-carbon by 2050 and in late June, sold off its petrochemical division.

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In the coming months, U.S. policymakers, investors, and voters in particular must do their part to support the shift toward a new energy paradigm. States must increase incentives for renewable energy installations, expedite permitting, restore lost jobs in this sector, and follow the example set by Massachusetts, where these jobs were deemed "essential" during lockdown. We will also need new, bold federal leadership. For example, Japan, South Korea, the U.K., and countries throughout the E.U. are considering pandemic stimulus packages that focus on clean energy. The United States must follow suit.

It's crucial that our policies protect and build upon our hard-earned renewable energy wins -- we can't let them become yet another catastrophic loss.