During Monday’s presidential campaign debate, Hillary Clinton predicted, “Some country is going to be the clean energy superpower of the 21st century.”
The implication was clear: That country could be us. And a new federal report suggests that we’ve recently been making strides in getting there.
The new report, released Wednesday by the Department of Energy, is the latest in an of annual series analyzing the progress of clean energy in the U.S. — specifically the growth in wind turbines, solar technology, electric vehicles and LEDs, and the reduction in their costs. And this year’s update is a rosy one: Costs are down, installations are up and emerging technologies like smart buildings and grid-connected batteries are moving up on the horizon.
Much of the recent growth can likely be attributed to dramatic price reductions for each of the featured technologies. The cost of land-based wind power, for instance, has dropped by 41 percent since 2008, while the cost of LED bulbs fell by a whopping 94 percent. In turn, this has led to expansion on all fronts.
Land-based wind, for instance, accounted for more than 40 percent of all new electricity generating capacity brought online in 2015, according to the report. And there will be additional opportunities for wind power to expand in the near future. The country’s first offshore wind farm is preparing to begin operations off Rhode Island, and Massachusetts recently passed legislation calling for utilities to procure increasing amounts of electricity from offshore wind farms in the future. The new report notes that the “technical potential of offshore wind resources is enough to generate more electricity than twice what the U.S. generated from all sources of electricity in 2015.”
Additionally, utility-scale solar reached a total capacity of nearly 14,000 megawatts in 2015, up 43 percent from the previous year. Rooftop solar hit a major milestone as well, celebrating its one millionth installation earlier this year. Altogether, land-based wind and solar accounted for two-thirds of all new capacity that came online in 2015, the report said.
Other cleaner technologies are growing in popularity as well. The report finds that there are nearly half a million electric vehicles on the road as of this past August, and more than 200 million LED bulbs installed as of the end of 2015.
The report also looks to emerging technologies that may continue to either reduce our total energy use or aid in the expansion of renewables. These include super fuel-efficient heavy-duty trucks, “smart buildings” equipped with sophisticated energy-saving software and fuel cells that convert fuel into electricity without the need for combustion.
High on the list as well is the need for improved energy storage in the form of grid-connected batteries, which many experts have argued are essential for renewables like wind and solar to become more competitive. Last year was a particularly big year for the energy storage industry, with major increases in energy storage deployment and head-turning announcements of new battery products from companies like Tesla. The new report suggests that, with additional cost reductions and gains in deployment, “total domestic energy storage market could be worth $2.9 billion by 2021, as compared to $350 million in 2015.”
Can all this momentum be maintained? While plunging costs for renewables and electric vehicles should help the industry regardless of politics, it is looking more as though the answer to that question could also partly hinge on the outcome of the upcoming presidential election.
Clinton’s energy vision includes the U.S. deploying half a billion solar panels by the end of her first term and generating a third of the nation’s electricity from renewable sources by the year 2027.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, has vowed to revitalize the coal industry, promote the construction of oil and gas pipelines and do away with many existing regulations, including limits on mining and drilling on federal lands. Ignoring the fact that Trump’s support of shale gas drilling is inherently at odds with his plans to save the coal industry, the takeaway is that the energy plan relies heavily on support for fossil fuels and the easing of environmental restrictions.
Their disparate visions are based in a fundamental difference of opinion on the existence of human-generated climate change. During last Monday’s debate, Clinton suggested that Trump believes “climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.” (Despite Trump’s attempts to deny this claim during the debate, numerous records — including this now-famous 2012 tweet — show that he’s expressed similar views multiple times in the past.)
Trump has also controversially called for a U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, an action that scientists say could doom the entire international community’s climate efforts. For the U.S. to meet its domestic climate commitments under the accord, stringent energy policies and strong commitment to the expansion of renewables will be necessary.
Clinton has expressed hope that the U.S. can become a clean energy superpower, and now the reports show that we’re on that track. Whether we stay on course is a question that the coming weeks may well end up deciding.