Renewable energy in the U.S. nearly quadrupled in the past decade, report finds

Source: By Tik Root, Washington Post • Posted: Sunday, November 14, 2021

A solar farm in San Antonio last month. (Tannen Maury/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

The proportion of electricity the United States gets from solar and wind nearly quadrupled between 2011 and 2020. While geothermal generation remained relatively flat, the three technologies combined for an annual increase of nearly 15 percent over that stretch.

Those findings come from a report released Tuesday by the nonprofit Environment America Research and Policy Center and the nonpartisan research organization Frontier Group. The analysis also found that if the current growth rate continues, wind, solar and geothermal would meet current electricity demand levels by 2035 — which is when President Biden aims to have an entirely fossil-fuel-free grid.

“The pace of progress is continuing to pick up,” said Emma Searson, an author of the new report. “That’s exactly what we need to see in years to come.”

Solar generation grew particularly quickly, with the report finding a 23-fold increase since 2011. Wind, which started at a higher percentage than solar, saw an almost threefold increase. Three states — Iowa, North Dakota and Kansas — now produce at least half the amount of electricity they consume from wind and solar.

“Prices have plummeted,” Searson said, noting one driver of the surge. A National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) survey found that from 2011 to 2018, utility-scale solar costs dropped by about 80 percent — and the NREL projects that prices will continue to decline.

In addition to falling costs, Searson said, public policies and a location’s renewable energy prospects seemed to be other significant factors in the expansion. California, for instance, is by far the national leader in solar electricity generation — nearly five times ahead of Texas, the state in second place.

“That’s no accident. California has enacted really aggressive policies,” Searson said of the role that legislation can play in supporting renewable energy. But, she added, “we’re certainly seeing states that you might not see as obvious renewable energy leaders also stepping out front.”

However, some say sustaining the current pace will be a tall task.

“You’ll need some fundamental shifts to continue this growth rate,” said Michael Craig, an energy systems expert at the University of Michigan. “There’s this race between declining costs and this increasing difficultly of deployment.”

“The past doesn’t dictate the future,” said Joseph Kane, a fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank who focuses on infrastructure and climate issues. “When you’re starting from a low starting point, that’s going to naturally lead to more optimism. … That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy to displace some of the fossil fuels.”

According to Ember, a London-based think tank, the United States still produces only 12 percent of its electricity from wind and solar — putting it in the middle of the pack globally. The percentage in both the United Kingdom and Germany is more than double that.

But ultimately, Searson said she is hopeful about the U.S. trajectory.

“This really visionary target of 100 percent clean electricity is no longer a wild picture,” she said. “It’s something we can imagine.”