February 19, 2019 at 5:00 am ET
From coast to coast, America’s economy kicked into high gear in 2018 — and the clean energy sector had a record year, too. The Business Council for Sustainable Energy’s annual “Sustainable Energy in America Factbook” documents strong fundamental trends in clean energy and the need for continued federal policy support that leverages private sector investment to accelerate emissions reductions.
Natural gas boomed. Domestic gas production reached record numbers; new natural gas-based energy capacity reached its highest levels in the last 15 years, and U.S. liquefied natural gas exports grew by an astonishing 135 percent year-over-year.
Renewable energy also surged, benefitting from continued price drops for renewable power and storage. Over 19 gigawatts of new renewable installations — mainly wind and solar — came online last year. Energy efficiency investments hit record levels, and states, including Pennsylvania, Virginia, Connecticut and Florida, strengthened their state building energy codes in 2018.
The factbook notes that the private sector and state governments have been increasing their role in support of national clean energy development. While numerous federal bills have been drafted by Republicans and Democrats in recent years, legislation that would send a strong market signal for investment in energy storage, hydropower, energy efficiency and innovation have stalled.
In contrast, states such as California, New York, New Jersey and Nevada are leading the charge for a clean energy future and increasing their commitment to funding clean energy in their respective states.
Perhaps most impressive is what’s happening in corporate America. In 2018, businesses doubled renewable energy procurements and joined new initiatives to demonstrate leadership in energy efficiency. For example, 156 corporations have now signed on to the RE100 Initiative, pledging to source 100 percent of their electricity from renewables.
Beyond these pledges, large corporate energy consumers signed contracts for 7.7 gigawatts of wind and solar power, more than doubling the previous record from 2015. And business leaders teamed up with regional utilities to develop new solar installations, further lowering the costs for clean energy for ratepayers.
But we can’t count our chickens before they hatch. For years, the rapid growth we have seen in energy efficiency, natural gas and renewable energy drove down U.S. greenhouse gas emissions while the economy grew. That’s why it was frustrating to see energy productivity stagnate and economy-wide U.S. greenhouse gas emissions increase by over 2 percent in 2018.
While the carbon intensity of the U.S. power sector continued to decline, it’s clear that achieving significant emission reductions in other sectors such as buildings, industrial and transportation may be more challenging without policy support.
Many states and businesses are already doing their part. Now, the federal government has the opportunity to engage in new ways.
The urgency of the challenges in infrastructure, resilience and emission reductions appear to be increasing the appetite for clean energy and climate change legislation on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill. The pressure is on to see if lawmakers can deliver what voters and consumers want: more clean energy.
With the right blend of federal, state and business leadership — combined with sustained consumer demand — we can see faster clean energy development, leading to more jobs, economic growth and reduced emissions across the U.S. economy. A clear-eyed look at the data is great motivation and cause for optimism.
Charles Hernick is the director of policy and advocacy at Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions Forum, a 501 (c)(3) nonpartisan, nonprofit organization committed to educating the public and influencing the national conversation about clean energy.
Lisa Jacobson is the president of the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, a 55-member trade association representing the energy efficiency, renewable energy and natural gas industries, and she is a member of the Department of Energy’s State Energy Efficiency Steering Committee, the United States Trade Representative’s Trade and Environment Policy Advisory Committee and Gas Technology Institute’s Public Interest Advisory Committee.
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