When history books are written about how we solved the climate problem, the year 2020 and the story of what happened with clean energy during the global COVID-19 pandemic will be defined as a key turning point.
There were early signs that clean energy would be a hallmark of the recovery. Despite the trifecta of an economy grinding to a halt, low oil prices and a recession, oil and gas majors Total and Royal Dutch Shell announced ambitious plans to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Indeed, companies of all types set aggressive emissions reductions goals and signed power purchase agreements at a pace never seen before. Intel, MasterCard and General Mills were among the 65 new companies that joined The Climate Group’s club of businesses committed to 100 percent renewable electricity. And even more companies — 123 in total — pledged to double energy productivity by 2030.
According to fresh data and analysis from the 2021 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook, the U.S. renewable energy sector grew 11 percent last year and added 27.8 gigawatts of capacity to meet this surging demand for clean energy. Solar and wind power had record years respectively and now Americans receive 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources including hydropower.
Despite the loss of three large nuclear power plants in 2020, electricity from all zero-carbon sources met 40 percent of our energy demand — proof that domestically sourced clean energy continues to grow and provide incontrovertible benefits for everyday Americans.
It is good news for tackling climate change too.
For over a decade, electric power sector emissions have steadily decreased. But it is worth noting — for all the wrong reasons associated with the economic slowdown and stay-home orders — total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions sank 10 percent to end the year 20 percent below 2005 levels. A silver lining is that the United States is on track to meet its original commitments of the Paris Climate Accord to reduce emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. Where the trend line goes next depends on business conditions and government policy.
As lawmakers look at designing policies that will reduce emissions while continuing to support economic growth, they should examine why clean energy proved so resilient despite the challenges and uncertainty of this past year. What they will find is this: The American people want clean energy and corporations, who share this desire, recognize that low-cost renewable power has revolutionized the market.
Even without accounting for tax incentives, onshore wind and solar power farms are often the most cost-competitive new generation. For dispatchable power, highly efficient and clean combined-cycle gas turbines are still cheapest. The desire for decarbonization and increased energy efficiency is strong in the private sector — driven by the bottom line, customers, and shareholders — and it is up to our lawmakers to maintain a matched focus to harvest this enthusiasm for the good of the American people.
The passage of the Energy Act of 2020 creates important momentum and a recipe for success. As the first major overhaul of the nation’s energy policies in more than a decade, it is proof that the hard work of bipartisan compromise can create real successes. Fully funding the innovation-focused programs in the Energy Act should be a top priority for the new Congress.
Despite everything our nation endured this past year, it is welcome news that clean energy emerged as a bipartisan issue and bright spot in the economy. With continued commonsense solutions, businesses and workers in energy, transportation and heavy industry are well-positioned to make 2021 another record-breaking year for U.S. clean energy and innovation and continue the transition to a clean future.
Charles Hernick is vice president of policy and advocacy at Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions Forum, a nonpartisan, 501 (c)(3) 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 coalition of companies and trade associations from the energy efficiency, natural gas and renewable energy sectors.
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