By: Chris Mooney
Published: February 4, 2015
We worry a lot about the problem of climate change. And we try to fix it — again, again and again — by changing how the country uses energy.
What we don’t stop and ponder enough, though, is that the country is changing how it uses energy. It’s certainly not enough to silence all environmental concerns. But nonetheless, the progress, when you sample it, is really impressive.
Such is the takeaway from a new report out by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, which has just released its 2015 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook, prepared for the Business Council for Sustainable Energy. Looking back over recent years, the report shows that on any number of metrics, progress in clean energy has really been immense.
“There’s a trend already underway where these technologies are making progress and gaining share at the expense of technologies that have been there previously,” explains Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s Michel Di Capua.
The proof? Just consider a few pretty impressive findings from the report:
1. The United States overall has seen nearly $ 400 billion in clean energy investment since 2007.
The United States still fell short of China in total clean energy investment last year, but overall investment in this country has been massive. As you can see in the figure above, compared with 2004, investment last year was higher by a factor of five.
2. Economic growth itself is getting cleaner.
The U.S. economy has rebounded strongly from the 2008-2009 economic downturn. And you would expect more growth to lead to more energy use, and more greenhouse gas emissions. And indeed, carbon emissions have started rising again. But overall, energy and economic growth don’t seem to be interacting in the same way they did before.
“With the growing economy, we are still seeing the energy productivity of the U.S. economy improving, and I think that’s extremely significant,” says Lisa Jacobson, president of the Business Council for Sustainable Energy.
The figure above shows a measure of energy productivity: As GDP has increased since 1990, primary energy consumption has not kept pace. Indeed, the new report notes that from 2007 to 2014, electricity demand has actually been flat, despite the economic rebound. And over the same time period, overall carbon emissions coming from the energy sector declined by nine percent.
3. Wind and solar have achieved liftoff.
And the renewable energy story keeps getting better, too.
In 2007, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance and the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, renewable energy provided just seven percent of the nation’s total energy. By 2014 it had nearly doubled to 13 percent (estimated).
Much of this has been driven by the two most successful sectors, wind and solar. Those two have “more than tripled in capacity since 2008,” notes the report. And as this has happened, wind and solar have become increasingly cost-competitive.
“Wind energy is the lowest cost option for utilities in some parts of the U.S., and solar energy beats the retail electricity price paid by homeowners in many states,” the report observes. (Other clean energy sectors, such as geothermal and hydropower, haven’t seen the same dramatic growth.)
None of this is to say that there’s nothing more to be done. America still has a long way to go in cutting greenhouse gas emissions. And with policies that set an actual price on carbon, there’s no doubt that the changes would be still more vast.
Meanwhile, another major energy trend highlighted by the report — a 25 percent growth in natural gas production since 2007, propelled by the fracking revolution — is viewed much more ambiguously in environmental circles. There’s a big split over how “clean” this development actually is.
Nevertheless, this much is clear: We live in a vastly different energy world today than we did in 2007. And the changes documented above are too large, too structural, to simply go away. They’re not temporary, and they’re not a fluke.
“This trend is for real, and we’re only going to see more of it,” says Bloomberg’s Michel Di Capua.