Mashable, February 4, 2016
By Andrew Freedman
On the campaign trail, many candidates tend to portray the clean energy revolution as a pie-in-the-sky idea, with new investments needed in oil and gas drilling while we wait for a technological fix to solve our energy and global warming challenges.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, for example, has said that the next clean technology breakthrough and solution to global warming will happen through the work of "someone in a garage somewhere" who will "have an answer to this."
However, according to a new report published on Thursday, the U.S. is way past the garage phase. In fact, we are now in the midst of a far more rapid shift away from fossil fuels, such as coal, to renewables, including solar and wind power, than anyone has realized, including the candidates for president.
In 2015, the majority of new power added to the electrical grid came from renewable sources, primarily wind and solar, according to a sustainable energy report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), which is a division of Bloomberg LP that tracks energy trends around the world.
"2015 clearly marked a turning point for american energy," said Ethan Zindler, who leads the Americas division for BNEF, during a press conference. "We have entered a new era here in the United States."
Zindler pointed to the fact that natural gas has nearly overtaken coal as the biggest source of electrical power in the U.S., while wind and solar have increased by 57% above 2008 levels.
Energy developers installed 16 gigawatts of clean energy in 2015, which comprised nearly 70% of all new generating capacity, the report says. This was the second year in a row that renewables overtook fossil fuels for the top spot on the energy growth list.
Among renewables, wind led the pack, with 8.5 gigawatts of new electrical generation installed, while solar added 7.3 gigawatts of new generating capacity. The growth in solar was a 13% increase from 2014, BNEF said.
The wind and solar boom, along with increases in natural gas generation, have come at the expense of coal, which has declined precipitously in recent years. In 2015, coal constituted 34% of U.S. generating power, with natural gas nipping at its heals at 32%. In 2005, coal comprised half of the country's electrical generating capacity.
The drop in coal-fired power plants is due to market forces, such as cheap and abundant natural gas, as well as policies put in place that are designed to lower greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. Coal-fired power plants emit more greenhouse gases than natural gas, wind and solar plants do.
"We’re seeing what we’re calling the decarbonization of the U.S. power sector," said Colleen Regan, a BNEF senior analyst.
Additionally, BNEF analysts said the shifts that took place in 2015 are no fluke, but rather an indication of a structural move within the energy sector.
The U.S. economy has grown by 10% since 2007, the report found, while primary energy consumption actually fell during the same period by 2.4%. The reason, BNEF found, is a combination of energy efficiency gains, renewable energy deployment and "structural changes" in the U.S. economy that have lowered energy demand.
The so-called "decoupling" of energy consumption and economic growth could indicate that the economy will continue to expand without also raising emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases.