April 21, 2024

When you live far from the vast fields that match utility-scale solar and wind farms, it’s easy to feel like clean energy isn’t coming online fast enough. But renewable energy has grown at a staggering rate since 2014 and now accounts for 22 percent of the nation’s electricity. Solar power alone has grown an impressive eightfold in 10 years.

The sun and the wind have been the nation’s fastest-growing sources of energy over the past decade, according to a report released Wednesday by the nonprofit Climate Central. Meanwhile, coal power sharply decreasedand methane use anything but flattened. With the Inflation Reduction Act poised to kick that growth curve higher with expanded tax credits for the manufacture and installation of photovoltaic panels and wind turbines, the most optimistic projections suggest the country is inching closer to achieving its 2030 and 2035 clean energy goals are coming.

“I think the rate at which renewable energy has been able to grow is just something that most people don’t recognize,” said Amanda Levin, director of policy analysis at the nonprofit National Resources Defense Council, which was not involved in preparing the report.

In the decade analyzed by Climate Central, solar power went from generating less than half a percent of the nation’s electricity to producing nearly four percent. In the same period, wind has grown from four percent to about 10. Once hydropower, geothermal and biomass were accounted for, nearly a quarter of the country’s grid was powered by renewable electricity in 2023with the share expected to only rise thanks to the continued boom in solar energy.

The vast majority of the country’s solar power capacity comes from utility-scale installations with at least one megawatt of capacity (enough to power over a hundred houses, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association). But panels installed on rooftops, parking lots and other relatively small sites contributed a combined 48,000 megawatts across the country.

“One thing that surprised a lot of different people who read the report in our office was the power of small-scale solar,” said Jen Brady, the lead analyst on the Climate Central report.

With residential and other small arrays accounting for 34 percent of the nation’s available capacity, “it lets you know that maybe you can do something in your community, in your home, that can help contribute to that,” Brady said .

The rollout of utility-scale solar farms continues to pace how quickly renewable energy can feed the nation’s grid. According to Sam Ricketts, a clean energy consultant and former climate policy adviser to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, solar’s growth has been driven by production and investment tax credits that President Barack Obama extended in 2015 and President Joe Biden extended through the Inflation Reduction Act. Beyond these federal incentives that allow energy developers to claim tax credits equal to 30 percent of the installation costs of renewable energy, are state policies that proactively drive clean energy or promote a competitive market in which the falling price of renewable energy allows them to replace fossil fuels. to surpass critical to increasing growth. Still, even with the accelerated expansion seen in the past decade, more investment and incentives are needed.

“As fast as that growth has been, how do we make it all that much faster?” asked Ricketts. “Because we have to build renewable energy and electricity at about three times the speed we have been in the last few years.”

Achieving that expansion rate is critical to achieving two of President Biden’s climate goals: cutting economy-wide emissions by at least half by 2030 and achieving 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035.

To realize those goals, the nation must reach 80 percent clean energy by 2030. “I dare say it’s even more important than 100 percent clean by 2035 for now,” Ricketts said. Hitting that benchmark, he said, will require more federal and state policy pushes. Levin agrees.

“The IRA does a lot,” she said, “but it probably won’t do everything.”

The IRA has the ability to push renewables out of about 40 percent of the country’s energy mix, when nuclear is included, to more than 60 percent – or, in the most optimistic scenario, 77 percent.

But for the growth in capacity to be integrated and utilized in the system, the grid must be able to transfer electrons from distant solar fields and wind farms to the places where they are needed. While the transmission conversation mostly revolves around building new lines and transmission towers, Levin notes that recent technological advances made it possible to address half of these transmission needs simply by connecting new, advanced power lines to existing infrastructure that can handle larger loads with fewer losses, in a process called “redirection.”
The other challenge that comes with building out clean energy is learning how to deal with the way wind speeds and sunshine fluctuate. While this is often raised as an argument against their reliability, Levin points out that a host of solutions exist – from expanding battery storage to adjusting loads when demand rises – to ensure they are reliable. The challenge is to adopt them.

“Utilities are risk averse,” she said, “and their commissions can also be risk averse. And so it gets them comfortable thinking about the way they provide electricity and the way they manage their system a little bit differently.”

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