The Decade That Made Clean Energy
As originally published in Morning Consult.
BY CHARLES HERNICK & LISA JACOBSON
February 18, 2020
A decade ago, our nation’s energy sector looked very different than it does today. The United States was heavily dependent on foreign oil; electric vehicles were little more than a dream, and renewable energy was a far cry from the industry driver it is today.
When history looks back on the early 2010s, the rise of clean energy will be a defining aspect. It embodies the labors undertaken in concert by our public and private sectors. And through the hard work of everyday American ingenuity, the United States has changed for the better.
The recently released 2020 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook paints a striking portrait of the innovations that have transformed our national energy sector during the last decade.
In just 10 short years, we have modernized the way we produce and consume energy. The economy has grown and diversified to include new energy sources that have made our industries more efficient, secure and environmentally friendly. The results are impressive, but with our changing climate, more clearly needs to be done.
These widespread changes have affected every sector and region in the United States, but the ultimate winner has been the American consumer. The average citizen increasingly has better access to clean energy resources for their home, and business owners large and small can choose how they want to power their companies, reduce their emissions and serve their customers.
This drastic change can be seen in our natural gas production. From 2010-19, domestic natural gas production increased over 50 percent. The United States started the decade as a country that depends on natural gas imports and finished the decade as one of the largest natural gas exporters in the world.
The explosive progress of the U.S. natural gas industry has, in part, given us the freedom to reduce our reliance on foreign oil markets and further claim our energy independence by sourcing from domestic energy sources.
Looking to more incredible growth in the past decade, renewable energy has seen an astounding 77 percent growth in combined power generation from utility-scale hydro, wind, solar, biomass, geothermal and waste-to-energy technologies.
Our nation now has twice the renewable power-generating capacity than what was available in 2010. Residential solar systems have played an important role in the rise of clean energy, but most of the generation capacity over the last decade has come from large utility-scale developments.
During the 2010s, America’s gross domestic product climbed 25 percent, while primary energy consumption grew only 6.6 percent. In other words, the energy productivity of the U.S. economy — the ratio of U.S. GDP to energy consumed — grew 17.6 percent over the decade.
In these 10 years of consecutive economic growth, energy usage shrank year-on-year five times. Advancements in energy efficiency through technology innovation, economies of scale and policymaking have enabled this energy-smart growth.
In the private sector, industry leaders stepped up to move the needle for renewable development. Today, corporations spanning across sectors are signing power-purchase agreements directly with clean energy developers.
Since 2010, investors are responsible for contributing more than $390 billion into U.S. clean energy assets at an average rate of $39 billion per year. This accomplishment cannot be overstated and represents a significant uptick in the history of clean energy investments in the United States. Before 2010, the entire investment in domestic clean energy across all years was approximately $100 billion.
The growth of these innovative power sources has led to burgeoning new industries that employ American workers with steady, well-paying jobs. As of 2018, there were 3.5 million U.S. citizens employed in the industries of energy efficiency, energy storage, renewables, nuclear or natural gas.
As these industries have become mainstream, we also have seen a meaningful dip in greenhouse gas emissions. Overall carbon dioxide emissions in the United States decreased 4.1 percent in the last decade. But, to achieve the net-zero goals that more and more companies, municipalities and states are making, it is clear the next decade must include even more investment in clean energy, more innovation and complementary state and federal policies.
When 2030 rolls around, the United States and the world will undoubtedly change more than we can imagine today. We know that new technologies such as energy storage have the potential to transform the economy even more. And with a lasting focus on economically sound, market-oriented clean energy developments, our energy sector will continue to innovate and improve to serve the American consumer, grow our economy and strengthen national security — all while reducing emissions.
Charles Hernick is the director of policy and advocacy at Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions Forum, a 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 coalition of companies and trade associations from the energy efficiency, natural gas and renewable energy sectors.