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6 Charts that Will Make You Optimistic About America’s Clean Energy Future

September 28, 2016 - 11:47am


Over the last few years, we’ve been in the midst of a clean energy revolution. New technologies, once unthinkably expensive to install and use, have become increasingly cost-competitive at a staggeringly fast clip. Today, the Energy Department released a new report called “Revolution… Now,” which details five booming clean energy technologies -- plus a few other promising pieces of clean tech that will be key to solving major problems, like climate change. Let’s take a quick peek at six charts that will warm the hearts of clean energy fans.

1. Land-Based Wind Power

RevNow2016 wind.pngWhile the first large wind farms were installed 35 years ago, wind power really began to surge around the year 2000, when wind costs dipped into the cost-competitive range of 5 to 10 cents per kilowatt hour (¢/kWh). Since then, wind installations have grown substantially, and now we have nearly 74 gigawatts (GW) of installed capacity.

So what does this mean? It means that wind is poised to overtake hydroelectric power as America’s number one source of renewable energy. Wind power accounts for nearly 5 percent of total U.S. electric generation and reduces annual carbon dioxide emissions by 132 million metric tons, all while supporting nearly 90,000 U.S. jobs. This is exciting stuff, and it’s only going to get better. As wind turbines get taller, more affordable and more efficient, the Energy Department predicts that an additional 700,000 square miles of land will be suitable for wind development. That’s more than twice the size of Texas.

2. Solar PV: Utility-Scale

solar utility3.jpgThe rise of solar photovoltaic (PV) from novelty to mainstream energy source is one of the biggest clean energy stories of the past decade. Since 2008, the cost of installing utility-scale PV has dropped from $5.70 per Watt of generating power in 2008 to only $2.08 per Watt in 2015, a reduction of more than 60 percent. That enables it to be cost-competitive with conventional generation in parts of the U.S.

In that same period of time, we’ve seen staggering growth in installed capacity, going from almost none in 2008 to nearly 14 GW in 2015 -- a trend that was jump-started by the Energy Department’s Loan Programs Office. In the first half of 2016, utility-scale PV generated 15 billion kWh – a 34 percent increase over the same time period as last year. 

3. Solar PV: Distributed Generation

revnow2016 residential.pngThe story for distributed solar is just as exciting as it is for its bigger sibling. Distributed solar uses the same hardware as utility-scale solar generation but generates power where it is consumed, such as at a home or business.

With dropping installation costs, the barrier to entry for folks with sunny roofs is decreasing rapidly. Though still slightly more expensive to install than utility-scale PV, distributed solar installation costs have been slashed in half since 2008, and this power source has grown from less than a GW of production to more than 11 GW through the end of 2015.  There are now one million distributed PV systems installed in the United States.

Historically, distributed PV has been privately purchased and installed. Recently, it has become increasingly popular for third parties, like utility companies, to purchase and install the solar panel systems on homes and businesses. Customers benefit from lower utility rates while not being required to pay high up-front installation and hardware costs. Third-party ownership was responsible for 45 to 90 percent of U.S. residential solar installations in leading state markets in 2015.

4. LED Lighting

LEDupdated2.pngAt this point, you may be noticing a trend: As technologies become cheaper to install and use, adoption and market penetration skyrockets. If we look at LED (light-emitting diode) installations, we see this story playing out in full effect.

Less than a decade ago, LEDs were a novel lighting option that few people understood. Now they’re practically everywhere. In 2008, fewer than 400,000 LED bulbs were installed. Compare that to 77 million in 2014 and 202 million last year. That’s coupled with a price reduction of 94 percent.

What’s more, modern LED bulbs -- powered by technology developed here in the U.S. -- consume up to 85 percent less energy than their incandescent counterparts.

The Energy Department predicts that LEDs will account for 85 percent of all lighting installations by 2035. From 2015 through 2035, LEDs could save Americans nearly $630 billion in total energy costs.

5. Electric Vehicles

RevNow2016 EVs.pngWe’re seeing more and more plug-in electric vehicles (also known as electric cars or EVs) on the street than ever before. Surging sales have brought over 400,000 EVs on to U.S. roads in just seven years. Compared to traditional cars, EVs reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 58 percent on average. As renewable energy sources like utility-scale PV and wind continue to account for a greater portion of our electricity generation, EVs will help further cut carbon pollution in America, making them an exciting part of our clean energy future.

Battery prices, which have historically limited EV affordability, are falling rapidly. The Energy Department is working with industry to aggressively cut battery costs in half by 2022. We have good reason to believe that this investment will be profitable, since over the past 20 years, the Energy Department’s $1 billion in contributions to EV battery research and development has yielded $3.5 billion in economic value.

6. All Together Now

Here’s one more chart that sums up just how far prices have fallen for each of these five technologies.

RevNow2016 total.pngThe cost of each of these technologies has dropped between 41 percent and 94 percent since 2008.

What’s remarkable is not just the speed at which these technologies have become cost-competitive, but also how quickly they have been adopted across the country. We are proud of our many investments that have supported these promising technologies, and we look forward to other advancements that will have an equally profound impact on our clean energy economy. Projects like the Supertruck Initiative, vehicle lightweighting and smart building technologies promise to bring even bigger energy and cost savings to the American people very soon.

Learn more about these technologies and a few others that are primed to transform our clean energy landscape here.