For those of us concerned about increasing CO2 values in the atmosphere (yes, we are about to crash 410 ppm), the recent decision of the Trump administration to back out of the Paris accord is disheartening. But it is worth looking at what has been going on for awhile to see that there is progress, much of which owes less to government action than to the power of the marketplace.
Let’s start with a recent milestone: 10% of electricity produced in the US in March was from wind + solar energy. That’s produced, not capacity. Now wind in particular is seasonal, so we’ll drop back down from that high, but compare that to the high from 2007, ten years ago, when it was only 1%.
This is excluding other non-CO2 sources of electrical power, such as nuclear energy, hydropower, and geothermal. Of the 97.4 quadrillion BTUs (or peta-BTUS, or PBTUs; equal to 2850 GWh) of primary energy consumed in 2016 (so not just electricity), 18.5 (or just a hair under 20%) came from all carbon-neutral sources of energy.
Going a decade back on primary energy consumed reveals some interesting changes–and lack of change. Total energy consumption was actually higher at 99.4 PBTUs, but carbon neutral was only 14.9 PBTUs (nearly all nuclear, biomass and hydroelectric, in decreasing order). One of the great accomplishments that goes unnoticed is that GDP in the US in constant 2009 dollars went from $14.5 trillion in Q1 2006 to $16.9 trillion in Q1 2017: a 17% increase while energy consumption overall dropped by 2%. That is huge, because if energy tracked GDP, the increase in renewables would have not even filled in the hole in increased consumption of energy. U.S. energy consumption has been flat or gently declining since 2000.
Of course you might say that the low-hanging fruit is picked, and there is reason to think that. Hydropower isn’t going anywhere forward in a big way, and decreased flow in important hydropower rivers like the Colorado bodes ill for the future. Nuclear remains stalled, and the impending retirement of a number of plants suggests the share of power from this source will decline. But there are optimistic trends, too.
If you want optimism, California is probably the place to look. Blessed with ample sun, wind, and geothermal resources, the state is well positioned to make a transition to renewable energy more easily than much of the country. Combine that with a state government that has chosen to act aggressively to minimize carbon emissions (last year adding a goal of 50% renewable electricity by 2030 to an earlier goal of 33% renewable electricity by 2020) and you get a very favorable environment for renewable energy development. Today the state is ahead of earlier targets, which were to have achieved 25% of electric power from renewables by now; by the state’s calculation, they are at 27%:
Since the state omits nuclear and major hydropower, their carbon-neutral rate is actually higher: PG&E boasted that 58% of their energy comes from carbon-neutral sources, while also noting they are ahead of schedule to meet the 2020 requirements.
A large part of the growth of renewables has been in solar power, and the state points out that costs continue to decline:
Many large corporations are stepping up to promise to reduce carbon emissions. Indeed, among the many signatories to the “We’re still in” open letter to the UN, more than 900 are U.S. companies.
Of course a lot of energy use is not electrical; of the 97.4 PBTUs used in the U.S. last year, 27.9 PBTUs was used in transportation, or nearly 30%. Getting this number down is harder than changing sources of electricity.
And yet there are signs this is happening. Tesla’s market cap ($62.4B when written) presently exceeds General Motors ($52.4B), this despite not having anything remotely like the sales of GM. Then consider that modern behemoths like Apple ($745B) and Google ($657B) are playing with automobiles and their technology, and you get the feeling a lot of money is flowing towards a changed landscape in transportation–one likely to be electrically powered. Toss in continued work to try and shift biofuel production from grains to agricultural waste and efforts that have created aviation-grade biofuel and you can see hopeful signs in many corners.
So don’t despair, but do care. When economic powerhouses like New York and California push hard, others tend to follow (for instance, low-emission vehicles are in no small part a product of California’s more stringent standards spilling outwards). The U.S. populace is broadly in support of shifting to renewable energy. Yes, there will be problems, but there is clearly a strong consensus that they are worth solving.
[Updated 6/16 to include reference to Economist article and We’re Still In letter]