You don’t need me to tell you that 2020 was a terrible year. Covid-19 killed nearly 2 million people, including more than 350,000 Americans, and the pandemic left the global economy in shambles. But a new report shows that all things considered, one sector actually saw wild economic success: renewable energy.
The Sustainable Energy in America Factbook, released by Bloomberg NEF and the Business Council for Sustainable Energy on Thursday, shows that in 2020, renewables made a record-high contribution to U.S. power last year, up 11% from 2019. Clean sources, mostly wind and solar, generated one fifth of the country’s power in 2020.
The country built a record 33.6 gigawatts of new wind and solar capacity, with both sources seeing their best year ever. The nation’s wind energy capacity increased by 17,100 megawatts—up 85% from 2019's construction—bringing the U.S. to 122,000 megawatts of wind capacity online, or enough to power 38 million American homes. Solar energy also set an annual capacity addition record. In 2020, 16,500 megawatts of new solar were brought online, meaning the U.S. now has 47,000 megawatts of solar online, or enough to power 11 million homes.
“We could not have fully imagined the resilience of these sectors and the growth that has continued despite unprecedented headwinds,” Emily Duncan, chairperson of the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, said on a press call.
Renewables’ perseverance is pretty remarkable, especially considering the country saw electricity demand fall by 3.8% amid coronavirus lockdowns. Even sustainable cars had a decent year; while sales of internal combustion engine vehicle sales dropped by about 15% compared to 2019, electric vehicle sales stayed level (though their overall sales were still a fraction of all vehicle sales).
“Staying flat was pretty good given the circumstances,” Ethan Zindler, head of Americas at Bloomberg NEF who worked on the report, said on the briefing.
Another piece of good news from the report is that the coal industry is continuing to fizzle out. Its contributions to U.S. energy in 2020 slipped to a record-low 19%, down from 45% a decade ago, and the industry isn’t likely to make a recovery. Yet the continued decline points to the need for helping workers affected by shuttering coal plants and mines.
The report shows that renewable power is doing well economically, but that doesn’t mean everything was smooth sailing for the sustainable power sector in 2020. Though it proved adaptable overall, previous research shows that it saw tens of thousands of layoffs. The study also indicates that things aren’t changing fast enough. That’s most clear in its findings on natural gas.
“Natural gas remained the largest source of U.S. power generation at 41% and natural gas use in power hit a new record, though its 2019-2020 growth was slower than 2018-19,” the report says.
It’s also a huge source of carbon emissions. Prior to the pandemic, it was also the number one contributor to the growth in U.S. carbon emissions in 2019. Gas infrastructure leaks also emit methane, a greenhouse gas 80 times more potent than carbon in terms of global heating. For the sake of the planet, we need to phase it out in favor of more sustainable back-ups for intermittent power like battery storage.
Yes, the report shows that the U.S. saw a 9% record drop in greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 compared to the previous year. “The decline put U.S. emissions approximately 20% below 2005 levels and, at least temporarily, put the country on a trajectory to meet its original Paris Agreement pledge of a 26-28% cut vs. 2005 levels by 2025,” the report says.
But the question now will be how to stay on that downward trajectory—or even draw down carbon emissions faster than that—without imposing strict lockdowns or forcing people out of their jobs and into economic misery. To do so, we’ll have to ramp down natural gas production and speed up renewable installations while electrifying transit. And we’ll have to maintain those trajectories even once energy use bounces back after the pandemic. We’ll also have to make increases in energy efficiency and make the grid more reliable, as Texas’ current blackouts show. All of that will take planning. So though the report shows the market favors renewables, we can’t leave the transition up to the market—we need policy to make sure it happens quickly and fairly.