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The US Underwent a Quiet Clean Energy Revolution Last Year

The public perception of U.S. clean energy has undergone a major shift. In a recent survey, 70 percent of respondents said America should produce 100 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources; more than half thought renewables were a good idea even if they raise energy bills.

The change in perception could be a reflection of recent changes to the U.S. energy industry itself. While it didn't garner much attention, the United States saw unprecedented growth in renewable energy purchasing, development and commitments last year. Here's a look at the quiet clean energy revolution happening across the country:

1. Record corporate renewable energy purchasing

U.S. corporations have spurred a global movement towards purchasing renewable energy over the last decade, and 2018 was a banner year. Companies in the United States purchased a record 6.43 gigawatts (GW) of renewable power, enough to power more than 1.5 million American homes each year and  more than double the previous record of 3.22 GW in 2015. The number of corporations entering in to renewable energy deals for the first time doubled. There were also a record number of deals through utility-offered, large-scale renewable energy purchasing programs, called "green tariffs."

A growing number of large buyers are also publicly committing to source 100 percent of their electricity from renewables. Today, there are 53 Fortune 500 companies with 100 percent renewable energy goals; there were 23 companies with the same target in January 2017.

2. U.S. cities make ambitious commitments to renewables

In the absence of a federal renewable energy push, local governments are taking matters into their own hands. More than 300 U.S. cities, towns or counties have made commitments to climate action.1 As of November 2018, 99 U.S. cities have committed to 100 percent renewable energy, up from just 50 cities a year ago.

Of these, six U.S. cities (Aspen, CO; Burlington, VT; Georgetown, TX; Greensburg, KS; Kodiak Island, AK; and Rockport, MO) have already met their 100 percent renewable energy goals through a variety of approaches, including on-site installations, off-site purchases and Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs).   

Since many cities are just starting to set these commitments, they are at the beginning stage of the learning curve. In 2019, it will be important to watch how cities can push utilities to provide more clean energy.

3. Clean power champions take office

Many gubernatorial candidates who ran on ambitious renewable platforms were victorious in the midterm elections. Here are a few examples:

  • Illinois's new governor, J.B. Pritzker, has called for the state to reach 50 percent renewables by 2025, doubling the current standard, and 100 percent renewables by 2050;
  • Colorado's Jared Polis ran on a platform advocating for 100 percent renewable energy by 2040, along with programs to expand distributed energy resources and efficiency;
  • New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Graham's plan calls for 50 percent renewables by 2030 and 80 percent by 2040.
  • Maine's Governor Janet Mills endorsed a 100 percent clean energy goal by 2050, and is an advocate for expanding distributed generation; and
  • Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak pinned his energy plan to a successful clean energy ballot initiative, which would amend the state's constitution to mandate 50 percent renewables by 2050.

4. Utilities actively plan for a clean energy future

U.S. utilities are responding to this increased demand for clean, modern energy. Michigan-based utility Consumers Energy announced in February 2018 that it will cut carbon emissions by 80 percent and stop using coal, as well as produce 40 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2040. This is a significant commitment from a utility that has traditionally relied primarily on coal. In May, Iowa-based MidAmerican Energy, which serves 770,000 customers, announced that it will become the first U.S. utility to source 100 percent of its customers' electricity needs from renewable energy upon the 2020 completion of a new wind farm. In December, Xcel Energy, one of the biggest utilities in the United States, became the first to commit to go completely carbon-free by 2050 (and 80 percent carbon-free by 2030). Minneapolis-based Xcel serves 3.6 million customers across eight states. Two days after its announcement, Platte River Power Authority, one of Xcel's competitors in Colorado, pledged to eliminate all carbon emissions by 2030.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Although less ambitious, a growing number of utilities are making voluntary public commitments to renewable energy or plans to reduce their emissions more than the amount required by state law. A review of Midwestern investor-owned utilities found that 75 percent of them had made these pledges, and we can anticipate this number to grow in 2019.

More Momentum for U.S. Clean Energy

While fossil fuels are still the dominant energy source in the United States, recent renewable energy advances point to a distinctive shift in the U.S. energy system. Today, renewables provide 17 percent of total electricity generation. Projections indicate that wind, solar and storage can meet 80 percent of America's energy needs by 2050. We expect that the quiet clean energy revolution will only pick up more steam in 2019.


1 Platforms include: C40, ICLEI USA, Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy, Under2 MOU, and We Are Still In.

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