Today’s Wind and Solar Can Lead to a Safer Climate Tomorrow


September 2017.



Experts agree that staving off the worst impacts of climate change will require the United States and other nations to reduce carbon emissions by at least 80 percent (from 1990 levels) by the middle of the century. The extreme weather dominating the news this fall make it more clear than ever that we need to get this done. But what is the best way to make the deep carbon cuts we need? Renewable energy needs to play a major role.

New, comprehensive modeling by NRDC and Energy + Environmental Economics (E3) outlines a cost-effective pathway to a climate-safe future that relies on today’s proven clean energy solutions. The big news here is not just that we can do it. It’s how—with a bold and rapid expansion of energy efficiency, renewable energy and the electrification of vehicles and buildings with clean power, all supported by a modernized grid. We don’t need to wait for new breakthroughs, and we don’t need to rely on risky or costly strategies like nuclear power, biomass, and carbon capture and storage (CCS).

What we do need is to keep pushing forward—hard—on existing clean energy solutions. On the renewable energy front alone, we need 70 percent of U.S. electricity to come from wind and solar power.

This blog focuses on what we need to do under this climate pathway on the renewable energy front—we will need at least 13-fold increase in wind and solar by 2050, alone, to achieve this vision. That might sound ambitious, but given the dizzying pace of renewable energy development, it’s definitely within reach, and it represents less than 1 percent of our solar potential and less than 10 percent of our wind. U.S. wind and solar have grown 23 percent and 60 percent, respectively, over the past decade. Their growth accounts for more than half of all the new power added to our electric system. And according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, this rapid expansion of renewable energy is a long-term trend.

The sun may set, but the savings are rising

Steep price declines have played a major role in this growth and will continue to do so. The cost of solar PV (generation from photovoltaic panels) has declined by almost 85 percent in less than a decade. Analysts expect solar to become the lowest-cost form of new power in the United States by 2023–even after federal tax credits expire—and to be less expensive than existing fossil generation by 2027 across the country. In some parts of the country, solar is already cheaper than fossil fuel energy.

At the same time that solar prices have been plummeting, the average price for electricity from wind (bought through what are known as long-term power purchase agreements of PPAs) have dropped more than 70 percent, from $70 per megawatt-hour (MWh) in 2009 to less than $20/MWh in 2016, according to the Department of Energy. That’s at the bottom end of the average for wholesale power, which ranged from $20 to $45/MWh in 2016depending on the region, and it means lower utility bills and cleaner air for consumers, too.

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