December 2020 Director’s Note

This 5th anniversary of the Paris Climate Accord sees the biggest drop in history of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and industry. Due to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, CO2 emissions fell by 7%, or 2.4 Gigatons, according to the Global Carbon Project annual assessment. Reductions in emissions from ground and air transportation accounted for the largest portion of the decrease. The US, EU and India had the greatest drop in emissions at 12, 11 and 9 percent respectively.

While the unprecedented sheltering in place during the pandemic will not persist, here are my 10 picks of developments in the transition to a clean energy economy that are gaining momentum and could help secure long-term emissions cuts.

1. U.S. renewable energy consumption surpassed coal for the first time in over 130 years in 2019, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported in May 2020. In June, July, August and October 2020, 100 percent of all new utility-scale capacity built was from renewables (FERC). And, in April, the price for oil futures dipped below 0 briefly!

2. Solar-plus-storage, which accounted for 4% of distributed solar energy systems in the US in 2019, is expected to grow to 26% by 2025 (EIA ). It is on course to grow to 400 GW in the US by 2025 (Wood Mackenzie), which is greater than the current amount of coal or nuclear power capacity in the US (utilitydive).

3. The market for smart and connected devices like sensors, controls and apps in buildings  that improve energy efficiency and operations and maintenance is growing nearly 20% every year (Navigant Research).

4. “2020 is the year Tesla’s market capitalization soared above $600 billion, worth more than the top five best-selling global automakers combined, and the US auto industry went electric”, according to ReutersElectric and hybrid electric vehicles could account for 7.5% of new light vehicle sales by 2025 (EIA).

5. Growth in distributed energy bolsters the significance of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) landmark decision in September to lower barriers to distributed energy resources (DERs) participation in wholesale markets, requiring large grid operators to ensure that DER aggregations can participate. This will allow substantial expansion of clean energy from consumer distributed resources like rooftop solar, on-site batteries, and electric vehicles behind the meter.

 6. Battery storage is expected to increase by more than 6,900 MW in the next few years.  EIA data show that the United States added 152 MW of battery storage capacity in 2019 and added an additional 301 MW through July 2020 alone. In December, US DOE released The Energy Storage Grand Challenge a Roadmap for significantly reducing energy storage costs over the next ten years. And, the bipartisan Better Energy Storage Technology (BEST) Act was included in the end of year COVID-19 relief package to advance research and development on energy storage.

7. A more flexible grid that is distributed, digitalized and decarbonizing is developing. 2020 saw smarter applications of clean energy in the power sector with continued automation and digitization in distributed or utility-scale renewable energy systems. Wisconsin added its first utility-scale solar system in Manitowoc County with the 150 MW Two Creeks Solar Farm that nearly doubled the state’s total solar capacity. The 300 MW Badger Hollow solar farm in Iowa County will put its first 150 MWs of solar generation on line in spring 2021. And, the state approved its first utility-scale solar farm + battery storage.

8. Renewable natural gas (RNG) from Wisconsin farms and landfills found profitable markets with injection into pipelines for use as fleet fuel. Dane County’s first US RNG offloading facility at the County landfill accepted its first biogas from a farm’s manure digester in 2020. DTE Energy added 3 RNG facilities at Wisconsin dairy farms.  .

9. Advancing social equity, health equity, climate and environmental justice through energy efficiency, renewable energy, and climate mitigation for low-income families and communities of color is increasingly integrated into state and local policies and programs – the need strikingly apparent during the pandemic. HOPE for HOMES Act nationally and Wisconsin Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change Report are equity-focused, along with climate resolutions and plans of local governments, such as.MilwaukeeEau ClaireMadisonMiddleton, and Dane County.

10. Last, but not least, local governments across the US and Wisconsin are leading by example, on the front end of  policies, practices and investments in clean energy and climate resilience. Bayfield County reached 100% carbon-free electricity in 2020, 30 years in advance of the Governor’s 100% by 2050 goal. In a report by UW-Madison Extension, based on a survey of Wisconsin’s Energy Independent Communities, they are implementing energy efficiency and renewable energy projects, are beginning to hit and surpass 25% renewable energy goals by 2025, and some are working smarter with partners on big projects toward 100 percent renewable electricity or zero carbon goals.

In sum, significant momentum for the transition to a clean energy, low carbon economy is building on many fronts and in many sectors that, if sped up and aligned with recovery from the pandemic, can help reduce growth in greenhouse gas emissions and promote resilience while creating local jobs, generating wealth, improving human and environmental health, and advancing social equity.

Wishing you all good health in 2021, lots of sunny days, and the wind at your back,
Sherrie Gruder