The nation’s energy sector is in the midst of a remarkable transformation, providing consumers with far more choices in the way they buy and consume energy.
The energy supply is becoming cleaner — greenhouse gases emissions sank to a 25-year low in 2016 — and cheaper: The amount American households spent on energy reached the lowest levels recorded since the federal government started tracking such data, less than 4 percent of their total annual household spending on energy.
Far from “alternative,” sustainable energy is now the new normal across the United States, thanks to a combination of market innovations, growing competition and smart public policies. These sectors — energy efficiency, natural gas and renewable energy — are supporting more than 3 million jobs across the country.
The Sustainable Energy in America Factbook, produced by the Business Council for Sustainable Energy in partnership with Bloomberg New Energy Finance, is one of the more recent reports that fuels our optimism.
The Factbook tells a compelling story: Low- and zero-carbon energy is thriving, with energy efficiency, natural gas and renewable energy overwhelmingly dominating new growth in the electricity sector in the past decade.
It tells us that the United States is about halfway to the 2025 carbon reduction goals set as part of our nation’s commitment under the historic Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
The Factbook points to renewable energy as a key reason for the transition to this lower carbon economy. The cost of renewable energy technologies have fallen dramatically, often making them competitive with more traditional fossil fuels. Total renewable generation, led by wind and solar, increased 12 percent in 2016, with non-hydro renewables tripling in the last 10 years.
Also in 2016, hydropower provided 80 gigawatts of renewable capacity (excluding pumped storage), and biogas, biomass, geothermal and waste-to-energy represent 18 gigawatts of U.S. capacity.
Another milestone was the record investments spent on energy efficiency programs and products.
Electric and natural gas utilities are spending billions on energy efficiency programs. Local benchmarking and disclosure policies for energy use in buildings now cover 8 percent of commercial floor space. Overall, economic growth is outpacing energy demand, with our nation’s economy growing 12 percent since 2007, while energy consumption has fallen by 3.6 percent.
The abundance of natural gas resources in America is integral to our clean energy economy. Since 2011, the United States has seen a 12 percent jump in total natural gas production and a 79 percent surge in shale gas extraction. The result? Natural gas is now the No. 1 source of power in the U.S., contributing 34 percent to the electricity mix in 2016.
Over the past 25 years, 92 percent of new electricity capacity built in the United States has been powered by natural gas or renewable energy. This fact, combined with the decoupling of energy use from the productivity of our national economy, confirms that we are witnessing trends that are structural.
Major U.S. corporations are paying attention to these trends too, contracting for 2.5 GW of renewable energy capacity, largely wind and solar, by year-end 2016. Private companies are also making investments in energy management systems, such as ISO 50001, and joining voluntary programs that reward improvements in building efficiency and greater energy productivity.
The contributions of sustainable energy to the country’s economic competitiveness are direct, dramatic and dynamic. The trend lines are clear: Energy efficiency, natural gas and renewable energy are benefitting American consumers, American businesses and American manufacturers. America “wins” with more clean energy.
• Lisa Jacobson is the President of the Business Council for Sustainable Energy (BCSE), which is celebrating its 25th year of advocating for policies that advance the deployment and use of American clean energy technologies. To learn more, visit www.bcse.org to download the 2017 Factbook, and follow the BCSE on Twitter @BCSECleanEnergy.