Progress Toward a Cleaner Energy Future

The United States has recently hit some milestones in its transition to cleaner energy. In May, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) announced that in 2019 the U.S. consumed more energy from renewable sources than from coal – an achievement that has not taken place in over 130 years. This trend toward cleaner energy emerged in the past few decades and has continued, with important implications for reducing the country’s emissions and environmental impact. In this blog, we’ll explore in detail the country’s changing energy mix, including the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on this transition.

Energy & Emissions Trends

The U.S has been trending toward a cleaner energy mix since 2007, as it has decreased reliance on coal for electricity generation and increased use of natural gas and renewable energy (see figure below). This transition is linked to declining costs for natural gas and renewables, improved technology, and increased concerns about climate change and air pollution. The U.S. EIA predicts that, by the end of 2020, there will be a 25% decline in coal generation and an 11% increase in renewable energy generation, while natural gas generation will remain widespread but steady. These changes in our country’s energy mix play a key role in determining emissions levels: for every kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity produced, over two pounds of carbon dioxide emissions are released when the source is coal, compared to nearly one pound with natural gas and zero with solar and wind.

Data Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review.

Massachusetts is also moving toward cleaner energy generation. The state’s Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) of 2008 set the goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 25% below a 1990 baseline level by 2020 and 80% by 2050. As part of progress toward that goal, the state has seen solar photovoltaic systems increase 800-fold and wind energy increase nine-fold, since 2007. As of 2018, the state generated no electricity from coal.

Cape Light Compact also plays a role in helping advance a cleaner energy future in the region. The Compact’s power supply program ensures that 100% of Compact customers’ annual electricity use is matched with Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) and that money from the sale of these RECs, plus the Compact’s suppliers’ fees, is deposited into a renewable energy trust that funds clean energy projects. The Compact’s CLC Local Green power supply option goes one step further and matches an additional 50% to 100% of participants’ electricity use with RECs from MA Class 1 renewable energy projects.

As the grid becomes cleaner, the benefits of strategic electrification are also increasing. There is now more frequently a net benefit – such as lower energy costs, improved health and safety, and reduced emissions – from using electricity in place of fossil fuels. Some examples include switching to a heat pump for heating and cooling, and utilizing behind-the-meter battery storage to reduce peak demand.

The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic

In recent months, total electricity use has declined due to impacts of COVID-19. Across much of the country, many businesses have temporarily closed, manufacturing has paused, and residents have spent more time at home while social distancing. The reduction in commercial and industrial energy use has been larger than the increase in residential electricity use. High operating costs for fossil fuel power plants, and in particular coal power plants, compared to the relatively low operating cost of renewable sources has led to coal power production being cut back before other sources. As a result of reduced demand and turning coal off first, plus more limited travel, the U.S. EIA expects an 11% decline in carbon dioxide emissions in 2020, compared to only a 2.8% decline in 2019. The one anticipated setback for clean energy is delays in the construction of new renewable energy projects due to the slowed economy and disrupted supply chains.

Looking to the Future

Although electricity use will rebound as the pandemic stabilizes and economic activity picks up, the transition to a cleaner energy grid will continue, driven by financial factors and decarbonization targets. Wind and solar are expected to lead the way among renewables in the U.S., and Massachusetts will continue advancing this trend as it makes gains toward its clean energy goals.

To learn more about the Compact’s role in this transition, visit CapeLightCompact.org.

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