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Why America’s Clean Energy Future Is Within Reach

Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Richter

Ken Berlin

President & CEO, The Climate Reality Project

It’s easy for Americans today to look at the climate crisis unfolding across the country and feel discouraged. 

California is in flames (again). Farming families from Minnesota to Iowa are staring at billions in damages after record floods swallowed homes and entire crops. Meanwhile, the federal government won’t even admit there’s a problem.

But today, there are more reasons for hope.

First, Americans are committed to solving this crisis — with or without the federal government. City and state governments in red and blue states alike have stepped up to fill the void with their own bold and ambitious commitments. The country’s most well-known businesses have embraced science-based targets to curb their emissions and decarbonize their supply chains. Students and activists around the country have taken to the streets to demand action in the largest climate demonstrations the world has ever seen. And polls show that 7 out of 10 Americans support government action on climate.  

Second, the tools to halt rising temperatures and end the crisis are here now. Most compellingly, a dramatic clean energy revolution is already under way, ushering in the energy system of the future — one that is affordable, resilient, reliable, integrated, and diversified, thanks to renewables like wind and solar.

The driving force

What’s driving this revolution isn’t government policy but simple market forces, powering an unstoppable shift away from the fossil fuels that choke our air and waterways, and accelerate global warming. Between 2009 and 2017, solar and wind energy prices dropped precipitously, to the point where in 2018, electricity generated from utility-scale solar projects cost less than half of what power produced from coal plants did. 

The result is that transitioning to clean energy will actually save us money. Studies have shown that clean energy portfolios will be cost-competitive with new natural gas plants soon — by 2030 with current plans. Many already are. Other recent studies have shown that we could lower the cost of electricity for millions by replacing 74 percent of operating coal plants with wind and solar plants.

The bottom line is that renewables aren’t just the right choice, they’re the smart one, too. As the cost of these technologies falls, it becomes harder for the entrenched polluters to peddle dirty fuels. And even though the Trump administration continues to do everything in its power to prop up these failing industries and roll back critical regulations protecting our environment and health, the march toward a brighter, cleaner future goes on. 

Invested in clean energy

Cities, states, and countries are barreling ahead and going all-in on clean energy. California has installed enough solar installations to power over 6 million homes. Texas — in the heart of oil country — leads the nation in wind energy capacity. 

This picture is part of a global trend. Dozens of countries around the world have already integrated renewables into their electricity grids in a substantial way. In Uruguay, for instance, wind produced 33 percent of the electricity the country used in 2017. In 2018, Denmark produced a whopping 43.6 percent of its electricity from solar and wind.

The clean energy transition not only makes economic sense for consumers, but is also a powerful job creator in the United States. Solar PV installer is expected to be the single-fastest growing occupation through 2026. The second fastest? Wind turbine service technician. 

Globally in 2017, the solar PV industry employed some 3.4 million people worldwide and the wind industry employed roughy 1.2 million.

A fair opportunity

This clean energy transition also presents a major opportunity to tackle inequality and create a truly inclusive economy. Renewable industry jobs like solar installer and wind turbine technician are good, blue-collar jobs that pay fair living wages. And rather than eliminating jobs, renewables offer former fossil fuel workers green careers with a future, all in a sector with huge growth potential. 

Renewable industry jobs also provide career opportunities for Americans who are often economically disadvantaged, as over a quarter of American solar jobs are currently filled by minorities, more than a quarter by women, and nearly 10 percent by veterans. 

While the market dynamics are favorable and the momentum is on our side, we still have work ahead to realize the clean energy system and future we want. Naysayers will point out intermittency issues with wind and solar, citing cloudy and still days as potential problems with large-scale renewable deployment, but the truth is that integrated systems that include smart electricity management tools — like energy storage and distribution over larger geographic regions — are highly reliable and able to keep the lights on 24/7. In fact, several regions in the United States already have such systems in place. 

America’s clean energy future is within reach. All we need to do is seize the opportunity. 

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