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Power Sector More Efficient Even As Overall Emissions Rose in 2018

Growth of natural gas and renewables, plus greater energy efficiency kept U.S. power emissions in check, but faster economic growth and volatile weather lifted energy demand and overall emissions.

The electricity sector continued to improve its carbon intensity in 2018 due to increased renewable energy and natural gas power generation and investments in energy efficiency, even as a stronger economy and volatile weather boosted energy demand and contributed to a rise in economy-wide carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions.

Consumers experienced near record low energy costs on a household basis and the number of energy jobs grew. Meanwhile, greater corporate purchasing of renewables, state policies and plunging prices for energy storage continued to reshape the nation’s energy portfolio. These and other energy trends are highlighted in the 2019 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook published by BloombergNEF (BNEF) and the Business Council for Sustainable Energy (BCSE).

“Continued expansion of sustainable energy is not just beneficial to the environment, it is an engine of American economic growth,” BCSE president Lisa Jacobson explained. “In our seventh year of analysis, we found that energy efficiency, natural gas and renewable energy continue to be key economic drivers. At the same time, they contribute substantially to important efforts to reduce emissions and develop modern and resilient infrastructure.”

The 2019 Factbook identifies key sustainable energy trends:

  • Energy efficiency investments hit a new high and several states adopted new building energy codes. Total U.S. spending on energy efficiency through formal frameworks—such as utilities, Energy Savings Performance Contracts (ESPCs) and Property Assessed Clean Energy Programs (PACE)—climbed to a record level of $15 billion in 2017 (the most recent year that data is available). Pennsylvania, Virginia, Connecticut and Florida strengthened their state building energy codes in 2018, which will increase energy efficiency in these jurisdictions as they are implemented.
  • Natural gas capacity set new records. The most new gas-fired power-generating capacity was added in 14 years propelling it to a record 35 percent of the country’s power generation. At the same time, natural gas production hit record highs, over 82 billion cubic feet per day. 

  • Renewable energy continues to grow. Installations of renewables hit 19.5 gigawatts in 2018. Solar accounted for a combined 11.6 gigawatts last year followed by wind at 7.5 gigawatts. In 2018, hydro added 142 megawatts, biomass and waste-to-energy added 103 megawatts, and geothermal added 53 megawatts. Policy support for these sectors has been shorter term and less consistent, in general, than for the wind and solar industries. Hydropower, closely followed by wind, are the two largest sources of zero-carbon, renewable generation in the U.S.

“More coal plants closing and being replaced by cleaner sources of power marked a key trend that continued in 2018,” said Ethan Zindler, BloombergNEF’s head of Americas. “However, the overall jump in CO₂ emissions during 2018 is a clear reminder that technological advancements on their own cannot address the climate challenge. Strong, supportive policies are needed at the local, state, as well as federal level.”

The Factbook outlines the contributions of corporations and states in driving growth of sustainable energy:

  • The business community stepped up to drive demand again. Retailers, major 
technology firms, and even an oil major contracted record volumes of renewable power through direct contracts. Others pledged to double energy productivity or to green their vehicle fleets, with electric, fuel cell and renewable natural gas power vehicles. 

  • States continued to lead the charge on clean energy policy-making. California promised to achieve 100 percent renewables by 2045 while other states including Nevada, New Jersey and New York upped the ante on their renewables, efficiency, and battery deployment pledges. Florida agreed to allow third-party PV installers to operate in the state. 

Support for sustainable energy by the business community and states occurred despite the lack of federal policy in many of these areas. Although one year of energy consumption and emissions data does not signify a trend, the statistics in this year’s Factbook do point to the importance of policy. Smart federal, state and local policies should support and leverage private sector investment going forward to ensure these gains continue, especailly in the industrial and buildings sectors that can be more challenging to decarbonize.

Continuing national energy trends as identified by the 2019 Factbook include:

  • Energy remained affordable. Households continue to spend record lows of personal income on electricity and natural gas bills. In many major regions, weighted-average retail power prices fell 1-3 percent though they did rise in some regions. 

  • U.S. energy jobs grew. The entire U.S. energy sector employs approximately 6.5 million Americans, up 2 percent in 2017 from 2016 (the most recent data available), with energy efficiency, renewable energy and natural gas sectors employing 3.4 million Americans—or 52.3 percent of the entire energy sector—in 2017. 

  • The popularity of electric vehicles grew. EVs accounted for only 1.3 percent of total vehicles sold in the U.S in the 4th quarter of 2017. By the third quarter in 2018, that had nearly doubled to 2.5 percent, then hit 3 percent by the fourth quarter. 

  • The U.S. retains a competitive advantage on industrial power prices. The U.S. is second only to Canada with the lowest industrial electricity prices among the G7 nations. 

  • Battery storage costs fell further. Lithium-ion battery prices dropped another 18 percent year-on-year, boosting both EVs and stationary storage applications and encouraging electric utilities to sign power purchase agreements pairing storage with solar and wind. 

The 2019 Factbook is the seventh edition of an annual national information resource that outlines key trends in sustainable energy, comprising the most dynamic elements of the American energy marketplace, including energy efficiency, natural gas and renewable energy. The 2019 Factbook includes a comprehensive overview and detailed charts, graphs and sources for information and is available for download from the BCSE website http://www.bcse.org/factbook and in hard copy format directly from BCSE. The Factbook is developed each year to serve as a reference guide of sustainable energy statistics for use by media, business and industry.


Business Council for Sustainable Energy (BCSE) 2019

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