Latest headlines show renewable energy going mainstream

I start most mornings at MEC by browsing the day's environmental headlines, mainly from email newsletters that I highly recommend-Midwest Energy News, InsideClimate News, Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate and Food and Environment Reporting Network, among others-so I'm used to seeing plenty of promising news about the rise of renewable energy.

But the past few days have been exceptional, energy news-wise. One story after another has driven home the reality that a future powered primarily by clean energy is not far off. It wasn't so long ago that wind and solar were seen as feel-good gimmicks for the tree-hugging fringe, but those days are gone. You don't hear them called "alternative energy" much anymore. Renewables have gone mainstream.

That's good, because we need to shift away from fossil fuels, fast. Last year was the hottest ever recorded, marking three consecutive years of record-breaking warmth. (To see how much warmer than average your hometown was last year, check out this cool tool.)

Here are some of the renewable energy stories that grabbed my attention over the past few days.

Surge in solar installations

The news: New solar photovoltaic installations in the U.S. totaled a record 14.6 gigawatts in 2016. That's almost twice what was installed in 2015, which was itself a record year.

Why it's a big deal: For the first time, solar was the largest source of new electric generating capacity nationwide. It made up 39 percent of new capacity, more than natural gas (29 percent) or wind (26 percent). To be clear, capacity is how much electricity a power source is capable of producing, and is different from generation, which is how much power actually gets produced. Solar was still less than 1 percent of U.S. generation in 2015, though experts expect that number to double by the end of this year and continue growing steadily.

"What these numbers tell you is that the solar industry is a force to be reckoned with," says Abigail Ross Hopper, CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association. "Solar's economically winning hand is generating strong growth across all market segments."


Wind power sets a record

The news: For a short time on the morning of Feb. 12, wind power met more than half of electric demand for the region of 14 Western and Midwest states whose grid is overseen by the Southwest Power Pool (SPP).

Why it's a big deal: This was the first time any U.S. regional transmission organization powered more than half its grid with wind. Those are the organizations that oversee electric grids and wholesale energy markets.

"Ten years ago, we thought hitting even a 25 percent wind-penetration level would be extremely challenging, and any more than that would pose serious threats to reliability," says SPP Vice President of Operations Bruce Rew. "Now we have the ability to reliably manage greater than 50 percent wind penetration. It's not even our ceilingWith a (generation) footprint as broad as ours, even if the wind stops blowing in the upper Great Plains, we can deploy resources waiting in the Midwest and Southwest to make up any sudden deficits."


Explosive solar job growth 

The news: Michigan's solar workforce grew 48 percent in 2016 with the addition of 1,339 jobs, bringing the state's total employment in the solar sector to 4,118.

Why it's a big deal: Nationwide, solar jobs grew by just shy of 25 percent in 2016, outpacing the overall economy by 17 times. More than one in every 50 new jobs created last year were in solar. With 260,077 jobs, the U.S. solar industry now employs twice as many people as the coal industry and about the same number as the natural gas industry. Those are well-payed jobs-$26 an hour on average for installers-that can't be outsourced.

"Falling prices for panels are helping drive a nationwide clean-energy boom," ThinkProgress reports. "Utility-scale solar is now cost-competitive with wind and natural gas - and it's cheaper than coal, even without subsidies."


More communities go 100 percent renewable

The news: Pueblo, Colo., and Moab, Utah joined the growing list of cities committed to using 100 percent renewable energy. Pueblo set a target date of 2035, while Moab is aiming for 2032.

Why it's a big deal: With Pueblo and Moab on board, 23 cities across the country have pledged to go all-renewable. Among them are three Michigan communities: Grand Rapids, Northport and Traverse City. Meanwhile, Massachusetts lawmakers have introduced legislation that could make it the first state to go 100 percent renewable. (Hawaii has pledged to produce all of its electricity from renewable sources by 2045; the Massachusetts bill aims for all-renewable electricity by 2035, with the entire energy system-including home heating and transportation-fossil fuel-free by 2050.)

Even as the Trump administration works to roll back federal policies that would avert the worst impacts of climate change, state and local governments are leading the way forward and proving what rigorous research has shown is true: 100 percent renewables is possible.


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