The Nation’s New Power Picture

Sweeping changes are transforming energy consumption and production. A new study surveys the landscape.

The Business Council for Sustainable Energy released its eighth annual Sustainable Energy in America Factbook earlier this month and the data is striking. The 2010-2019 decade marks the historical period when renewable energy stopped being a rarity and went mainstream.

During this timeframe, the U.S. reexamined its ways of producing, delivering and consuming the electricity-generating particles. Throughout the past 10 years, the country’s economy increased its energy efficiency, improved its energy security and turned less carbon-intensive.

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A plethora of factors contributed to bringing the U.S. at the current level—from its shift from being a net importer of natural gas in 2010 to a net exported as the decade closed—to the twice the renewable power-generating capacity today compared to a decade ago. The main beneficiary of all of this is, of course, the American consumer, primarily thanks to lower costs associated with energy.

Notorious renewables

Visual created with images via Pixabay

During the decade, the total installed wind capacity has tripled to 108 gigawatts. At 75 gigawatts of solar, the country boasts 80 times more such capacity online today than it did a decade ago. The U.S. ranks second among all countries by electricity production from renewable sources, behind China. The rise of renewables, combined with the robust growth of the oil and natural gas sectors, have resulted in significant reductions in wholesale electricity prices. With demand for natural gas in the power sector jumping 60 percent over the decade, the natural gas-fired power generation rose from meeting 24 percent of the nation’s needs in 2010 to 38 percent in 2019 to the detriment of coal-fired power, which went from meeting 45 percent demand in 2010 to 23 percent in 2019.

Towards the end of the decade, starting 2017, renewable technology paired with large-scale batteries became economically viable. That is when photovoltaic with storage systems have taken off, triggered by a 77 percent drop in the price of typical photovoltaic module and an 87 percent decline in battery pack prices.

Energy delivery & consumption

Throughout the decade, utilities have nearly doubled their annual rate of investment in transmission. From 2010 to 2018, the report shows that investor-owned utilities spent $170 billion, or $18.9 billion per year. Moreover, the national natural gas distribution pipeline expanded from 2.1 million miles in 2009 to 2.24 million miles as of 2018, serving more than 75 million homes and businesses.

The U.S. economy flaunts 10 consecutive years of growth. In turn, the country’s energy demand expanded only marginally over the period. Specifically, the country’s gross domestic product grew to approximately $19 trillion in 2019, up about 25 percent since the start of the decade; meanwhile, total energy use expanded just 6.6 percent and in five years energy usage marked contractions year-over-year.

Tech support

This extraordinary growth was possible due to the convergence of technology innovation, economies of scale and supportive policies in the energy efficiency sector. The Sustainable Energy in America Factbook notes that there are more than 85 million smart meters in U.S. homes and businesses, up from just 9.6 million a decade ago and counts 13 states that have meter penetration rates exceeding 80 percent of homes and businesses.

Technology advancements not only improved the devices and products serving the sector but also posted lower costs for these items. An example is the LED lightbulb, which back in 2012 it had a price tag of $37 and in 2017 it could be purchased for as little as $8, according to the Department of Energy. At the same time, the usage of these bulbs exploded from virtually zero in 2010 to 1.1 billion units in 2018, but it’s still well below 50 percent in the U.S., which can be translated in plenty of room for energy efficiency opportunities left. Similar comparisons can be made for a variety of appliances and devices, including refrigerators, air conditioners, furnaces, etc.

Policy backing

The federal government has been a major supporter of these energy efficiency findings through bills such as the Energy Star recognition program, a mandate phase-out of particularly obsolete and inefficient equipment. On a state level, 74 percent of Americans live in a state with a building energy code that promotes energy efficiency, while cities have set their own benchmarking or disclosure policies, which mobilize building owners to achieve specific levels of energy efficiency or make public their progress on the energy efficiency front.

Power to the people

Image via Pixabay

The consumer was given the option to choose this past decade. Not just how they use power in their homes and businesses, but also where they source it from. The Business Council for Sustainable Energy’s analysis notes that at least 18 regulated utilities offer “green tariff” programs to enable the delivery of renewable power to corporate customers. This means that the utility will buy clean energy on behalf of the corporate buyer, manage the intermittency with their existing portfolio and deliver it to customers. Google led the way in 2019, having acquired 783 megawatts of clean energy through green tariff programs; Facebook was not far behind with 700MW.

Some of the world’s largest technology, manufacturing and oil companies have chosen to buy power from renewable energy projects. In 2019, corporations in the U.S. have purchased 13.6 gigawatts of clean energy through PPAs, well above the 8.5GW acquired in 2018. The concept of PPA was non-existent in 2010, and throughout the decade U.S. companies have signed contracts with wind and solar projects totaling 33.6 gigawatts—which is the equivalent of powering roughly eight million homes.

Residential customers have not been left out, they too have clean energy options to choose from. Rooftop solar is now widely accessible thanks to a significant price decrease: the average residential photovoltaic system was priced at around $34,000 a decade ago, while nowadays it costs $15,000 or less, depending on the size.

Energy storage technology has seen consistent improvement, batteries especially, and behind-the-meter battery systems and thermal energy storage have increased resiliency during blackouts. In addition, energy storage systems enable the customer to keep the costs low by using stored energy during hours of peak consumption.

Financial charges

While prices may vary significantly from region to region, U.S. businesses have benefitted from some of the lowest wholesale power, natural gas, oil and other fuel prices. Furthermore, U.S. households spend less than 4 percent of their monthly average income on a proportional basis toward energy-related expenses, down from 5.1 percent a decade ago. The study’s authors report that since 2010, more than $390 billion has gone into U.S. clean energy assets, which is nearly four times the amount invested until 2010. In addition, 2018 figures show that 3.5 million Americans were working in energy efficiency, energy storage, renewables, nuclear and natural gas sectors.