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Renewables Beat Fossil Fuels Second Year in a Row

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Start spreading the news: The world is now deploying more renewable energy in the production of electricity—more wind and solar power, in particular—than it is fossil fuels. And it has been since 2013, according to the analysts at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. That year, the world added 143 gigawatts of new renewables capacity, compared to the 141 gigawatts of power generated by coal, natural gas and oil combined.

States can speed the deployment of solar by allowing third-party developers to install solar on homes, businesses and community institutions and sell the electricity the systems generate back to customers at a reduced cost.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Not only that, but by 2030, we'll likely add a whopping four times as much renewable energy generating capacity as fossil fuel capacity, the Bloomberg folks say. "The electricity system is shifting to clean," Michael Liebreich, of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, said at the company's The Future of Energy Summit 2015 in New York City last week. "Despite the change in oil and gas prices, there is going to be a substantial build-out of renewable energy that is likely to be an order of magnitude larger than the build-out of coal and gas."

Power generation capacity additions (gigawatt). Source: Bloomberg New Energy Finance

That is great news, but it doesn't mean we're out of the woods, global warming-wise. Renewables still produce less energy (gigawatt-hours) than fossil fuels. Worldwide and here in the U.S., we're still not investing nearly as much as we need to to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. But we're making headway and the goal is in sight, assuming we continue with policies that incentivize clean energy for all it has to offer. Here I mean, of course, significant climate change mitigation, cleaner air for our kids to breathe, improved public health (and the decreased healthcare spending that comes with it), and good jobs galore.

Recent advances in the deployment of renewables, and commensurate drops in fossil fuel installation, have been made possible because many nations around the world—ours included—along with their state, provincial and local governments, have used smart policies to support renewable energy. These policies have spurred demand, sped economies of scale, driven investment in improved technologies and increased competition in the marketplace, all of which, in turn, have led to breath-taking price declines in the costs of both wind and solar power.

To continue these advances around the world, and help make renewable energy even more prevalent and accessible, there's much we in the U.S. can do. And what we do in the U.S. is especially significant, because the progress we make here influences the world marketplace (Here's an example: Policy-driven demand in the U.S. helped bring Chinese solar manufacturers into the market. Their efforts, in turn, significantly drove down the cost of solar panels so that last year, they cost a mind-blowing 50 cents a watt in most places. Compare that to $1.31 a watt in 2011).

There are three federal policies, at a minimum, that need to be renewed if we are to continue to push down prices and deploy more clean energy: the Production Tax Credit for wind power and the Investment Tax Credit for offshore wind power, both of which have already expired; and the 30 percent Solar Investment Tax Credit, which remains in effect through 2016. That credit has been pivotal in solar's exponential growth in recent years, including double-digit job growth in an industry that provides good-paying jobs to many people with only high school degrees. That credit should be renewed as well.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan to cut carbon pollution from existing power plants will also likely become a huge driver of renewable energy development here in the U.S. and, thus, help lower prices and increase deployment worldwide.

At the state level, renewable energy standards, which require utilities to get certain percentages of their electricity from sources such as solar and wind power, have been the major impetus behind clean energy development. These standards are under attack in some states by legislators connected with the fossil-fuel-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, and we should defend these standards with all we've got. The good news is that many states are increasing their standards so that more and more of their energy comes from renewable sources, a move the Natural Resources Defense Council encourages.

California is the current leader, with its plan to get 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. New York could pull ahead, though, with a 50 percent by 2025 standard that the Natural Resources Defense Council and its partners are promoting now. States can also speed the deployment of solar through more efficient permitting and interconnection processes, and, importantly, by allowing third-party developers to install solar on homes, businesses and community institutions and sell the electricity the systems generate back to customers at a reduced cost.

As renewable energy prices come down fast and the concentration of carbon pollution in our atmosphere continues to skyrocket, renewable energy offers a solution with benefits for everyone—cleaner air, good jobs and a safer climate for our kids. Smart policies that promote it and its many benefits are key to advances not just here in the U.S. but all the way around the world.

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The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.

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On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor said nearly 60 percent of the state was abnormally dry, up from 46 percent just last week, according to The Mercury News in San Jose.

The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.

"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.

Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.

Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.

"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.

NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.

As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.

"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.

The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.

"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."

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