Coal may make a political comeback in Washington, where President Trump is eager to make good on his promise to revive the sagging industry.
But politics aside, it’s the greener forms of energy that are changing substantially the way the USA produces, uses and even saves energy, particularly when it comes to electricity.
The trends are detailed in a new report from the Business Council for Sustainable Energy (BCSE) that provides 163 pages of data on the impact of renewable energy, natural gas and energy efficiency on the U.S. economy.
Prepared by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), the “Sustainable Energy in America Factbook” illustrates milestones in 2016, including record additions of renewable energy to the U.S. electric power grid and the lowest energy costs ever recorded for U.S. consumers.
“These are the growth sectors of the energy economy in the United States,” BCSE President Lisa Jacobson said at a briefing last week. “We think that’s going to continue.”
Among the findings for 2016:
► The USA added 22 gigawatts of renewable generating capacity to the electric grid as costs for solar and wind power continued to decline. Solar energy accounted for more than half that amount, or 12.5 gigawatts.
► Natural gas overtook coal to become the No. 1 fuel for electricity supplies, accounting for 34% of the generating mix, up from 22% in 2007.
► The retirement of coal power plants continued as 7 gigawatts of capacity was taken offline after a record 15 gigawatts removed in 2015. An additional 12 gigawatts of coal-fired capacity is scheduled for retirement in the next five years.
► Total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions fell to a 25-year low, thanks largely to increased reliance on renewables and gas for electricity.
All of this occurred as American consumers devoted less than 4% of their total household spending to energy in 2016, the smallest share documented by the government, while overall U.S. energy consumption fell even as the nation’s gross domestic product grew, a trend that’s been underway for 10 years.
The decline in spending is probably the result of falling fuel costs as well as energy-efficiency measures, the report said.
BNEF offers no forecasts for sustainable energy, but the authors see no reason for the trends to reverse, despite the change from the Obama administration, which was outspoken in its advocacy for green energy, to the Trump administration, in which pro-coal and pro-oil policies dominate energy discussions.
In fact, the trade groups representing renewable energy point out that their industries are increasing U.S. manufacturing and jobs, consistent with the economic goals of the Trump administration.
One day before the BCSE briefing, the non-profit Solar Foundation reported that the U.S. solar workforce grew at a historic pace in 2016, accounting for one of every 50 new jobs in the country.
All told, employment in the solar sector grew by 51,000 jobs, or 25%, compared with 2015, for a total of 260,077 jobs.
Moreover, solar, wind and other sustainable energy development occurs in rural as well as urban areas.
Tom Kiernan, CEO of the American Wind Association, noted that wind energy projects dot states where Republican lawmakers prevail.
“This is happening in their districts with their constituents,” Kiernan said. “I think those factors are important to share up on Capitol Hill.”
Time will tell whether the case for sustainable energy will gain much traction in today’s politically charged atmosphere in Washington.
For the public, one finding from the report should stand out, according to BNEF’s Colleen Regan, an author of the report.
“If you leave here with anything today, it should be about costs,” Regan said at the briefing. “We’re choosing sustainable energy sources, and we’re not paying any more for them.”
Bill Loveless — @bill_loveless on Twitter — is a veteran energy journalist and podcast host in Washington.