2015: The Clean Economy’s Watershed Year?

In a crammed Washington conference room last week, speaker after speaker seemed to apologize for their ‘broken record’ talking points as Bloomberg New Energy Finance and the Business Council for Sustainable Energy unveiled their annual Factbook. But, of course, they were only being honest — like 2013 before it, 2014 had been an unprecedented year for clean energy.

Even in the early days of 2015, the eagerness in the room seemed to be focused on the gains to be made in the coming year. Could 2014 have set the stage for what might be the clean economy’s watershed moment? 

The anticipation stems from the dismantling of what we thought was an economic convention: as oil prices tumble, so should the market. Few things, historically, have been more important to the U.S. economy. As we surge into 2015, however, the United States is witnessing a curious shift from its old economic conventions. At under $50 a barrel, the cost of oil has hit a five year low, and yet, the market remains bullish, the Dow Jones Industrial Average and NASDAQ continue to post record numbers, and impressive job reports continue to trickle in. It seems that 2015 brought a different kind of economy, and evidently, the linkage between our markets and clean energy is solidifying.

That’s because America’s energy in general is becoming cleaner and more plentiful, no matter what the price of oil is. To fully understand this shift though, it’s important to look backwards at what set the stage for this year.

In 2014, it became clear that the shale boom was not the only boom in town. The past year was a milestone for America’s transition to a clean economy. Every quarter seemed to mark a new benchmark, on cost reductions or deployment, for the once nascent renewable energy industry. Increasingly, this sector became a well-established American powerhouse — slowly altering the ebb and flow our market economy.

Hot off of last year’s heels renewable energy is entering into a year of affordability. Costs for renewable technologies like solar and wind have consistently dropped over the last five years — nearly 58 percent for wind and over 64 percent for solar. The impact? Plummeting prices for generating electricity with the sun and wind have now made them cheaper than coal and natural gas in some markets. What was once thought to be an aspirational science project has now become a reality, and as going green goes ‘into the black,’ more affordable energy means increased project development.

Competitive costs have led to an unparalleled uptick in clean energy deployment. In 2014, renewables grew at their fastest pace ever. In fact, it was reported that renewable technologies made up almost half of all new power generation — outpacing even natural gas. That’s why in 2015 you can expect an American solar project to be installed every 3.2 minutes. Conversely, only one coal power plant was built last year, and there is no reason to believe that trend will change in 2015.

Of course, a boom in project deployment brings a surge in clean employment. As the clean job reports keep stacking up, we know that more people now hold jobs in renewable energy than ever before. Solar added over 30,000 jobs in last year on its own. With this scale-up certain to continue, more Americans are viewing renewable energy as not only a cleaner, more sustainable energy choice, but an economically-smarter energy choice as well.

A slew of studies confirm that renewable energy sources will continue to be the public’s choice for powering America. Reported in USA TODAY, 91 percent of Americans think generating electricity from solar power is a “good idea”, and 84 percent said the same for wind energy generation. In comparison, coal received a measly 21 percent approval from the same study, and a University of Michigan study found only 29 percent of New Yorkers supported shale gas extraction in their state — which, notably, just imposed a ban on fracking.

Because of such widespread public support, our midterm elections were particularly emblematic of the county’s shifting dynamics. No Republican candidate openly opposed renewables in the midterm. On the contrary, a number of Republican victors — Senators Cory Gardner and Susan Collins, and Representatives Cathy McMorris Rogers and Kevin Cramer — actually ran on pro-renewable energy platforms.

And if this past year was any sort of indicator for 2015, the EPA’s two landmark rules showed that the progress made last year will certainly continue. Both the EPA’s Clean Power Plan and ozone rule sent a clear signal to businesses and investors: coal has had its day, and we are entering a clean energy era. The administration’s climate accord with China also reinforced this trajectory. This year has potential to push the envelope even further with more cost-reductions, more jobs, and additional projects that will benefit all Americans.

This significant shift to our old-era conventions will certainly bring a significant boost to a healing economy. The changing of the guard has begun, and with simple policy stability we can expect the renewable energy industry to continue its ‘broken record’ growth for years to come.

Lead image: Wind turbines via Shutterstock

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