United States solar and wind developers had a record year in 2020 despite punishing restrictions and job losses brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, ultimately rising to 20% of the country’s electricity production, according to new data released last week by Bloomberg New Energy Finance and the Business Council for Sustainable Energy.
The growth in the two renewables brought the electricity sources usually designated as zero-carbon, including hydropower and nuclear, up to 40% of U.S. electricity supply, Greentech Media reports. Coal-fired generation continued its fall, while fossil gas demand declined for the first time since 2009.
“It was a year of records but also resilience,” said Ethan Zindler, BloombergNEF’s head of Americas research. “I’ll be candid in saying about half-way through the year, things looked pretty dire.”
The first months of the pandemic were a tough time for the renewables, Greentech recalls, with manufacturers in Asia pausing production and U.S. shutdown orders putting a major crimp in construction and sales. Environmental Entrepreneurs said the industry last 67,000 jobs between February and December.
But “in the end, those struggles did not mute overall growth,” Greentech writes. BloombergNEF put new solar installations for the year at 16.5 gigawatts, well ahead of the 2019 record of 14.4 GW, while Wood Mackenzie calculated the 2020 figure at more than 19 GW. Wind added 17 gigawatts.
Gas-fired generation still made up 41% of the electricity mix, showing “how difficult it will be to erode the grip that fossil fuels have on the power industry, as President Biden has pledged to do,” Greentech says. “Though scientists recognize the need to make deep and immediate cuts to emissions, companies whose bottom lines are defined in part by selling natural gas continue to frame gas and renewables as complementary resources.”
“If you love renewables, you have to at least like natural gas,” said Lisa Alexander, senior vice president of corporate affairs and chief sustainability officer at gas wholesaler Sempra Energy. “We don’t see it as oppositional. We see it as both systems working in tandem to decarbonize.”
After the significant role gas played in the first phase of grid decarbonization, with its accent on shutting down coal plants, BloombergNEF’s Zindler told Greentech it’s “an open question” how quickly those same utilities will abandon coal for clean renewables. “I think it’s going to be one of the great, interesting challenges of the next four years and beyond,” he said.