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U.S. Nearly Doubles Wind and Solar Capacity in 2020

The United States almost doubled its new installed capacity of wind and solar power in 2020, according to the American Clean Power Association (ACPA).

“Even during a global pandemic, 2020 was a record year for new clean power installations, bringing 26,490 MW of new capacity online,” CEO Heather Zichal told media Thursday. “The U.S. now has enough clean energy capacity to power over 50 million homes, definitive proof the clean energy transition is well underway.”

That means “it’s no longer a question of whether the country will embrace a future powered by clean energy,” added Zichal, formerly a senior energy and climate advisor to the Obama administration. “Now, it’s a matter of when. We have precious little time to avert climate change’s worst impacts, and Americans need good-paying jobs and opportunities today, not down the road.”

The ACPA formed to unite wind, solar, energy storage, and power transmission companies in a bid to transform the U.S. grid to low-cost, reliable, renewable power. Its analysis examines the growth in both energy and environmental attributes.

This week’s release [pdf] shows clean power industries employing 415,000 workers last year, more than the U.S. coal, natural gas, and petroleum generation sectors combined. Generating 50 to 70% of the country’s electricity from renewables would create five to six million job-years, the report estimates.

Last year, electricity from wind turbines and solar panels avoided the release of 327 megatonnes of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of 71 million car tailpipes. The 35,017 MW of wind and solar capacity under construction will reduce another 62 Mt per year, compared with power generated from fossil fuels.

Turbines and panels also avoided 12,000 tonne of particulate matter (PM2.5), 245,000 tonnes of nitrogen oxides, and 219,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide, which cause smog and cost US$16 to $41 billion per year in long-term health benefits, according to ACPA estimates.

Investment in clean power projects hit $39 billion last year, for an estimated total of $334 billion since 2005. The industry paid $1.7 billion in state and local taxes last year, as well as $800 million in land lease payments to landowners across the country, at a time when at least some municipalities and property holders are beset by deadbeat fossils that can’t or won’t pay what they owe.

Clean energy projects are sited in 84% of the country’s Congressional districts, and Texas added the most capacity last year with 6,320 MW, followed by California (2,193 MW) and Florida (1,267 MW).

Electric utilities selected wind for 50% of new additions and solar for 26% which, combined, means that wind, solar, and battery storage represented 78% of new power additions in 2020. In total, they supplied 11% of U.S. electricity in 2020.

Solar developers installed 8,894 MW of capacity at 334 utility projects last year, again led by Texas (2,044 MW), California (1,507 MW) and Florida (1,267 MW). Only Alaska and three mainland states lack utility-scale solar plants. 

“It’s clear we’re living through a monumental period of change,” says Zichal. “Crisis is meeting opportunity.”