If you took President Trump’s administration as the barometer for his country’s attitude to renewable energy, you might think the USA is heading hell-for-leather in the opposite direction, working its way back to the kind of smog and soot-filled environment more familiar to early industrial Britain.
But despite pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement in June, and Trump’s promise to double down on fossil fuels like the coal industry, the fact is that the US is already beating a path to renewable energy, and no amount of Presidential grandstanding to the contrary is going to change it.
Follow the money
Why? Well, to quote a former American President, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Quite simply, renewable energy is becoming big business in the US. For example, the solar industry is creating jobs 17 times faster than the rest of the economy, and now employs more than twice as many people than the coal industry, with about 370,000 employees compared to 160,000.
Growth in the solar photovoltaics sector is surpassed only by China and Japan, with American companies incentivised by a reduction in costs of more than half since 2008.
Meanwhile, wind power is becoming one of the cheapest forms of energy available in America, a new wind turbine going up every 2.4 hours. No wonder it’s set to overtake hydroelectric power in the next few years as the country’s number one source of renewable energy.
It’s already a significant contributor to energy in states like Kansas, North and South Dakota and Iowa, the last of which produces over 35% of its energy this way. What’s perhaps more surprising is that these states are Republican and not exactly known to push a tree-hugging agenda. It’s money and job creation that are doing the talking here. And with a further 700,000 square miles suitable for wind development according to America’s Energy Department, the potential remains enormous.
The boom in solar and wind power are clearly making a difference. In March of this year, a new report published by the US Energy Information Administration revealed that, for the very first time, electricity generation from renewables had made it into double digits, with 10% of the total energy produced in the US now coming from renewables.
It’s true that this is dwarfed by most European countries, especially Sweden, Norway, Germany and Denmark. And the US certainly has a long way to go if it wants achieve what Germany did in April 2017, when it broke the record for renewable energy use, with a one-day peak of 85% of its energy coming from wind, solar, biomass and hydropower.
That said, the state of California is not far off. In May of 2017, it managed to produce 80% of its energy via renewables. Blessed with an abundance of both solar and wind power, as well as the presence of tech-giants eager to innovate in this area, the state has become the model to emulate in America.
What’s more, to accommodate the amount of energy being produced (which the grid is otherwise unable to cope with), various companies are now springing up to grab a slice of the market with energy storage solutions.
The progressive outlook of California’s politicians helps too. City mayors provide a lead, putting in place targets like having the San Francisco BART public transit system run on clean energy by 2045, or Los Angeles’s aim of generating a third of its electricity from renewables by 2020.
And America is nothing if not competitive, to the point where a US Conference of Mayors in Miami Beach in June saw over 250 of them back a commitment for their respective cities to run entirely on renewable energies by 2035.
It’s an ambitious target, but the momentum is clearly there. For example, Las Vegas might have reputation for excess, but city-run street lighting, parks, fire stations, community centres and government facilities are now all powered entirely by renewable energy. Chicago – a much larger city – aims to do the same by 2025. As for New York City, the aim is for 50% of its entire energy consumption to come from clean sources by 2030. Which is pretty amazing, when you think about it.
What’s quickly becoming clear is that, where the energy industries are concerned, Donald Trump didn’t get the memo. His administration can talk about climate change being a myth or make a lot of noise about plans to reboot the fossil fuel industry, but America is simply getting on with planning for a clean energy future.
In fact, a study by the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory shows that, given present parameters, the US could produce 80% of its energy through renewables by 2050.
So, although renewable industries in America are still playing catch up with Europe at present, their typical go-getter attitude could see them achieve that 80% in the next few decades, putting them in the same league when it comes to clean energy. Who knows, maybe it’ll be ‘America First’ after all – except in this kind of race, everyone wins.