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Wind turbines in Iowa, USA, one of the states that's leading the way on wind energy. Photo: Don Graham via Flickr (CC BY-SA).
Wind turbines in Iowa, USA, one of the states that's leading the way on wind energy. Photo: Don Graham via Flickr (CC BY-SA).
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Supreme Court can't hold back the renewable energy revolution!

Linda Pentz Gunter

19th February 2016

The attempt by the US Supreme Court to stall the White House Clean Power Plan is being thwarted on the ground, writes Linda Pentz Gunter. The numbers show that new renewable energy installation around the US is outpacing even natural gas - leaving coal in the dust, and new nuclear at a big round zero.

The Supreme Court may have frozen the Clean Power Plan for the time being, even as Scalia's death has plunged it into a firestorm of controversy. But the Court can't hold back the inevitable and welcome renewable energy revolution.

The wringing of hands among environmentalists was a perfectly reasonable reaction to the February 9th Supreme Court announcement that it had stayed implementation of the White House Clean Power Plan approved by the US Environmental Protection Agency last August.

After all, the Supreme Court more typically issues stays of execution in death penalty cases. In this instance, the Court tried to deliver its own death penalty to climate change mitigation.

But before a pall settled too heavily over our crushed clean air optimism, we were urged to take heart.

Or, more specifically, to look at the empirical evidence - a runaway renewable energy train that has left the five renegade Justices - although no longer including the now deceased Antonin Scalia - and other climate deniers standing on the platform. Without their luggage.

The Supreme Court stalls the Clean Power Plan - but the US is decarbonizing anyway

Writing in the Washington Post, reporter Chris Mooney pointed out that while the Court may have stalled the Clean Power Plan, the country at large wasn't really taking any notice.

Mooney observed: "the US has been going through something that looks a lot like the kind of transition it is meant to prompt even without the plan in place. Namely: The nation has been slowly decarbonizing its electricity system, through the growth of renewables and the switching from burning coal to burning natural gas."

And indeed the numbers are encouraging. The Factbook released on February 4th by Bloomberg New Energy Finance shows that 8.5 gigawatts of new wind capacity and 7.3 gigawatts of new solar photovoltaics were installed in 2015.

Other key findings include: American energy productivity has increased by 13% from 2007 to 2015; total US investment in clean energy topped $56 billion in 2015, the second highest in the world; 2015 US power sector carbon emissions fell to their lowest annual level since 1995.

Similar numbers released by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) have solar and wind well outpacing new installation of natural gas at 5.94 gigawatts and leaving coal in its own dust at just 3 megawatts.

New nuclear installation remained at a big, beautiful zero. This non-entity status will continue in 2016 at least until the TVA Watts Bar 2 reactor gets switched on this summer, having taken a record-breaking 43 years to reach green light status.

But that will be it. TVA just canceled its two planned new reactors at Bellefonte in Alabama, and crippling and expensive delays continue to plague the only other new nuclear construction sites, in Georgia and South Carolina.

No stopping renewables in 2016 and beyond

Meanwhile, there will be no stopping renewables in 2016 and beyond. The February Short-Term Energy Outlook released by the US government's Energy Information Administration (EIA) "expects total renewables used in the electric power sector to increase by 8.1% in 2016" in electricity and heat generation.

Departing from the traditional - and continued - solar growth in rooftop PV panels, the EIA also "expects utility-scale solar capacity will increase by about 80% (10 GW) between the end of 2015 and the end of 2017, with 4.1 GW of new capacity being built in California."

The nod to California is significant and exposes the red herring arguments tossed out by Michael Shellenberger and his pro-nuclear Breakthrough Institute, who continue to insist that shutting California's nuclear power plants - the twin reactors at San Onofre officially closed in 2013; Diablo Canyon ought to follow - will be the death knell for the state's carbon emissions reductions.

What the Breakthrough Institute most particularly fails to admit is that by far the biggest challenge to California's GHG emissions reduction goal is to be found in the transportation sector. According to the California Environmental Protection Agency, 37% of CO2 emissions in the state come from transportation, "the single largest source of CO2 in California."

Unlike Shellenberger and friends, the California EPA does not advocate keeping nuclear power plants going to address this problem since it's clearly irrelevant. Just 11% of the state's emissions come from power generation, or 20% including imports.

Instead it urges people to "Help reduce your carbon dioxide emissions by driving less, switching to a more fuel efficient vehicle, and saving electricity at home and at work!"

Solar industry adding jobs in US 12 times faster than rest of the economy

The White House pointed out with some buoyancy during the Clean Power Plan rollout that: "Since Obama took office, the administration has made the largest investments in clean energy in American history."

It continued: "In 2014 renewables accounted for half of new electricity generation capacity placed in service. As of October, renewables were on pace to account for over 60 percent of new generation capacity placed in service in 2015. Solar installations climbed 30 percent." And the solar industry, the Plan said, "is adding jobs 12 times faster than the rest of the economy."

The Supreme Court may have frozen the Clean Power Plan for the time being, even as Scalia's death has plunged it into a firestorm of controversy.

But the Court can't hold back the determination of cities and states around the country, who have no intention of missing out on the inevitable and welcome renewable energy revolution.

 


 

Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear, a Takoma Park, MD environmental advocacy group.

 

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