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U.S. Renewable Energy Rises to Historic Levels While Coal Use Sags

U.S. reliance on wind, solar and other renewable sources of energy has reached historic levels and is poised to make even greater gains in the near future, according to new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

A Tectonic Shift in America's Energy Landscape finds that the energy sector in the United States emitted less dangerous carbon pollution last year than in 1996, with a full 10 percent reduction over the past decade. Meanwhile, coal and electricity consumption are down nationwide, while oil use today is lower than in the early 1970s, the report shows.

The report cites two important U.S. advances this year in the global fight against climate change: the Obama administration's August release of the Clean Power Plan to limit power plant pollution and California's new climate legislation.

California has set the world's strongest combined targets for energy efficiency, renewable energy and transportation electrification, a path that other states could follow.

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The report also notes the country is already two-thirds of the way toward meeting President Obama's goal of cutting 3 billion tons of carbon pollution by 2030 through his administration's efficiency standards for appliances and federal buildings.

Efficiency remains America's largest and most productive energy resource. The amount of energy required to produce an inflation-adjusted dollar of economic output dropped by almost 60 percent between 1970 and 2014, thanks to smarter energy use, the report says.

Wind power continues to dominate the nation's renewable energy growth, contributing roughly two-thirds of generation from renewable resources other than hydropower. Wind power production scored a 33-fold increase from 2000 to 2014. Meanwhile, solar power doubled its output over the previous year for the fourth year running and, for the first time ever, eclipsing the annual generation of the nation's geothermal resources.

America burned less coal in 2014 than in 1990, and U.S. coal use is down more than 21 percent from the peak year of 2005, primarily due to the movement of utilities away from aging and uneconomical coal-burning power plants, the report says. For the first time in two decades, domestic coal production dropped below 1 billion short tons in 2014, reflecting the power sector's move to cleaner sources to generate electricity.

Wind and solar power quickly are closing the cost gap with fossil fuels due to an improving capacity factor, according to a recent analysis by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. One reason for the shift in capacity factors comes from the fact that renewables are becoming cost-competitive, and are competing directly with fossil fuels. Renewable energy and energy efficiency are competitive resources in today’s marketplace that should also be expected to grow strictly on the basis of cost, according to a July report by the Advanced Energy Economy (AEE) Institute.


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