The 13 top energy developments of 2016
While certain events in the past year may have had some people scratching their heads, we can look back on 2016 with a lot of gratitude. We’re not just talking that we got to run around with smartphones and catch Pokémons, or that we can now download Netflix movies. There were some exciting clean energy developments as well. Below are some of our favorites (in no particular order):
1. The Paris Agreement becomes legally binding
Even though 196 nations signed the COP21 Paris Agreement in 2015, it didn’t become legally binding until the agreement was ratified by 55 countries accounting for at least 55 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions between them. That happened in October (in September, the two biggest greenhouse gas emitters — the U.S. and China — ratified the agreement), and on Nov. 4, the Paris Agreement became the first legally binding agreement, signed by all of the world’s functioning governments, to lay down a commitment to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius by 2100.
2. Emerging economies deploy more renewables
According to the recently released Climatescope 2016 report, emerging economies are deploying more renewables than developed nations. The 58 assessed emerging nations in South America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia built 70 gigawatts of clean energy in 2015, compared to the 59 gigawatts deployed in the 35 OECD countries. Plus, an unprecedented 80 percent of the Climatescope nations have national clean energy targets, while 75 percent have set CO2 emissions reduction goals.
3. Federal agencies rule for efficiency and renewables
Two rulings proved to be big wins for efficiency and renewables. In January, the Supreme Court upheld Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Order 745, deciding that demand response (DR) should be regulated at the federal level, allowing compensation for DR customers at wholesale rates, saving money for customers and the grid. And in June, FERC ruled that rural electric cooperatives can source local and renewable electricity beyond their self-generation limit, opening up a potential 400 GW renewables market.
4. States go renewable
States throughout the country are upping their renewable portfolio standards (RPS). An Oregon bill boosted the state’s RPS to 50 percent by 2040 and requires the state’s two largest utilities to phase out coal imports by 2035; New York must get 50 percent of its power from renewables by 2030; Rhode Island’s RPS expanded to 38.5 percent by 2035; and Washington, D.C., has to be 50 percent renewable by 2032 while promising to serve 100,000 low-income residents with solar energy. Even more exciting, many regions are seeing adoption of renewables well beyond their RPS, simply because of good economics, most notably the Midwest and Texas.
5. Corporations embrace more clean energy
The year saw many first-time corporate buyers enter the renewables market, such as Steelcase, Lockheed Martin, Akamai and 3M. Companies that have been investing in renewables for years upped their game. Google announced it is going 100 percent renewable and Amazon brought five new solar projects online, adding 180 megawatts of clean energy onto the grid by the end of 2017.
6. Solar components get better and cheaper
Solar PV panels are getting more efficient, while their cost is decreasing. One big trend that started to emerge this year is the approach of first-cost parity between conventional and high-efficiency monocrystalline cells, with events such as the ET Solar-Longi Silicon joint venture signaling more to come in the low-cost, high-efficiency space. Meanwhile, solar inverters are getting smarter and cheaper. This led, in February, to solar reaching grid parity in 20 of the 50 U.S. states; and in September, the installed cost of residential solar to fall below $3/watt for the first time. And Dubai received a bid recently for 800 megawatts of solar at an incredibly low $2.42/kWh unsubsidized.
7. America gets power from its first offshore wind farm
Five wind turbines off the coast of Rhode Island started generating power in December. While Europe has over 11,000 megawatts of offshore wind — attracting record investments in 2016 — the 30-megawatt Block Island Wind Farm is the first offshore wind farm in all of the Americas. And the Obama administration unveiled its National Offshore Wind Strategy, which includes generating 86 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2050.
8. Underserved homeowners gain access to efficiency
The Federal Housing Finance Agency issued a final rule to implement the Duty to Serve statute. Among other provisions, the rule allows Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to support their Duty to Serve by financing water and energy efficiency for low- and moderate-income families in the single family and multifamily affordable housing markets — the ones who need it most (as low-income customers can spend as much as 20 percent of their monthly income on utility bills). Plus the emergence of PACE programs and the HomeStyle Energy mortgage loan provide additional means of affordable financing to borrowers wanting to increase the efficiency of their homes.
9. Cities lead the way on improved building performance
Amid federal uncertainty, cities are stepping up to lead the way on building efficiency. Twenty cities across the U.S. have joined the City Energy Project, committing to improve the energy efficiency of large buildings; Portland, Oregon, is requiring energy disclosures in real estate listings; and New York City released its Roadmap (PDF) on how to achieve an 80 percent greenhouse gas emissions reduction by 2050 (including new buildings needing to meet ultra-low energy standards, and nearly every existing building needing to implement deep energy retrofits). Plus, 46 mayors signed an open letter to President-elect Trump clarifying their intentions to lead on climate issues.
10. HFCs get phased down
In October, the world took significant action to protect the climate. Representatives from 170 countries agreed to amend the Montreal Protocol, establishing timetables to freeze and then reduce hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) emissions. This marks an incredible step toward meeting the Paris Climate Agreement goals, as HFCs have a global warming potential thousands of times that of carbon dioxide.
11. Car manufacturers embrace mobility services
Toyota partnered with Uber to allow Uber drivers to lease a vehicle through Toyota and use the revenues from driving to make their payments; General Motors partnered with both Uber and Lyft to provide on-demand mobility service; GM and Lyft are also working toward an autonomous vehicle with ride-hailing abilities; and Volkswagen is in talks with China’s Didi Chuxing to set up a ride-hailing joint venture. These developments underscore RMI’s prediction of peak car ownership.
12. EVs go mainstream
In the first quarter of 2016, global electric vehicle (EV) sales increased 42 percent. In the U.S. a record was set for plug-in sales in September, with 16,794 sold — a 67 percent increase over a year ago. Several EVs reached cost parity from an upfront-cost standpoint with internal combustion engine vehicles. For example, New York City purchased 50 Chevy Bolt EVs for a price similar to what it was paying for Priuses. The Chevy Bolt also won Motor Trend’s 2017 Car of the Year.
13. Aviation takes first steps toward going green
The world saw the first round-the-world flight by a solar-powered plane. Solar Impulse 2 flew almost 25,000 miles powered by 17,000 solar cells on its wings, in 23 days, using no fossil fuels. Meanwhile, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport became the world’s first airport to proactively explore long-term financing for sustainable aviation fuels. Working with the Port of Seattle, SkyNRG and Carbon War Room, the goal is to provide an airport-wide sustainable aviation fuel supply for all routine airline operations.