DoE trumpets clean tech 'energy revolution'

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With the Paris Agreement poised to enter into force, the race to decarbonize the global economy is firmly out of the starting blocks.

Critical to the success of these decarbonization efforts is the ability of countries to roll out new clean technologies on a scale never before seen. From wind turbines to electric cars, economies around the world will need to embrace a new world of technological innovation — and not just test these new ideas out, but firmly embed them into their economic and social structures.

To this end, the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) has been charting the progress of five key green technologies since 2008: LED lighting; electric vehicle; wind power; utility-scale solar PV; and distributed solar.

The good news is that its latest report (PDF) — the 2016 update in the "Revolution... Now" series — reveals each of these technologies has made staggering progress in the last eight years, driving costs down and ramping up deployment in the process.

The report shows how the cost of these clean technologies have dropped dramatically since 2008, with LED lighting costs falling by a staggering 94 percent over the last eight years. In tandem the rollout of such technologies has risen dramatically — there are now almost half a million electric vehicles on U.S. roads, and solar PV generates enough electricity to power more than 2 million homes. The U.S. is closer than ever before to embedding these crucial technologies into the fabric of its economy. 

The report also highlights progress on less mature clean technologies under the banner "Revolution Next," detailing how fuel-cells, grid-connected batteries, energy management systems and 3D-printing are on the cusp of wider deployment in the coming years.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said the report provides "further proof" the DoE's work in supporting clean energy developments can help cut costs and accelerate deployment. "We need to continue pushing the innovation agenda that leads to these kinds of dramatic cost reductions for all low-carbon technologies and increases America's competitiveness and independence in the global clean energy economy," he said in a statement.

The snapshot of the progress made over the past eight years suggests the U.S. clean tech innovation agenda is in pretty good shape.

LED lighting

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LEDs consume around 85 percent less energy than traditional incandescent lightbulbs — switching to them is often considered some of the "lowest hanging fruit" in the energy efficiency market. 

Thanks to dramatic cost reductions — the cost of LED bulbs has plummeted 94 percent since 2008 — the U.S. market seems to be rapidly cottoning on to the benefits of LED technology. The number of installations of common home LED bulbs more than doubled from 77 million to 202 million between 2014 and 2015, while last year LEDs saved homes and businesses in the $2.8 billion in energy costs alone, according to DoE research (PDF).

But DoE is turning its focus away from residential and towards the commercial and industrial sectors to deliver the next wave of energy savings in the light sector.

Large potential energy savings are on offer via the replacement of fluorescent overhead lighting commonly found in factories and offices, which use a disproportionate amount of energy compared to their market share thanks to long hours of continuous use. By 2035, these sectors are expected to contribute to about 30 percent of the total energy savings from LEDs.

If the DoE's efforts go to plan, between now and 2035 Americans are set to save nearly $630 billion in avoided energy costs from LED installations.

Electric cars

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As of August the U.S. boasted almost 500,000 electric vehicles (EVs) on its roads, making it one of the largest markets in the world for EVs. Last year alone, Americans bought more than 115,000 EVs, more than double the number purchased in 2012.

The U.S. battery industry has benefited from the growth in this sector — the country is now the largest market for automotive lithium-ion batteries, and battery manufacturing added $400 million in value to the nation's economy in 2014. Meanwhile, the cost of producing lithium-ion batteries dropped 73 percent since 2009.

In the report, the DoE revealed plans to work with U.S. utilities to further accelerate the deployment of EVs and related infrastructure such as charging points. The department is also working with companies under its "Charging Challenge" scheme to encourage more businesses to install charge points in work parling lots.

Wind

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Wind capacity in the U.S. has almost tripled since 2008, increasing by 12 percent between 2014 and 2015 alone. As of the end of last year the U.S. had 75GW of utility-scale wind power capacity, capable of generating enough electricity for more than 17 million households.

The DoE estimated this escalation of wind capacity cut carbon emissions by more than 132 million metric tonnes last year, and saved more than 73 billion gallons of water. It also estimated the sector supports nearly 90,000 U.S. manufacturing, construction and wind operations jobs and adds $2 billion to the U.S. economy every year.

The cost of U.S. wind power also has dropped sharply over the last decade, with power purchase agreements for wind power falling from an average of 7 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) in 2009 to an average of 2 cents per kWh today in some areas.

Going forward, the DoE highlights offshore wind as a major growth area for the sector — pointing out that the technical potential of the country's offshore wind resources is enough to more than double U.S. wind generating capacity. By the end of this year the country's first offshore wind project, the 30-megawatt Block Island array, will begin generating clean energy.

Utility-scale solar

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The DoE described solar as a "nearly limitless" source of clean energy for the U.S. — with the country's total potential generating capacity 10 times the energy needed to power the nation.

Costs have fallen by 64 percent for utility-scale solar since 2008, which have translated into ever lower prices for solar electricity. The technology is not just proving popular with utilities — the DoE points out that corporations are increasingly realizing the benefits of directly procuring solar power from developers. Last year, U.S. businesses contracted more than 1 gigawatt of utility-scale solar capacity, a fact the DoE said demonstrates "how going solar increasingly makes business sense."

On the environmental side, in 2014 solar installations saved 17 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere and cut water consumption by 7.6 billion gallons. Meanwhile, benefits accruing from emissions reductions and air quality improvements are worth more than $1.5 billion, according to the DoE, while the sector as a whole supports 220,000 domestic jobs and adds around $1 billion a year to the U.S. economy.

The economic and environmental contribution from the sector only looks set to grow. "The amount of utility-scale solar projects in the pipeline is truly staggering," the DoE reported. "As of mid-2016, there were more than 21,000 megawatts of utility-scale solar projects under development, with 8,400 megawatts of that total already under construction. With continued cost reductions and technology improvements, the future of this clean energy technology is bright."

Distributed solar

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Distributed solar PV — smaller arrays fitted onto the rooftops of homes and small businesses — have had a landmark year in 2016, with the 1 millionth distributed solar system installed in the U.S. last spring. Overall, distributed solar capacity grew 34 percent between 2014 and 2015, and the country has enough generating capacity to power well over 1 million U.S. homes.

The cost of electricity from distributed solar has fallen so quickly in recent years that in 20 states and 42 of America's 50 largest cities, financing a residential solar energy system costs less than purchasing electricity from a customer's local utility.

Interestingly, the DoE cited research into U.S. real estate markets which suggests homebuyers would be willing to pay $15,000 more for a home fitted with solar panels — a sign the technology is becoming an attractive feature in the eyes of the consumer.

The report is an opportunity for the DoE to tout its achievements in driving America's progress on clean energy, greener transport and energy efficiency. Clearly, this is only the start of a journey, and these five technologies mark just the cusp of the impending clean tech revolution.

But while there is still much more work to be done, the DoE's revelations about the accelerating nature of the clean tech rollout — with growth rates in certain technologies soaring above 150 percent year-on-year — is a demonstration of how research, investment and policy support can combine to deliver a change at a remarkable pace, creating huge business opportunities in the process.

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