Top 12 clean energy developments of 2015

Trucks under a sunset
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There was heavy duty forward movement on renewables last year. How will the momentum continue?

From a global climate accord to major domestic progress on the renewables front, 2015 was a great year for clean energy. Here are 12 things that we at the Rocky Mountain Institute saw as the biggest developments of the year, in no particular order.

1. Climate accord reached

In December, 196 nations reached a landmark accord to address climate change — committing nearly every country to lower greenhouse gas emissions. The agreement achieved at COP21 in Paris aims to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius by 2100 with an ideal target of keeping temperature rise below 1.5 C. The draft agreement also sets a goal for developed countries to pay at least $100 billion per year by 2020 to developing countries for mitigation and adaptation. COP21 also held the first UNFCC buildings day to improve the energy efficiency of buildings globally.

2. United States gets its first clean power plan

In August, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established the first national standards to reduce carbon emissions from power plants. The Clean Power Plan not only cuts significant amounts of carbon and other pollutants, but also advances clean energy innovation, development and deployment, laying an important part of the policy foundation for the long-term strategy needed to tackle the threat of climate change.

3. Keystone XL pipeline gets nixed

After seven years of review, President Barack Obama rejected the request for the Keystone XL oil pipeline. The 1,179-mile pipeline would have carried 800,000 barrels of petroleum a day from the Canadian oil sands to the Gulf Coast. While Congress’s end-of-year tax extenders include a lift on the decades-old oil export ban, RMI has other plans. We can avoid an estimated 2 billion barrels of oil consumption each year through more-efficient mobility systems around the country, a mobility transformation we’re pioneering with the cities of Austin, Texas, and Denver, Colorado.

4. Corporations set renewable energy record

Corporations signed roughly 3 GW of power purchase agreements (PPAs) for large-scale, off-site renewable energy in 2015. This more than doubles the amount signed in 2014, and includes corporate giants such as Google, Apple and Walmart. RMI’s Business Renewables Center to advance corporate purchasing of renewable energy has been critical in this market shift. Across 2014 and 2015, BRC-affiliated companies were part of three out of every four corporate deals. 

5. Renewables keep getting cheaper

Wind power is the cheapest electricity to produce in both Germany and the U.K., even without government subsidies. And in the U.S., the increase in wind and solar have begun to cut into the use of conventional coal and gas power plants, forcing the capacity factor of gas plants down from 70 percent to 62 percent from 2014 to 2015. The cost of wind and solar are falling so much that utility-scale solar projects in the U.S. are regularly securing power purchase agreements for 5 cents per kWh or less

6. Batteries hit the market

Tesla launched the Powerwall battery, and Vermont’s Green Mountain Power became the first utility to sell and lease behind-the-meter home battery systems to residential customers. Meanwhile, German battery maker Sonnebatterie introduced a community storage system that combines PV panels, batteries and a software platform to allow households to buy and sell electricity within a community. While battery costs have decreased dramatically, that’s not the whole story. RMI’s report, The Economics of Battery Energy Storage, shows the greatly enhanced value batteries provide when they’re customer sited and highly used with stacked services.

7. Renewables set record contributions

On a summer day in June, renewable energy supplied 43 percent of the U.K.’s electricity demand, setting a national record. In July, Germany also set a national record when renewable energy met 78 percent of the day’s electricity demand. And in the U.S., wind power set a record in November with 70 gigawatts of installed generating capacity, enough to power 19 million homes. 

8. Cities are aiming for 100-percent renewable

Cities around the country are setting targets to ditch fossil fuels and go 100-percent renewable. 2015 saw commitments from Las Vegas, Nevada (2017), Georgetown, Texas (2017), San Jose, California (2022), San Diego, California (2035), and Vancouver, Canada (2050). Some cities are already leading the way. Aspen, Colorado, and Burlington, Vermont, became 100-percent renewable in 2015, joining the first U.S. 100-percent renewable city — Greensburg, Kansas

9. The trucking industry gets greener

In June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and National Highway Transportation Safety Administration announced new, more-stringent fuel economy and emissions standards for heavy-duty trucks. The move is estimated to save 1 billion metric tons of GHG emissions, 1.8 billion barrels of oil and $170 billion in fuel costs over the lifetime of vehicles sold under the program. RMI and CWR’s Trucking Efficiency was central to informing the government's stance with multiple Confidence Reports cited in the proposed rule and accompanying impact analysis, to direct consultations with federal agencies.

10. Home energy efficiency becomes easier

In August, Obama announced plans to unlock residential PACE (property assessed clean energy) financing to make it easier for Americans to invest in energy efficiency and clean energy technologies for their homes. PACE provides 100 percent funding that is repaid over a period of up to 20 years with an assessment linked to a homeowner’s property tax bill. The announcement also included a new DOE Home Energy Score for estimating the energy use of a home, equivalent to an easily understood "miles per gallon" label for homes. 

11. Electric and autonomous cars on the rise

The first commercial all-electric, long-range, AWD, full-size SUV has been unveiled. The 250-mile-range Tesla X actually broke the Consumer Reports rating system. Meanwhile, Google let loose its electric, fully self-driving vehicle on the streets of Austin — the lead implementation city in our mobility transformation work — and California’s Bay Area to test its software. Google plans to introduce self-driving cars to the public by 2020.

12. The Caribbean commits to renewables

Montserrat became the 10th island to join RMI and CWR’s Islands Energy Partnership. Montserrat joins Anguilla, Aruba, Bahamas, Belize, Colombia (San Andres), Grenada, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Turks and Caicos in their commitment to transition to renewable energy. Both Montserrat and Aruba have committed to achieve 100-percent renewable energy by 2020. Islands across the Caribbean are combating high electricity prices from imported fossil fuels by transitioning to renewables, and proving that entire economies can adopt low-carbon solutions while strengthening their economies.

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