Whether the fossil fuel industry likes it or not, the United States is moving toward a point at which the majority of electricity produced in the country is from renewable sources. Power generation in the U.S. for the first time briefly surpassed a milestone last year, when 20 percent of the total supply came from wind and solar. In a recent report, Ember, a renewable-energy advocacy organization based in England and Wales, explained that the record was for the most part driven by a wind boom in the Great Plains and the Midwest, across states such as Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. Soon, as offshore wind projects along the Atlantic Coast come online, even more clean power will enter the grid. Meanwhile, the supply from residential and commercial solar systems in the U.S. will continue to grow.
Globally, wind and solar accounted for 12 percent of the supply of electricity last year, up from 10 percent the year before. Meanwhile, the amount of power from coal, oil, and natural gas leveled off and is expected to begin to gradually decline in 2023 and beyond. Nonetheless, heavily polluting coal remains the single largest source of electricity, producing more than a third of global electricity. Keeping the lights on is still a dirty business. Over all, power sector emissions increased by 1.3 percent in 2022, reaching an all-time high. However, researchers say that the figure would have been significantly higher, but for that sharp rise in wind and solar sources.
The pressure is on.
The United Nations has set a goal of holding global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, ideally 1.5 degrees, above preindustrial levels. At present, the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continues to climb. A temporary pause during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic was just that: temporary. The U.N. says that by December 2020, emissions had fully rebounded and were 2 percent higher than the same month in 2019.
Disruptions from a rapidly heating planet will continue to increase for the time being. Earth’s average surface temperature in 2022 tied with 2015 as the fifth-warmest on record, according to an analysis by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA reported that the past nine years have been the warmest years since modern record keeping began in 1880 — about 2 degrees Fahrenheit (or about 1.11 degrees Celsius) warmer than the late-19th-century average.
The Arctic continues to experience the strongest warming trends — close to four times the global average; sea level rise caused by the melting polar ice caps is projected to increase, putting added pressure on officials in coastal communities like those on Long Island to craft their responses. Drought, increased storms, and wildfires like those now burning in Canada and which have ravaged the U.S. West in recent years are expected to increase. Fisheries will continue to be disrupted. Human health will be increasingly affected, including by worsening air quality and the spread of pathogens by ticks and mosquitoes, among other sources, that thrive in a warmer climate. Food sources will continue to be disrupted with international instability an increased risk.
Despite the doom and gloom, policies including those on the South Fork requiring energy-use reduction and encouraging the adoption of solar technology are paying off. We can also take pride in the growth of offshore wind and that electricity from the first utility-scale installation in the country will come ashore in East Hampton. The trend is beginning to turn favorable — let’s celebrate the progress and keep up the momentum.