Once the king of the energy sector, coal is being rapidly outpaced by renewable energy sources. Expanding investment and development in solar and wind power will not only influence how electricity is generated, but also grant consumers access to cleaner, sustainable energy options. Solar power and wind power, which have been the cornerstones of the renewable energy movement, will account for 50 percent of all generated power by 2040, according to a Bloomberg report.
Renewable sources of energy, like solar and wind power, have seen vast improvements in efficiency, and, perhaps most importantly, the substantial decreases in production costs are giving consumers more options. Innovations in renewables are reshaping the domestic and international energy markets, and are beginning to render coal and natural gas obsolete. These trends also buck President Donald Trump’s campaign pledge to “bring back coal,” a key promise which helped deliver him an electoral college victory over Hillary Clinton.
Solar Efficiency Is Improving
For the first time ever, solar power usage increased faster than all other fuel sources in 2016, demonstrating an ever-growing demand for clean, renewable energy. In the United States, solar power generates 47.1 gigawatts of power annually — enough to power 9.1 million American homes, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. In the second quarter of 2017 alone, more than 2.7 gigawatts of solar power were added to the American power grid, with an additional 12 gigawatts of solar capacity anticipated by the end of 2017.
In 2016, the American solar industry employed 260,077 people, compared to only 100,000 in 2011, according to the National Solar Jobs Census. Solar jobs have increased 20 percent per year since 2010, and in 2016, the solar industry added $84 billion to the GDP of the United States. In fact, the solar industry accounted for 2 percent of all new jobs created in the United States in 2016, with an additional 10 percent growth expected in 2017. Although the most advanced solar panels are only 22.5 percent efficient, solar energy produces no waste, can be stored, and is 100 percent renewable. As efficiency improves and costs decrease, demand for solar power will continue to increase.
Solar power is showing tremendous success for regions where it’s being harnessed on individual scales, too. In Germany, for example, focus has largely been on individual homes and businesses generating their own power from solar panels. As of 2017, 1.7 million solar systems are privately owned, enabling consumers to generate and store their own power. Advances in solar storage battery technologies, such as the German sonnenBatterie and the Tesla Powerwall, are now allowing solar power to be efficiently stored (photovoltaic panels generate power, but can’t store it). In 2016, renewables accounted for 29 percent of all of Germany’s energy production. In September 2017, Senators Al Franken (D-MN) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) introduced the Advancing Grid Storage Act, which would accelerate investments in energy storage systems, enabling solar and wind power to be saved as a source of backup power.
Wind Power Is On The Rise Too
Wind power is free, renewable, unlimited and produces no pollution or waste. Advances in wind turbine design are resulting in increased efficiency; turbines inspired by insect wings have yielded a 35 percent increase in efficiency Wind power can be generated at the individual level, too. Typical wind turbine output, or “capacity factor,” depends on the speed of the wind. On average, wind turbines produce electricity 70-85 percent of the time.
Fun fact: wind power is just another form of solar power. Winds are created by the heat of the Sun and the rotation of the Earth. Like solar, demand for wind power is creating a surge in jobs. As of 2016, the US wind sector employed around 100,000 people. This number is expected to increase to 600,000 by 2050, according to the United States Department of Energy. Impressively, a wind turbine service technician is the fastest growing job of the decade, and wind power contributes $20 billion annually to the US economy. As of 2016, the United States has more than 52,000 wind turbines generating 82,143 megawatts of electricity, which is enough to power 25 million homes. Wind power is also a boon to rural communities, as farms and ranches have ample space and wind. Farmers are also compensated for the use of their land for wind turbines.
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