OK, I’m doing my top 10 list now. Following up on AWEA’s top 10 wind energy stories and SEIA’s top 10 solar energy stories, I decided I may as well give my own opinion on the top 10 clean energy stories and energy efficiency stories of 2011 (plus one bonus story). There will be some overlap, of course.
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1. 40% drop in cost of solar. This tremendous drop in the cost of solar was, to say the least, massively influential. It helped tons of people and businesses to go solar for less, increased work for numerous solar installers, and helped to put some companies out of business who were working on alternatives to traditional solar PV. The full ramifications are still unclear, but recent reports have shown that solar is now at grid parity in some places (even without proper accounting of the health, environmental, and grid security cost of coal, nuclear, and natural gas). This has also led to some solar thermal power plants switching to solar PV, as well as an ongoing solar trade dispute between Chinese, U.S., and German solar companies.
2. Wind energy driving down the price of electricity. We’ve written several stories this year on how cheap wind energy is driving down the price of electricity. This is happening in the U.S. and around the world. As noted just earlier today and earlier this month, 80% of the power contracts in Brazil’s latest energy auction went to wind energy, and this follows an announcement earlier this year that wind is cheaper than natural gas there and an announcement that the country would be focusing on wind energy in its 10-year energy plan.
3. The Solyndra non-scandal. One business hit hard by the drop in PV costs, as well as other factors, was the now infamous Solyndra. But the real scandal in this story was not anything on Solyndra or the U.S. government’s side, but the way certain politicians and members of the media used a single company failure (partly related to the success of other solar industry players) to demonize the solar industry and a wildly successful U.S. government loan guarantee program. Using this bankruptcy to do the bidding of the fossil fuel industry, these politicians ad media have put a huge dent in one of the most popular things (and the most popular energy option) in the the country.
4. Solar energy industries employ a ton of people. Sort of as an addendum to the above, the U.S. solar industry, the German solar energy industry, and other solar energy industries around the world are now a significant source of jobs for hundreds of thousands of people. The U.S. solar energy industry and the German solar photovoltaic industry each employ over 100,000 people. For comparison, the U.S. iron and steel industries employ about 84,000, in total.
5. Google & Facebook going clean. Google invested a tremendous amount of money in clean energy in 2011, continuing several large 2010 investments. In total, Google invested nearly one billion ($1,000,000,000) in clean energy in 2011. With a ton of pressure from Greenpeace and about a million people (including all those who set a world record for Facebook comments on a single page in one day — over 100,000), Facebook has finally decided to go the renewable energy route.
6. Electric vehicles (EVs) and EV charging stations roll out. 2011 saw a big roll out of electric vehicles of all sorts and EV charging stations of all sorts. I feel like I saw news about new vehicles or installations every day this year. But we’ve still got a looooong way to go. Only about 20,000 Nissan Leafs and fewer than 10,000 Chevy Volts were sold globally in 2011.
7. Lack of strong federal clean energy policy. No one was expecting it, of course, given the completely dirty Congress we have today, but this is still a top story of the year I think. While Australia, China, the EU, and South American countries move forward with strong clean energy policies, the U.S. is stuck in a paralysis of sorts, or is being held hostage by the rich and powerful fossil fuel industry and their minions in Congress. Unfortunately, attacks also seem to be picking up on the state level, which means that we clean energy advocates really need to step up our game in 2012!
8. Wind penetration hitting record levels in U.S. and abroad. As noted in AWEA’s 2011 wrap-up post, wind penetration has risen above 20%, overall, in two U.S. states now and broke 50% (hit 55.6%) wind penetration at one time in Colorado. Additionally, wind helped to keep the lights on in Texas earlier this year when over 50 power plants went offline due to extreme weather. What’s that about reliability?….
9. Fukushima. Yeah, this should have been high up. While the nuclear industry really can’t compete with cheaper energy options anyway (without tremendous government subsidies), the Fukushima disasters that went on for months (and, truthfully, are still ongoing) have effectively put the nail in the coffin of the so-called ‘nuclear renaissance’. The public backlash against nuclear has been strong and worldwide, with countries such as Germany, Switzerland, and Belgium decided to ditch nuclear 100%, and even the nuclear-leading French “thumbing their nose” at the technology.
10. Better Buildings Initiative. The Obama administration and former president Bill Clinton, sidestepping a less-than-cooperative Congress, found a way to promote energy efficiency BIG TIME with the Better Buildings Initiative this year. The initiative includes $2 billion of U.S. government investments in energy efficiency retrofits of federal buildings and another $2 billion or so of investments from the private sector in such projects.”Businesses are projected to save a total of about $40 billion a year from the energy savings from this initiative.” The U.S. government would save a similar amount. And tens of thousands of jobs will be created in the hard-hit building sector.
Bonus: geothermal getting some attention. Geothermal energy, a cheap clean energy option, is getting more and more attention. And, a landmark study funded by Google found that there’s enough geothermal potential in the U.S. to power… the entire U.S.! Of course, it will never power the whole country, but the potential for geothermal growth is tremendous.
Image Credits: Wind turbines via shutterstock; Solyndra sign screenshot of energyNOW! video; Solar panels image via shutterstock; Google Going Solar photo via H2SO4; EV charger via OregonDOT; Congress approval rating chart by Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO); Wind turbines from side via shutterstock; UK nuclear activists via Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; Better Buildings images via the White House; U.S. geothermal map modified from image courtesy of SMU Geothermal Laboratory / Google Earth.