The Numbers are In: Covid Gave Sustainable Energy a Shot in the Arm

These days, a shot in the arm might put most people in the mind of the Covid vaccine, its various eligibility phases, and the waitlist that dosage scarcity has forced into being.

But for those who were paying attention during the last year…

And ignoring the partisan glad-handing and donor-pandering…

You won’t be surprised to learn that sustainable energy had an incredible year in 2020

There were a few excellent, and obvious, reasons that renewable energy sources were our breakout star…

They had a chance to compete with natural gas since travel was reduced unimaginably lower…

Coal is sounding its death rattle (after all, we can’t MAKE there be more coal… they’re fossil fuels)…

And investors began shifting their portfolios to reflect a bleaker outlook on climate change.

With a little bit of distance from the year that made us all reimagine the contours of our lives, Bloomberg NEF (new energy finance) and the Business Council for Sustainable Energy.

The factbook is pretty dense, but there are some vital statistics it would behoove us all to know as we continue to advocate for not just clean energy, but equitable care of those working in the fossil fuel industry during the country’s transition efforts.

First, let’s examine the differences between 2019 and 2020 via irrefutable evidence.

The Year the Earth Stood Still

Office buildings all over the country – not to mention bars, schools, restaurants, arenas, stores, museums, and more – shut down, but those people just spent time using energy in their homes instead. How did that energy usage shape up, comparatively?

Energy related emissions declined by 10% and transportation related emissions declined by 14%, which led to total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions declining by 9%… 

Which is 20% below 2005 levels and actually puts us back “on track to meet the original Paris Agreement pledge,” according to the report. 

In 2011, coal made up 42% of our annual energy usage as a country. 

In 2020, coal was down to 19%. Nuclear and renewable energy sources now account for 40% of our total usage, nearly as much as natural gas does – 41%. 

However, although we contributed 20% to the total global investment in clean energy (which rose 9% since 2019), our contribution was actually 11% less than what it was in 2019. 

Roughly 58% of that investment into clean energy was in the renewable sector.

Our installation of renewable energy capacity grew 61% from 2019 – that makes 2020 a record year for us. 

Conventional gas-powered car sales fell, while electric vehicle sales remained steady. Natural gas use in vehicles rose 16% from 2019. (Natural gas still emits carbon, but some consider it renewable because the supplies required to make it can be replenished.)

As of 2020, hydropower accounts for 35% of our renewable energy available output. 

In 2020 alone, the U.S. suffered $95 billion “in damages from tropical cyclones, severe storms, droughts, and wildfires,” the predicted and documented result of climate change. 

The hope from the ground is that the enormous price tag associated with relief, clean-up, and rebalancing communities after the aforementioned disasters spooks the government into investing in sustainable infrastructure.

Make it Make Sense

Okay – lots of valuable insights regarding sustainable trends and trajectories. But what does this mean moving forward?

For one thing, the fact that sustainable growth even happened during a year when we lost hundreds of thousands of citizens, millions of jobs, and suffered the wrath of Mother Nature is pretty amazing.

That makes two points clear:

  • We can’t go backwards. Future investments in dirty energy won’t just be frowned upon in eco-conscious society – they’ll be financially disastrous.
  • We’re better able to handle the problems caused by our dependence on fossil fuels (think weather events) with renewables. Even though there were more extreme weather events in 2020 than in 2019, the energy system was less stressed (if you can believe it!)

Congress even sunk $19 billion in R&D while continuing to extend clean energy tax credits. (If the government’s model for subsidizing fossil fuels is any indication of how well an industry can do with the support of Uncle Sam, we’re in luck!)

And there were some Covid-related issues that hampered what would have been growth for the sustainable energy sector – being unable to travel door-to-door selling solar panels…

Outbreaks at solar farms in the midwest…

Energy efficiency programs shuttered…

And yet, here we are. 

We know that our CO2 emissions will likely rebound as the world slowly reopens. But thanks to the new shift in energy generation balance and the money provided to continue researching solutions, plus the fervent calls from the public to invest in green infrastructure

We may never go have another year as high as 2019 in carbon emissions. 

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Dr. Pedram Shojai

NY Times Best Selling author and film maker. Taoist Abbot and Qigong master. Husband and dad. I’m here to help you find your way and be healthy and happy. I don’t want to be your guru…just someone who’ll help point the way. If you’re looking for a real person who’s done the work, I’m your guy. I can light the path and walk along it with you but can’t walk for you.