Green energy, EV sales are growing remarkably in the US as emissions fall. Is it enough?

The United States has seen rapid and remarkable results from a herculean effort to pivot away from fossil fuels, according to a new report.

Renewable energy in the U.S. reached an all-time high last year, with wind, solar and hydroelectric plants meeting almost a quarter of the nation’s power demand as electric vehicle sales also surged to their highest levels ever. Meanwhile, greenhouse gas emissions fell to a historic low, a feat rivaling the dramatic slowdown that happened during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The numbers are from the Sustainable Energy in America Factbook 2024, released this week. They show that the clean energy transition in the U.S. is well underway and already hard-wired into the U.S. economy, said Lisa Jacobson, president of the Business Council for Sustainable Energy.

When nuclear power is added to the mix, the amount of zero-carbon power the U.S. produced in 2023 reached an all-time high of 41%. That includes wind, solar, hydroelectric and nuclear power and represents a significant increase from the 31% it stood at just a decade ago.

"Wind and solar ... are generating enough electricity for over 60 million American homes," said John Hensley, vice president of markets and policy analysis for the American Clean Power Association.

It’s good news but still not enough, said Rob Jackson, a professor of energy and the environment at Stanford University, noting that the fastest-growing fuel in the U.S. is natural gas.

“We’re replacing fossil coal with fossil gas. That’s better than nothing, but it’s not a long-term solution to climate change,” he said.

The Factbook is produced each year by BloombergNEF, a division of Bloomberg LP focused on the transition to a lower-carbon economy, in partnership with the Business Council for Sustainable Energy. Its numbers are in line with figures from the U.S. Energy Information Service.

US grid is rapidly becoming more green, despite obstacles

In 2023, the U.S. added a record 42 gigawatts of new renewable power-generating capacity to its grid, the most ever. That's despite a rising number of counties that are banning or otherwise blocking renewable energy projects. As of December, 15% of U.S. counties had blocked new renewable energy projects, a USA TODAY investigation found.

One gigawatt is enough to power about 750,000 homes.

“The American public doesn’t understand how much we are transforming the U.S. energy system, at a rate that has never been seen in history,” said Anand Gopal, executive director of policy research at Energy Innovation and Technology, a San Francisco-based energy policy group.

Solar power especially surged in 2023, with 32 gigawatts of capacity added. While the trends are good, one area was of concern: New wind energy projects hit their lowest levels since 2015, according to the report.

The business community is embracing the shift to green energy. Last year a record-shattering $303 billion in energy transition financing was invested in the clean energy technologies, according to the report.

"A lot of manufacturing is also happening in the U.S., positioning us to be a leader in the clean economy of the future," said Gopal.

Electric vehicle sales break records

Electric vehicle sales were up 50% from 2022. An estimated 1.46 million electric cars and trucks were sold in 2023, the highest number ever.

That was 7.6% of new vehicle sales according to Cox Automotive.

In what could be a sign the market for electric vehicles is beginning to mature, new sales of Teslas – the most popular electric cars – were less impressive in 2023 as other vehicle brands grew. The leading brands were Stellantis, Hyundai-Kia, GM, BMW and VW.

Vehicles that were 100% electric, known as battery electric vehicles, made up 80% of 2023 sales while plug-in hybrid electric vehicles were the remaining 20%.

US carbon emissions hit historic low

U.S. emissions of greenhouse gasses fell 1.8% in 2023, the first year that’s been the case apart from 2020 – which was due more to the global COVID-19 pandemic shutdown than an overall lowering of emissions.

Except for that year, U.S. emissions haven’t been this low since 1987.

It would have seemed a “far-flung fantasy just ten years ago” but in 2023 "two-thirds of new, utility-scale power plants added to the national energy grid came in the form of wind, solar, or battery storage technologies," said Hensley.

Where U.S. emissions come from is also shifting. In 2016, power production was the No. 1 emitter of greenhouse gases. By 2023, it had fallen to the third. Overall, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are 15.8% lower than 2005 levels, but power emissions are 40% lower.

The U.S. also continues to become more energy efficient, after a blip during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year the U.S. economy expanded by 2.4% while energy consumption decreased by 1.4% year over year. That meant that in 2023 the U.S. achieved its highest economic output ever per unit of energy consumed.

Overall, energy consumption in 2023 was 5.8% lower than the 2007 peak, meaning the U.S. does more with less energy, lowering both costs and emissions.

"This is not just a pipe dream," said Tom Rowlands-Rees, head of North American research for BloombergNEF and one of the Factbook's authors.

"You can have, a thriving economy without a huge growth in energy consumption," he said. "This is what has already been happening since the ’90s."

Still not on pace

Despite the overall positive trends, the market forces that are now baked into the U.S. economy are still not moving fast enough to reach national energy goals and mitigate the already increasing effects of climate change.

“We need more policy backing for that to happen,” said Gopal.

A joint analysis from Energy Innovation, the Rhodium Group, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton University released Wednesday showed that the U.S. is generally heading in the right direction to achieve its energy goals to combat climate change, but it could still face headwinds due to siting and permitting delays, backlogged electric grid connection requests and supply chain challenges.

While the 2023 numbers were "historic," even the addition of 40 gigawatts of carbon-free energy to the national grid isn't enough, said Hensley.

"We really need to be delivering 80 to 100 gigawatts of new, clean power capacity each and every year. So we are making strides in that direction. But, we are a long way off the volume that we need," he said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Green energy, EV sales growing as carbon emission fall. Is it enough?