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COVID and Renewable Energy - What happened?

What happened with renewable energy while we’ve all been cocooning in our respective Covid pods?

The big picture is that total energy use in the US declined by about 10% to 95 quads (quadrillion btu) in 2020 with a small increase in renewable production of about 1%.

Nuclear ticks along at its historic level, and most of the change shows up in the fossil fuels categories as you would expect.

Within the fossil fuels number, coal is continuing its precipitous decline, along with a smaller reduction in crude oil production. Natural gas is flat, which is somewhat of a miracle in the face of this historic decline. It clearly shows the shift away from coal and oil to the somewhat cleaner natural gas.

Net change in CO2 emissions for 2020 was a significant 11% decrease to 4,571 million metric tons. If there is a bright spot from 2020, this is it. Most of the change is from reduced activity.

Inside the renewable tent things look interesting. Older technologies like hydropower continue to fluctuate on their own rhythms, while solar, and especially wind power, are starting to take off. Note that virtually all the increase in renewable energy production since 1980 has been newer technologies, while hydropower has entered a net slow decline. Waste-to-energy and Biofuel technologies don’t show growth, likely due to problematic environmental and cost issues.

Is there a political dimension to this? Heavily subsidized early technologies like wind and solar are dependent upon subsidies until they can achieve enough market to be cost competitive. Looking at solar power, which is just at the cusp of being fully competitive, you can see that through out the past 4 presidential terms (2 democratic and 2 republican), the growth curve has been pretty consistent – in the face of widely varying subsidy climates. Not surprisingly, the industry appears to have turned the corner to faster growth during a Democratic administration, but this may have been due to underlying economics and widening awareness of climate change as well as any subsidy programs.

The good news is a net decrease in fossil fuel use, along with a corresponding decrease in CO2 production for 2020. Tempering that good news is that reduced economic activity will return to normal at some point soon, and much of that reduction will be lost. Longer term good news is that new renewable generation capacity is coming on-line at an ever increasing pace, and that rate of change either stayed the same or increased during 2020.

What to expect going forward? At least for the next 2 years, a progressive administration is pushing renewable projects, and the proposed recovery bill heavily leans toward these projects. Fossil fuel usage will increase as the economy recovers, although the work-at-home movement should dampen that increase to some extent. Oil prices are at relatively high levels, and the expected increases of inflation after the recent and coming stimulus packages will drive them higher, with the potential effect of making renewable energies more economically competitive.

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