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Above and beyond: Exceeding our renewable energy goals, past and present

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Two decades into the 21st century, instead of celebrating the incredible bounty of technological achievements we enjoy today, it’s become almost cliché to lament the continued absence of the “technologies of the future” that were once predicted. Still no flying cars, vacations on Mars, or robot assistants.

But some fantastic “futuristic” technologies have become part of our everyday lives (I’m looking at you, iPhone). And there’s one that has not only become a reality, but has far surpassed the expectations of even a decade or two ago: renewable energy.

In 2001, only 0.5 percent of the electricity produced in the U.S. came from wind, solar and geothermal energy. Back then, taking into consideration each state’s renewable energy goals for 2020, the nation’s overall goal was to reach 1 percent. But renewable energy flew past that 1 percent target in 2007 and hasn’t stopped rising since.

Today, in 2020, wind, solar and geothermal energy produce over 10 percent of the nation’s electricity. And it’s becoming possible for us to envision a truly amazing future in which most or all of the energy we use comes from renewable energy.

Our latest Renewables on the Rise report tracks America’s adoption of energy generated from solar and wind power, as well as the growth in energy storage from batteries, the rise of electric vehicles, and the increasing energy savings being delivered by energy efficiency programs across the country. The progress in each area has been tremendous. Solar energy has grown 30-fold since 2010. Wind power now produces enough power for 33 million homes. Utility-scale battery storage, which only existed in five states in 2010, is now up and running in 33 states — a 20-fold increase in capacity. And though they can’t fly— yet, electric cars are well on their way to becoming mainstream, with over 1 million sold and more than 50 models currently on the market.

We also looked at which states are leading the way toward a renewable future. Three states — Kansas, Iowa and North Dakota — are already producing over half of their total electricity usage with wind and solar. Other states, including Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Maryland, are leading the pack in terms of increased energy savings as a result of strong energy efficiency programs.

So where to next? Current projections suggest that the United States will generate 30 percent of its electricity from wind, solar and geothermal energy by 2050. But if you ask me, that’s thinking too small. We’ve exceeded our wildest expectations in the past, and we can do it again.

The U.S. has the technical potential to meet our electricity needs more than 75 times over with solar energy and 10 times over with wind. So it’s not crazy to predict a not-too-distant future of 100% renewable energy. At the same time, of course, we need every state to set more ambitious renewable energy targets and energy efficiency standards and to provide the support needed to achieve them. Furthermore, we also need to invest in technologies like electric vehicles and energy storage if we are going to truly transform our energy landscape.

Put robot assistants on the back burner. Instead, show me a smart home battery that knows how to use and store energy more efficiently. And I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have my grandchildren grow up in a world with clean air than hop on a rocket to Mars for a vacation from Earth’s pollution. A clean energy future is within reach, but it will require every state to commit to stronger and more ambitious policies that will allow us to fully harness our renewable energy potential.

Photo via Pixabay