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Johanna Neumann: Renewables rising

  • The destruction of the Mount Tom smokestack on Aug. 6. gazette file photo

Published: 9/18/2019 5:00:21 PM
Modified: 9/18/2019 5:00:11 PM

Four years ago I recorded a video of my then 5-year-old son Oscar saying “Destroy dirty power plants. We don’t want them here!”

That sentiment came full circle last month when the Gazette covered the tearing down of the shuttered Mt. Tom coal-fired power plant’s smokestack, which had spewed carbon dioxide and pumped pollutants into the Pioneer Valley’s air for decades.

Clean energy has featured prominently in Oscar’s lifetime. He has witnessed the installation of solar arrays and watched power plant smokestacks topple. Over the course of his brief life, the amount of energy America gets from clean renewable sources has quintupled. Ten years ago it was 2 percent of our energy mix, now it’s 10 percent.

So, while there’s no doubt that 10 percent is not enough and we have to urgently reduce the pollution that’s warming our planet, it’s also important to recognize the progress we have made.

A recent run near my cousin’s house showed me just how mainstream renewable energy technologies have become. I ran past homes that had solar panels discreetly incorporated into the roof design. As I crossed over into fields, wind turbines spun in the distance. Those turbines and solar collectors powered homes with highly efficient refrigerators using vacuum insulating technology and LED light bulbs that wasted little to no energy on heat. It’s not surprising that numerous sources agree that the U.S. can power its economy entirely with clean renewable energy.

Over the past decade, these technologies have gotten even better and costs keep coming down. When Oscar was born, an LED lightbulb cost $40. Now you can pick one up for a few bucks at any hardware store. The cost to install solar panels and wind turbines has fallen 60 to 80 percent in the same time period.

A recent report, “Renewables on the Rise,” by the advocacy organization Environment Massachusetts and the think tank Frontier Group, provides an excellent snapshot of deployment of clean energy technologies in the United States and in Massachusetts.

Here are some key trends:

■Energy efficiency: According to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, electric efficiency programs across the U.S. saved more than twice as much energy in 2017 as they did in 2009, saving enough electricity to power more than 2.5 million homes. In an annual rating of how different states fare on energy efficiency, Massachusetts topped the list.

■Solar energy: Today, America produces more than 40 times as much electricity from solar than we did in 2009, capturing enough energy to power more than 9 million average American homes. Solar rooftops and utility-scale solar power plants produced less than 1 percent of U.S. electricity when Oscar was born. Today, it’s nearly 3 percent.

Thanks to policies that encourage solar development, Massachusetts has been a national leader. Solar has grown 170 fold in Massachusetts over the past decade and now has the capacity to power more than 300,000 homes.

■Wind energy: America has more than tripled the amount of wind power it produces since 2009, enough to power more than 26 million homes. In 2009, wind turbines produced just over 2 percent of the nation’s electricity; in 2018, they produced more than 7 percent.

Massachusetts has committed to producing 20-30 percent of its annual electricity consumption from wind by 2027 and there’s lots of room for growth. After all, we have the highest offshore wind potential of any state in the nation, with the potential to produce more than 19 times our annual electricity consumption from offshore wind turbines.

■Electric vehicles: Curbing global warming requires us to not only switch away from fossil fuel burning power plants, but also from gas-powered cars. There were over 361,000 electric vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2018, up from virtually none in 2009. Electric vehicle sales increased by nearly 86 percent in 2018 over 2017 and were even higher in the first seven months of 2019. Massachusetts has more than 22,000 electric vehicles on the road today.

■Energy storage: Expanding the ability to store electricity can help the nation take full advantage of its vast potential for clean, renewable energy. The United States saw an 18 fold increase in utility-scale battery storage from 2009 to 2018. In Massachusetts, battery storage is still in its infancy. In 2018, we stored enough electricity to power just over 300 homes.

As former EPA administrator and Massachusetts native Gina McCarthy said, “The train to a global, clean energy future has already left the station.” How quickly the train arrives at its destination will depend on whether our political leaders set ambitious, forward-looking clean energy goals and put in place policies to reach them.

At this point, the technology is there and the price is right. The critical ingredient to making sure Oscar and his friends inherit a livable planet is the political commitment.

Johanna Neumann, of Amherst, has spent the past two decades working to protect our air, water and open spaces, defend consumers in the marketplace and advance a more sustainable economy and democratic society. She can be reached at

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