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Expert Voices

7 Reasons to Celebrate Clean Energy Successes in 2013 (Op-Ed)

Denali national park road moose
Two moose wade in Wonder Lake in Denali National Park along the park's only road. (Image credit: Ron Karpilo, one-time use only)

John Rogers is a senior energy analyst for clean energy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). He co-manages the Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative (EW3) at UCS, which looks at water demands of energy production in the context of climate change. This Op-Ed was adapted from one that appeared on the UCS blog The Equation. Rogers contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

The last 12 months have brought a lot of change to the world — some good, some less so; some too fast, some too slow. But in the energy space, the essential transition to energy that is cleaner, healthier, lower-cost and more secure is definitely underway in the United States.

This year, the nation saw strong signals that we're moving in the right direction on energy, with renewables like wind and solar (going up), coal (going down), renewables integration (looking good) and energy storage (on its way). Here's a look at some of the year's highlights.

1. Wind is getting cheaper all the time

Utilities keep finding wind energy at Black Friday-worthy prices, as my colleagues have noted (for example, here). Long-term wind contracts are now more than 40 percent cheaper than they were just three years ago.

The uncertainty around extension of the important production tax credit (PTC) for wind — which finally came only after the New Year's champagne was gone — made for a slow start to 2013 overall. But things have picked up, with 7,500 megawatts of wind under development by the third quarter. Now the industry just needs another PTC extension to keep the party going.

2. Solar's looking better all the time

Third-quarter figures released last week show that solar continues to thrive, with costs continuing to drop and the third quarter of the year being the second-best ever. The United States is even on track to potentially install more solar than the world leader, Germany, for the first time in 15 years.

While photovoltaic technology tends to attract most of the attention, 2013 has been an important year for progress on concentrating solar power (CSP), too. In October, the first U.S. solar plant with thermal energy storage, Solana, started churning out the kilowatt hours. And, the world's largest CSP facility, Ivanpah, is preparing to start commercial operation.

3. Grid experts say more renewables are no problem

Current levels of renewables still are very manageable for regional electricity-grid operators accustomed to dealing with the ups and downs of both the supply side (big plants going offline unexpectedly) and the demand side (American consumers not coordinating when turning refrigerators and air conditioners on and off, for example).

However, grid operators have continued to find that they can handle much higher levels of variable renewables like wind and solar. A study by regional grid operator PJM Interconnection, Inc., for example, found they could get 30 percent of their electricity from wind and solar by 2026, with little need for extra back-up generation.

4. Storage is becoming available

Forward-thinking locales are forward thinking about making sure energy storage can help with the integration of increasing amounts of renewables. In October, California's public utilities commission moved to jumpstart energy storage in the state, putting in place a storage requirement for the state's largest utilities.

5. Coal's economics continue to slide

Most of the reasons to celebrate are positives, but some are negatives — in a good way. The economics of coal vs. natural gas and wind means that tens of thousands of megawatts are moving into retirement — including, in just the past few months, plants like Brayton Point, New England's largest coal plant, and a raft of Tennessee Valley Authority units.

And the market clearly isn't done dealing with coal yet. A just-released UCS analysis showed a total of an additional 59 to 71 megawatts of coal power that is "ripe for retirement."

6. Power-plant carbon standards are progressing

Creating clear expectations about what society wants from the power sector, carbon-wise, is another key part of a successful energy transition. This year brought critically important draft standards for new power plants; standards for existing plants are due next year.

7. People get renewables

Another "positive negative" for 2013 has been the failure of efforts to weaken clean energy policies across the country. While fossil-fuel-funded groups and their allies continuedto peddledisinformationto turn people against renewables and efficiency (as in a misleading report on the value of the wind PTC earlier this month, from the Institute for Energy Research), truth repeatedly won the day.

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The power of the positive was visible recently in the tremendous public pushback on Arizona Public Service's attempts to weaken solar supportin Arizona, and in a leading legislative opponent's failed attempt to undercut Ohio's renewable energy and energy efficiency standards.

Instead of the rollback, 14 new pro-renewable energy laws came into being across the country.

So, lots of good stuff happening. However, Americans' work is far from over — we're still too hooked on fossil fuels, and suffering the public health impacts; carbon pollution is continuing to climb globally; and opponents of climate and energy progress keep coming up with new and different ways of muddying the decision-making waters.

But the clean energy transition is underway.

Where the transition is taking hold, Americans need to make sure that changes are smooth and just; that communities hosting renewable energy get maximum benefits and minimal downsides; and that people affected by coal's decline (or natural gas's rise) get support for finding their way to a better future.

Overall, 2013 has provided plenty of reasons to celebrate this holiday season. Here's to a great new year!

This Op-Ed was adapted from "Toward a Clean Energy Future: 7 Top Reasons to Celebrate 2013," on the UCS blog The Equation.The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.