Since Earth Day began more than 40 years ago, sustainability has become mainstream. What has not yet become common knowledge, though, is the role that the electric power industry plays in ensuring a cleaner energy future.
The electric power industry is in the midst of a major transformation-these are not your mom and pop utilities of the past.
We are spending $90 billion per year, on average, to transition to a cleaner generating fleet that includes more renewables like solar and wind power and to enhance the reliability and resiliency of the grid, which serves as the backbone of the entire system. These investments include integrating new technologies and new resources as well as being more efficient with the resources we have.
It's also worth noting that our industry has a strong track record on which to build upon when it comes to reducing emissions associated with the power we generate. In fact, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants are down by almost 75 percent from 1990 levels, during a period when electricity use has grown by more than 40 percent. Additionally, utilities have reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 15 percent below 2005 levels as of the end of 2013.
There are three more things you might not know about the utility industry's environmental commitment:
Harnessing renewable energy resources: Utilities are by far the single largest source of installed solar in the nation.
Large-scale utility solar, such as solar farms, currently accounts for 60 percent of all installed solar capacity in the U.S., according to a recent report from GreenTech Media and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). That same report found that large-scale solar saw its best year ever in 2014, with almost 4 gigawatts (GW) installed, bringing the total of large-scale solar installations up to 10.6 GW. And, according to the International Energy Agency, the industry spent $4 billion per year, on average, between 2000 and 2013 on solar technologies-an investment that is expected to increase to around $9 billion per year from 2014 to 2020.
Utilities are also leading the way in wind generation projects. Current installed large-scale wind power capacity through the second quarter of 2014 totaled 61,946 megawatts (MW) and continues to grow.
Utilities are driving the use of EVs: Utilities are driving electric vehicle (EV) adoption.
By increasing the use of EVs in their own fleets, adopting customer-friendly rates, and making sizeable investments in needed infrastructure, utilities are leading by example. Seventy of the nation's largest utilities have committed to invest at least $250 million over the next five years to increase the use of electric drive technologies in their fleets. This helps push down vehicle development costs for automakers.
As the "fuel" provider for electric vehicles, electric utilities are also playing an important role as ambassadors for electric transportation technologies with their customers, whether residential or commercial.
EVs truly represent the future of our transportation system, given that battery-powered electric vehicles produce only one-third of the greenhouse gases (GHG) that gasoline-fueled vehicles produce. If EVs were widely adopted in the U.S., we could see GHG emissions decrease by more than 450 million metric tons in 2050-which is equivalent to taking 82.5 million passenger cars off the road. Already, EVs are on the rise. More than 310,000 plug-in hybrid or all-electric vehicles have been sold in the U.S. as of the end of March.
Giving the power to the people: Utilities today function more like electro-technology companies-bringing innovations into customers' homes in ways that improve efficiency and bring electricity bills down.
One of the key ways that utilities are doing this is by deploying smart meters, which facilitate the integration of new resources and new energy services for customers. As of July 2014, more than 50 million smart meters had been deployed in the U.S., covering more than 43 percent of U.S. homes. Another innovation is home automation network technologies, including mobile apps that allow customers to remotely monitor their energy consumption and boost efficiency, while also communicating with their utility and being eligible for awards for energy savings. Deeper into the grid, some utilities are implementing self-healing technologies, consisting of a series of sensors and switches that monitor grid performance and either identify potential issues before they occur or permit quicker fixes should something break down.
These are just a few of the things that you might not realize the electric power industry is championing. Utilities recognize the valuable role they play in driving the transition to a cleaner and more energy-efficient world. We are confident that this trend will continue for many Earth Days to come.
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