When Did The Green Energy Revolution Start?

Humanity’s usage of energy dates back to ancient times when fire was first harnessed for heating, cooking, and light. For most of history, renewable sources like human and animal muscle power, wind, water, and biomass (wood) provided the bulk of energy needs. The industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries marked a major shift, with the large-scale extraction and use of fossil fuels like coal and oil to power machinery and transportation.

Fossil fuels propelled massive economic growth and enabled populations to urbanize. However, this growth came at a steep cost to the environment. By the late 20th century, scientists had amassed evidence that the combustion of fossil fuels was destabilizing the climate and contributing to global warming. This spurred the genesis of the modern green energy movement focused on transitioning the world to renewable sources like solar, wind and hydropower.

Beginnings of the Green Energy Movement

the transition to renewable energy sources like solar and wind power has rapidly accelerated over the past few decades, marking the start of a green energy revolution.

The beginnings of the green energy movement date back thousands of years to primitive methods of harnessing renewable sources like the sun, wind, water, and geothermal energy. Some key events in the early history include:

The Persians used windmills as early as 200 BC to grind grain and pump water. The ancient Greeks and Romans also utilized water wheels and windmills.[1]

Solar energy was harnessed in the 7th century in the Middle East to make fires using sunlight and magnifying glass. Architects in ancient Rome were also known to orient buildings to harness sunlight. In the 18th century, Horace de Saussure built an early solar collector to heat water and homes.[2]

In the 19th century, hydropower from water mills transitioned to generating electricity. One of the first hydroelectric power plants was built at Niagara Falls in 1879.[3]

While traditional sources of renewable energy have been used for millennia, the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s marked a shift toward applying modern technology to harness renewables. This growing environmental awareness and sustainability focus paved the way for the green energy revolution.

Key Events in Green Energy

Several landmark events have helped propel the green energy movement forward over the past few decades. In 1972, the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm brought international attention to environmental issues. This event led to the creation of government environmental agencies and green parties around the world.

In 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen testified before Congress about the dangers of climate change, stating “Global warming has reached a level such that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause-and-effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and observed warming.”

The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997 as the first international agreement to set mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions. Though the U.S. did not ratify the protocol, it brought global momentum towards climate action.

Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” was released in 2006, raising public awareness about climate change. The film won two Oscars and helped make climate change a major public issue.

Disasters like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 highlighted the environmental and economic impacts of fossil fuels, energizing calls for clean energy alternatives. The Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011 soured public opinion on nuclear power in many countries.

The Paris Agreement in 2015 committed nearly every nation to limit global warming, marking a historic turning point for climate action. This spurred investment and policy support for renewable energy worldwide.

Growth of Renewables

The use of renewable energy sources like solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, and hydroelectric has grown significantly over the past few decades. According to research from the Utah Geological Survey [1], the renewable energy produced in Utah has increased from 10 trillion BTUs in 2009 to over 50 trillion BTUs in 2019. This rapid growth has been driven by expansion of solar, wind, and geothermal energy.

Solar energy generation in particular has seen dramatic growth, with capacity rising from virtually nothing in 2009 to over 1,000 megawatts by 2019 [2]. Increased deployment of utility-scale solar farms as well as distributed rooftop solar panels on homes and businesses has enabled this solar boom. Wind energy has also grown significantly, from less than 500 megawatts of capacity in 2009 to over 3,000 megawatts by 2019. Geothermal has seen steady expansion as well. While growth of hydroelectric and biomass sources has been more modest, they still contribute to the overall rise of renewable energy.

Declining Costs

One of the major drivers of the growth of renewables like wind and solar has been the rapid decline in costs over the past decade. According to Our World in Data, the price of solar power has fallen over 80% since 2010 while the price of onshore wind power has fallen around 40%. Key factors in driving down costs include technological improvements, economies of scale, and increased competition among equipment suppliers.

As reported by the World Economic Forum, in most major markets solar and/or wind are now the cheapest source of new electricity generation. The declining costs have made renewables highly competitive with fossil fuels. For example, analysis from Forbes shows that in 2020, unsubsidized renewable energy prices fell below the cost of nuclear, coal and natural gas.

As renewable energy technology continues advancing and expanding, costs are projected to keep falling. This will further accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels and toward a clean energy system.

Policy Support

Government incentives and regulations have been pivotal in accelerating the adoption of renewable energy sources. Key policies that have driven the green energy revolution include tax credits, rebates, net metering, renewable portfolio standards, and favorable permitting and siting regulations.

Since the 1970s, federal tax credits have made wind and solar more affordable for homeowners and businesses. The investment tax credit (ITC) covers up to 30% of the cost of residential solar installations, while the production tax credit (PTC) provides an incentive per kilowatt-hour of energy generated by wind farms and other renewable sources (EPA, 2023). States like California have robust additional incentives on top of the federal credits.

Net metering policies allow homeowners with solar panels to sell excess energy back to the grid. This makes installing solar panels much more financially viable. As of 2018, 41 states had mandatory net metering rules in place (IRENA, 2018). Renewable portfolio standards (RPS) are state policies requiring utilities to source a defined percentage of power from renewables. Per IRENA, 29 states plus Washington D.C. had RPS policies as of 2018.

Streamlined permitting, siting, and environmental regulations have also accelerated renewables adoption. Utility-scale projects in particular benefit from coordinated regulatory and approval processes. The EPA highlights state policies that encourage building renewables on underutilized lands like closed landfills and contaminated sites (EPA, 2023).

Corporate Commitments

In recent years, many major corporations have made commitments to transition to 100% renewable energy. This represents a significant shift, as large companies are major energy consumers. Some examples include:

Apple – pledged to power all its facilities with renewable energy by 2030. As of 2018, Apple was already running its offices, data centers, and stores in 43 countries on 100% clean energy (https://www.reachandteach.com/gw_fpres/presentationNotes.xml).

Google – has matched 100% of its global electricity consumption with renewable energy since 2017. It is now focused on sourcing carbon-free energy around the clock (https://www.reachandteach.com/gw_fpres/presentationNotes.xml).

Amazon – has a long-term goal to power its global infrastructure using 100% renewable energy. In 2020, the company reached 65% renewable energy across its business (https://www.reachandteach.com/gw_fpres/presentationNotes.xml).

These and other corporate renewable energy commitments are driving large investments into new wind and solar projects around the world. As major energy consumers shift to renewables, it accelerates the green energy transition.

Public Opinion

Surveys show growing public support for renewable energy over fossil fuels in the United States. According to Pew Research Center in 2023, an overwhelming majority of Americans (87%) think the U.S. should use a mix of fossil fuel and renewable energy sources, while only 12% think the U.S. should rely entirely on renewable sources like wind and solar. However, two-thirds (67%) still say the U.S. should not break from fossil fuels entirely and should maintain a mix of energy sources.

Pew Research polls from 2022 also found strong support for the U.S. taking steps to become carbon neutral by 2050, with around three-quarters of Americans (78%) favoring such a plan. At the same time, only 31% supported completely phasing out fossil fuels like coal and natural gas according to a 2023 survey by Axios.

So while most Americans favor keeping some fossil fuels in the energy mix, they also want to see a transition towards more renewable energy over the long term according to these surveys. The public generally supports reducing reliance on fossil fuels and taking climate action, but not eliminating fossil fuels entirely in the short term.

Challenges Remaining

While renewable energy has seen tremendous growth, some key challenges still remain. One major issue is the intermittent nature of renewables like wind and solar. Since the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine, energy storage is critical for balancing supply and demand. As noted in an article from the Electrical Review, “Future challenges for renewable energy growth. A report by the Climate Group released shortly after COP28 detailed many of the challenges remaining for renewable energy” (source). Large-scale energy storage projects and improved battery technology will be needed to store excess renewable energy for use when production is lower.

Transmission infrastructure is another challenge. Many of the prime areas for wind and solar energy are located far from major population centers that need the electricity. Massive investments in transmission lines are required to get the renewable energy from where it is generated to where it will be used, as highlighted in this article on LinkedIn (source). Upgrading and expanding transmission grids will be a key focal point going forward.

The Future

Most projections point to continued rapid growth of renewable energy in the coming decades as countries shift away from fossil fuels to reduce carbon emissions. According to Earth.org, solar energy costs are expected to decrease by 35% by 2024, while onshore wind capacity could grow 57% in the same timeframe. The share of electricity generated by renewables globally is projected to rise from 26% in 2019 to 45% by 2040.

Many experts believe renewables like solar and wind will dominate global electricity generation by 2050. The International Renewable Energy Agency predicts renewable energy could supply over 90% of global electricity by 2050 if countries rapidly decarbonize their energy systems. However, this will require trillions in investment and strong policy support from governments. Key challenges include updating power grids, scaling up energy storage, and improving energy efficiency.

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