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U.S. at Brink of Turning Point in Energy

Editor’s Note: This is one in a series of stories in which we look back at key issues and events of 2014 and why they will continue to make headlines in 2015.

Road tripping used to feel like it broke the bank, with gasoline prices in many places hovering above $3.50 per gallon or higher. Today, filling up for more than $2 per gallon in some places feels jarring.

Crude oil prices tumbled into an unexpected free fall in 2014, pushing gasoline prices down with them. Solar power prices continued their dive, too, helping usher in a new gold rush in renewables worldwide and predictions that rooftop solar could assist in a major transformation of the U.S. electric power grids in just a few short years.

A wind farm in California.
Credit: Wendell/flickr

2014 set the scene for a major turning point in energy in 2015. We’ll see how those free-falling oil prices affect how people drive and if that, in turn, will stunt use of public transportation and development of vehicles running on alternative fuels. The future of coal may be determined, just as solar power may start to spread outside California and Arizona and more deeply into places where the sun doesn’t shine every day, thanks to falling prices and new technology.

LOOKING BACK AT 2014
AND AHEAD TO 2015
Monday
Fate of Earth’s Ice Comes
Further Into Focus


Tuesday
Ocean Warming:
Probing a Blue Abyss


Wednesday
U.S. at Brink of Turning
Point in Energy


Thursday
Climate Change’s Calling
Card in 2014: Heat


Friday
Climate Change's Evolving
Role in Extreme Weather

 

The world is pinning its hopes on renewables to help cap CO2 emissions at a level that will prevent the globe from warming 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels, the point at which the effects of climate change could spiral out of control, scientists warn. 2015 could also be the year energy policies aimed at curbing those emissions could show if they have teeth, including the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan.

Scheduled to be finalized in June barring legal challenges, the Clean Power Plan is likely to see its approval complicated by unfolding political theater that could define U.S. climate policies next year, and for many years thereafter. Aiming to slash emissions from existing coal-fired power plants, the plan sends a strong signal to utilities that natural gas and renewables are the federal government’s answer for how electric power companies should tackle climate change.

The natural gas that utilities will use to replace coal was itself the subject of a climate controversy that is likely to a major part of any ongoing energy conversation. Most natural gas is produced using fracking, the same method energy companies use to extract the crude oil that ignited the shale oil boom of the past five years. Public health concerns associated with fracking prompted a ban in New York State, and study after study produced mounting evidence that large amounts of climate change-driving methane is leaking from both fracking operations and the natural gas distribution system leading to homes and power plants.

Shale oil and gas development near Denver, Colo.
Credit: Bobby Magill/ClimateCentral

How those studies and low oil and gas prices will affect renewables will soon be readily apparent. Electricity generation from renewables was expected to grow by nearly 2 percent  and power generation from wind, solar and biomass alone was expected to surpass hydropower production for the first time in history by the end of 2014. That growth is likely to continue.

New wind farm power generating capacity is set to double in 2015, contributing nearly 5 percent of all U.S. power generation. Though solar power is expected to account for only a tiny fraction of power generation in the New Year — about 0.6 percent — growth is nearly inevitable as prices, which have fallen about 7 percent each year since 1998, continue to decline.

The future of carbon capture and storage technology may also become more clear, with the first large-scale coal-fired power plant fitted with carbon-capture technology completing its first year of operation in Canada and research continuing on new ways to make that carbon capture economical and effective.

If all those scenarios play out over the next year, one of the big stories next December will be how U.S. CO2 emissions from burning energy didn’t increase at all in 2015 — good news for the climate at a possible turning point in American energy.

Best of Energy Coverage From 2014: 
Catch the Breeze: Wind Farms Blast Across the U.S. 
Cheap Solar Power Pushes Renewables Growth Worldwide 
Wind, Solar Energy Driving Electricity Storage Technology 
Global Renewables Report Card, Map Highlight China 
New Energy Maps Show 4 Cool Things About Renewables 
Texas Breaks Wind Power Production Record 
Renewables Revolution Could be in Management, Not Tech 
Report Paints Bleak Future for Nuclear Power 
Coal Power Shows Zero Growth in 2014, Report Shows 
Analysts, States Bullish on Success of Clean Power Plan 
World's First Carbon Capture Power Plant Switches On