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Celebrate Earth Day with these renewable energy milestones

A year of breakthroughs for wind and solar around the world.

Wind turbines stand behind a solar power park on October 30, 2013 near Werder, Germany. (CREDIT: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Wind turbines stand behind a solar power park on October 30, 2013 near Werder, Germany. (CREDIT: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

More than a year into the Trump administration, it can be easy to focus on the cascading scandals and anti-environment policies pushed by the president and his cabinet. But despite the administration’s anti-regulatory agenda, renewable energy is still breaking records both in the United States and around the world, thanks in large part to the rapidly declining costs of renewable energy technology.

Here are five renewable records to celebrate this Earth Day.

California solar

With its sunny climate and environmentally-focused policies, California has long been a leader for solar in the United States. But in March of 2018, the state broke a solar record when the California Independent System Operator — which manages the flow of electricity for 80 percent of the state — saw an all-time record for peak demand of electricity met by solar energy: 49.95 percent on March 4, up from the previous peak of 47.2 percent set on May 14, 2017.

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Utility operators credit the record to a few factors, from the fact that it was a relatively cool day (so no need for air conditioning, which can drive up electricity use) to the fact that it was a weekend, when energy use is typically lower.

The state broke another solar record the next day, producing 10,400 megawatts of solar power on California’s main power grid — a 500 megawatt increase from the previous record.

No coal in England

Britain — birthplace of the Industrial Revolution — made historic strides toward a greener power grid this month, when it went more than two days without using coal to produce electricity, something that hadn’t happened for 136 years.

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According to the Independent, the 55-hour stretch marked the longest that the country had gone without using coal power since Britain’s first coal-fired power plant opened in London in 1882.

Instead of using coal-fired power, the country relied on a mix of renewable energy and nuclear power. Wind power produced the most electricity, followed by nuclear, biomass, solar, and hydro.

The coal-free stretch came just weeks after the United Kingdom broke a record for total electricity generated by wind power — 14 gigawatts.

Still, renewable energy in the United Kingdom faces a potentially precarious future, after investment fell 57 percent in 2017 — the largest investment drop in any country in the world.

Portugal’s renewable excess

In March, Portugal made headlines for producing more renewable energy than the country consumed. The country’s renewable energy production for the month was 4,812 gigawatt hours, 4.3 percent more than the country’s electricity consumption for the month of 4,647 gigawatt hours. It managed that feat even as electricity consumption increased 9.7 percent over last year.

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Portugal still used some fossil fuel-powered energy for electricity in March, though renewables accounted for some 86 percent of the country’s consumption. It also went 70 hours during March where renewable energy was the sole source of electricity. The country primarily relied on wind and hydropower, which accounted for 42 and 55 percent of Portugal’s electricity needs, respectively, throughout the month.

United States record in 2017

Despite the Trump administration’s promise to revitalize the domestic coal industry and spur fossil fuel production both inland and offshore, 2017 marked an important year for renewable energy — especially solar and wind power — in the United States.

For the first time in history, in March and April of 2017, wind and solar provided more than 10 percent of all U.S. power, according to a report released in November by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Renewable energy has making notable strides particularly in red states. According to an analysis released last week by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), Texas, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and South Dakota — all states that voted for Trump in the 2016 election — all produced more than a third of their electricity from wind turbines. In Texas, the nation’s leading producer of wind power, wind can now provide more electricity than coal.

Despite federal policies aimed at undermining renewable energy research and technology, cities and states continue to move forward with aggressive renewable energy targets. According to the Sierra Club, 59 cities, eight counties, and one state (Hawaii) have all committed to goals of 100 percent renewable energy.

Record-breaking around the world

But it’s not just the United States that is seeing major, historic strides for renewable energy. Globally, the world installed a record amount of solar energy technology in 2017 — 98 gigawatts, which was more than the total amount of installed coal, nuclear, and gas capacity combined.

The increase in installed solar technology was driven largely by China, which installed 53 gigawatts — more than half the global total — and invested some $86.5 billion in solar technology. China has pledged to invest $360 billion in solar technology by 2020.