Solar and wind power are emerging as cost-effective alternatives to fossil fuels. Across the United States, solar prices have dropped dramatically, and the number of solar panel installations has grown exponentially. Still, New England and New York have vast untapped solar, land-based wind, and offshore wind resources. Harnessing this clean, low-cost generation is critical to meeting the 2030 emissions target.
The sources of electricity generation in the Northeast region shifted significantly from 2001 to the present. Coal use declined from 16% to 2.5% and natural gas has increased from 28% to 45%.1 The successful Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) cap-and-trade program for Northeast and mid-Atlantic power plants contributed to this trend. By making generation from fossil fuels more expensive, RGGI has made power from lower-carbon sources more competitive.
Fracking has reduced natural gas prices but raised concerns about impacts on local communities and the climate. While cheaper natural gas has pushed out older, less-efficient coal and oil generation, the region’s increasing over-reliance on natural gas will not continue to significantly reduce emissions. It also exposes the region to risks if gas prices become volatile or supply is disrupted. Expanding renewable generation is a less risky alternative that has more stable prices and costs.
To realize the benefits of renewables and meet the 2030 emissions target, 40% of New England’s generation needs to be Class I renewable (i.e., primarily wind and solar) in 2030. This percentage is nearly double the requirement under current state renewable portfolio standards (RPSs). New York will need to achieve or surpass 50% renewable energy and hydroelectricity, as currently promised in its Clean Energy Standard. To achieve this scale of renewable energy generation, New England can increase solar 12-fold and increase land-based wind six-fold. New York can increase solar generation 20-fold and triple land-based wind generation. New England and New York can develop 6,400 megawatts (MW) of offshore wind in areas already leased for development.
These targets require rapid growth rates, but other regions have already demonstrated fast deployment is possible. California, for example, increased its utility-scale solar capacity by 3,500 MW in just two years—nearly the growth needed in New England over the next 14 years.2 Texas increased its onshore wind capacity by 7,300 MW in five years, which is more than both New England and New York would need to add by 2030.3 For offshore wind, Europe has exceeded the growth rate needed in the Northeast, increasing capacity roughly 16-fold in just 10 years.4
Distributed generation (DG) such as rooftop solar5 provides emissions-free renewable energy. It also gives consumers greater independence and can keep utilities from needing to build costly new transmission and distribution power lines. Like utility-scale solar, costs for rooftop solar panels have declined significantly. To reach the 2030 emissions target, states will need to add 8.5 gigawatts (GW) of residential and community solar—equivalent to approximately 1.1 million residential rooftop installations. Commercial solar, including municipal and government solar, would contribute 16 GW of capacity, and grid-scale solar would provide the remaining 11 GW.
Vermont has shown that distributed solar can grow at these rates:6 rooftop solar capacity in Vermont grew by nearly 100% annually between 2013 and 2015. This rate of growth exceeds the 20% annual growth rate needed to meet the 2030 emissions goal in the Northeast.
To continue spreading adoption of distributed energy resources, the region must put solar in reach of all customers. It can do so by compensating them appropriately and planning for their needs.
Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative
The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) cap and trade program has helped Northeast states reduce power plant GHG emissions 40% over the past eight years. Meanwhile, it has raised almost $2 billion for clean energy programs. To solidify and build on this success, states need to strengthen RGGI. They should extend RGGI’s emissions cap from 2020 to 2030, adopt targets that ensure power plants continue to reduce emissions, and close loopholes that could undermine progress.