March Madness: US Energy Transition Edition

Canary Media kicks off a March Madness–style competition to identify the most important trend in the shift to clean energy.
By Canary Staff

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Ah, March. A time of change, of budding flowers and longer days — and of inescapable amounts of college basketball.

Now, here at Canary Media, we don’t cover basketball. We cover the energy transition. But, you know, in a culturally relevant way. Add those facts together, and what you end up with is a March Madness competition centered around U.S. energy trends.

After several rounds of riveting matchups, the 2024 Canary Media March Madness champion has been crowned by voters: rising public support for nuclear. Thanks to all who participated!

The contenders:

Heat pumps outselling gas furnaces

Heat pumps, the two-way air conditioners that are vital to cleaning up home heating, have outsold gas furnaces for two years running. According to data from the Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute, Americans bought 21 percent more heat pumps in 2023 than the next-most popular heating appliance, fossil gas furnaces. That’s the biggest lead heat pumps have ever had on fossil-fuel furnaces.

U.S. clean energy manufacturing boom

The Inflation Reduction Act kicked off a boom in U.S. clean energy manufacturing. Since the law passed in August 2022, over 100 new clean-energy manufacturing facilities or factory expansions have been announced, totaling more than $70 billion in private investment and bringing in thousands of new jobs.

Record-high climatetech investment

Follow the money: Last year, U.S. investment in the energy transition reached a total of $239 billion, a record-breaking figure that’s 38 percent higher than the 2022 total. Almost all of last year’s investment in climatetech came from private sources, which were incentivized by the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to spend big on clean energy. 

The rapid growth of EVs 

For the first time ever, more than 1 million fully electric vehicles were sold in the U.S. last year. It’s a major milestone, and it comes as hybrids are also taking off and stealing market share away from conventional gas-powered cars. Last year, 16 percent of new auto sales were EVs or hybrids. 

Clean energy in, gas plants out for new electricity

Clean energy is officially mainstream. The U.S. electricity industry is choosing clean energy for almost all its new power plant additions this year. To put it plainly, that means the country is building way more solar and battery storage projects than it is gas plants.

The surge in grid batteries

Grid batteries store surplus renewables and make the grid more reliable — and they’re growing like crazy in the U.S. Thanks in large part to California and Texas, which need a bunch more batteries to soak up all the solar they’ve built, the U.S. could double its grid battery fleet this year. 

The decreasing cost of renewables

Unlike fossil fuels, renewable energy costs have fallen and are projected to keep falling. That’s because the technologies are riding on learning curves,” meaning that for every cumulative doubling of the deployed tech, its cost declines by a quantifiable percentage. Over the past 40 years, the average learning rate has been 20% for solar and 13% for wind.

Next-generation geothermal breakthroughs

Currently, geothermal supplies only a tiny sliver of U.S. electricity. But that could change soon. Startups are aiming to develop easier and cheaper ways of reaching into the earth to access the United States’ abundant geothermal resources that are too expensive or technically complex to reach using conventional methods.

Decarbonizing heavy industry

Steel, cement and chemicals are the foundations of our modern world. They also emit more than a quarter of global carbon dioxide emissions. These sectors are often called hard to decarbonize,” but in recent years real progress has been made toward tamping down their emissions.

Strict rules for green hydrogen subsidies

Hydrogen could help decarbonize everything from steelmaking to heavy transit — but only if it’s made using clean energy and not fossil fuels. The Inflation Reduction Act has huge subsidies to make clean hydrogen, and it has proposed strict eligibility requirements on that money: To get it, you have to prove your hydrogen is low- or zero-carbon.

Federal subsidies for home electrification

The Inflation Reduction Act created the biggest federal investment in home energy efficiency in history, with $8.8 billion to weatherize homes, install efficient electric heating and appliances, and help households save billions of dollars in energy costs and cut their carbon emissions. Plus, it’s got a bunch of tax credits to subsidize everything from rooftop solar to new windows.

Solar for low-income communities

Residential solar adoption has not historically been accessible to everyone. Enter the aptly named federal program Solar for All, which has a historic $7 billion in federal funding to help deliver the savings, resiliency and health benefits of small-scale solar and solar-plus-storage systems to low-income households and households in disadvantaged communities.

State-level climate action 

In order for the U.S. to meet its Paris Agreement targets, states will need to step up. In recent months, some have done exactly that: Michigan passed a 100% clean energy law, Maine had so much success with heat pumps that it doubled its goal, and Maryland took a big swing at offshore wind.

Rising public support for nuclear

Nuclear is controversial in the energy transition world. But a clear trend has emerged in recent years: Public support for nuclear power in the U.S. has been climbing — and so has government funding.

Thermal energy storage potential

Rocks and heat have existed for billions of years, but it’s only now that the two can be used to help the world decarbonize by storing clean electricity — that’s mostly because the insanely low cost of solar and wind power has made the tech economically competitive.

Staggering solar growth

Utility-scale solar installations surged in 2023, growing by an estimated, ahem, 86 percent compared to the previous year, a rebound from a difficult 2022 that was plagued by supply-chain constraints. The growth is all thanks to the steadily plummeting costs of solar.