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Whether you're a Tea Partier or environmentalist, renewable energy provides choices

By U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell

Energy markets have been changing rapidly. Utility-scale wind energy capacity has grown by 677 percent—from less than nine gigawatts to nearly 70 gigawatts—in the last 10 years.

In part, this success has been enabled by all-time low reductions in the cost of wind power. The rates for wind power purchase agreements have fallen from seven cents per kilowatt-hour in 2009 to about two cents per kilowatt—hour recently-that's a 71 percent drop in costs.

These trends are prevalent all across the United States—utility-scale wind power is deployed across 39 states. And in nine states, wind exceeds 10 percent of the total in-state electricity generation.

And it's not just wind—solar photovoltaic (PV) technology has rapidly emerged as a mainstream technology over the last few years. Utility-scale PV solar has grown to more than 10 gigawatts in 2015.

Distributed PV systems installed on customer and businesse rooftops have seen the same level of growth. There are now more than 800,000 distributed PV systems installed.

This is all possible because of the dramatic decline in the price of PV systems—down 59 percent over the last six years.

But interest in renewable energy hasn't just been from electric utilities and customers. In 2015, there was a record-breaking year for corporations—such as Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and Walmart—who purchased large-scale wind and solar energy. These corporations signed roughly three gigawatts of power purchase agreements for large-scale renewable energy last year. This more than doubled the amount signed in 2014.

Recent policy changes will accelerate these trends—creating more jobs, reducing carbon pollution, and saving consumers money.

A report from the Solar Foundation found that the U.S. solar industry employed more than 200,000 Americans in 2015, with 20 percent growth in solar industry employment.

For perspective, solar employment grew nearly 12 times faster than the national employment growth rate during the same period. The solar workforce is now larger than some well-established fossil fuel generation sectors, such as the oil and gas extraction industry.

The U.S. wind industry has had similar job growth trends and supports more than 73,000 well-paying jobs.

It's also important to talk about the consumer in this equation. Renewable energy policies not only create jobs, but they save consumers money and can provide consumers with more choices. In a new study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, renewable portfolio standards help to lower prices, saving consumers up to $1.2 billion from lower electricity prices and up to $3.7 billion from reduced natural gas prices.

Recent low oil and natural gas prices have also resulted in savings for consumers. For example, AAA estimates that Americans saved more than $115 billion on gasoline in 2015 compared to 2014, which was an average of more than $550 per driver.

However, these fossil fuel commodities are still susceptible to price swings. Less than two years ago, oil prices were over $100 a barrel. In the U.S. Energy Information Administration's Short-Term Energy Outlook, it states that 'oil prices could continue to experience periods of heightened volatility' over the next two years.

In contrast, renewable generation technologies—which use wind and sun as fuel— are not as susceptible to these price volatilities.

Consumers should have choices and should not face roadblocks to being able to implement these choices. So we'll continue to support those policies that give homeowners and businesses the freedom to generate their own energy.

Whether you're an environmentalist or a member of the Tea Party, supporting distributed generation and making sure consumers get access to choose their own energy distribution or storage methods is something I think we'll continue to be talking about.

U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) is a ranking member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. For the Record is an edited version of a presentation Senator Cantwell made to the Committee.