The sunny side of Earth's hottest month

The sunny side of Earth's hottest month
© Getty Images

It may have been easy to miss because it’s become so common. Averaged across the planet, July 2021 was the hottest month ever recorded.

That month inched above the previous three-way tie of July in 2016, 2019 and 2020 for that dubious statistic. It’s a foregone conclusion that 2021 will finish as one of the 10 hottest years on record. It is also highly likely that this year’s record will be eclipsed in a few years. That’s what living on a warming planet is like.

As bad as the news was, there is still cause for optimism. 

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The searing summer sun is being harnessed like never before. Solar energy production in the U.S. is highest in the bright summer months, and July is the peak within that peak. Each year, we are adding more solar panels, increasing the capacity to turn photons into electrons. Since 2014 solar capacity has increased by a factor of five, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. With more solar capacity regularly coming online, and costs now at a fraction of what they were a decade ago, expect a new record for solar energy generation next summer and the summer after that.

Even record-setting solar generation won’t likely outproduce wind, though. While wind power production is highest in the spring and at its lowest level in August, the U.S. has deployed so many wind turbines that wind production is more than twice that of solar, even in summer. With the more consistent winds of fall and winter ahead, generation will surge. And like solar, new wind turbines are regularly coming online across the country with generation costs continuing to drop. My meteorology friends who advise the energy sector are seeing it firsthand, providing the wind speed forecasts critical for turbine operations — whether that be in Texas, the Plains or the Midwest.

For those worried about the main limitation of these proven technologies — that we can’t turn on the wind or sun whenever we need extra power — utility-scale battery storage is also coming online fast, with new storage innovations already taking shape.

The seeds that were planted for these new technologies are starting to germinate in other locations away from the windy Plains and the sunny Southwest. Offshore wind is now becoming more viable. In the Mid-Atlantic, for example, Dominion Energy is planning to install 180 turbines off the Virginia Capes. Even as it powers 600,000 homes, this project and others like it may go largely unnoticed because the turbines will be too far offshore to see.

But we still have a long, long way to go.

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In order to stabilize the climate, the U. S. needs to reach a carbon-neutral economy by 2050, removing as much carbon from the atmosphere as we emit. While continued innovation is needed, several studies (including modeling by the Net-Zero America Project) indicate that we already have the technology we need to reach net-zero. The challenge is to scale-up that technology. These studies also show that building out wind and solar would bring in steady jobs in manufacturing and maintenance of this new energy infrastructure, with especially high potential for job growth by 2030 in Idaho, Indiana, Nebraska, New Mexico, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wyoming and across the South.

There is no magic bullet, but the innovations in renewable energy are bearing fruit, giving us the ability to stop relying on extractive fossil fuels to power our way of life and put the brakes on our accelerating thermometers.

As a country, we’ve made big infrastructure changes like this before. Less than a hundred years ago, we brought electricity to rural communities, and in the last 20 years, mobile phones went from a novelty to a necessity. Paying attention to this summer’s renewable energy records — and blowing past them next summer — can play a critical role in slowing the pace of rising heat worldwide in the summers to come. Follow along. It should be a heck of a show.

Sean Sublette is a meteorologist at Climate Central where he works on the Climate Matters program. Sublette was previously an adjunct professor at Lynchburg College and served on the American Meteorological Society's Distinguished Science Journalism Award Committee.