US president Barack Obama has ordered the federal government to meet 20% of its electricity demand with renewable energy by 2020.
The target represents an increase of almost three times, from the 7.5% of clean electricity currently used, with a first step requiring agencies to use 10% by 2015.
Obama signed the memorandum on Thursday that the White House says will “reduce pollution in our communities, promote American energy independence, and support home-grown energy produced by American workers”.
Federal agencies will be allowed to choose whether to purchase clean energy directly from suppliers, acquire renewable energy certificates, or install onsite renewable technologies.
Rhone Resch, chief executive of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), called the move “a landmark moment.”
“From an environmental perspective, few things threaten our nation’s future prosperity and way of life more than climate change”, he added.
“That’s why it’s so important for the federal government to lead by example. We applaud President Obama for standing firm and following through on a key commitment he made as part of his Climate Action Plan.”
Obama’s Climate Action Plan, a comprehensive strategy in which the president pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and boost clean energy, was unveiled in June.
He has set a similar target for the Defence Department, which must generate a quarter of its energy from renewables sources by 2025.
Earlier this year, Obama praised the sustainability initiatives of nations such as Sweden, a world leader in renewable energy. However, America’s own recent energy revolution has been driven largely by fracking and shale gas.
Nevertheless, in 2012, US energy-related carbon emissions fell to their lowest levels since 1994, according to recently released Energy Information Administration (EIA) figures. This achievement was partly credited to the substitution of slightly less polluting natural gas for coal in electricity production, while the input of renewable sources actually fell.
However, experts warned that while shale gas may have replaced coal in the US, this very same coal has still been mined and burnt elsewhere, potentially worsening the environmental impact. In 2012, US coal exports reached a record high of 126m short tonnes, a 17% increase on the previous year.
Róisín Moriarty, senior research associate at the Global Carbon Project, explained, “If that coal is exported to a country with less efficient methods of producing electricity from coal than those currently used in the US then more coal needs to be burnt to produce the equivalent amount of electricity and this means an increase in associated emissions.”