U.S. wind and solar generation set to soar in 2021, as coal-fired and nuclear plants close

Energize Weekly, January 27, 2021

The U.S. electricity generation fleet will continue its transformation in 2021 with wind and solar dominating new installations and nuclear and coal-fired plants steadily being retired, according to the federal Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Power plant developers and utilities are planning for 39.7 gigawatts (GW) of new generating capacity in 2021, with wind and solar installations accounting for 70 percent of the new installations, the EIA said.

Photovoltaic (PV) solar will make up the largest share of new generation, 39 percent, setting a record of 15.4 GW in new capacity. In 2020, 12 GW of solar capacity was added to the grid.

More than half the new utility-scale projects will be in four states – Texas, Nevada, California and North Carolina. Texas will account for 28 percent of the large-scale projects, followed by Nevada and California each with 9 percent, and Carolina with 6 percent.

EIA forecasts an additional 4.1 GW of small-scale solar PV capacity entering service by the end of 2021.

Wind generation is set to make up 31 percent of the new capacity in 2021, equal to 12.2 GW. In 2020, 21 GW of wind projects came online.

Texas and Oklahoma will be home to more than half of the new wind capacity additions. The largest project is the 999-megawatt (MW) Traverse Wind farm in Oklahoma.

Virginia will also see a boost in wind power with the 12-MW Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind (CVOW) pilot, located 27 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach. It is slated to begin commercial operations in early 2021.

Complementing the surge in renewable generation will be a quadrupling of utility-scale battery storage with 4.3 GW coming online by the end of the year.

“The rapid growth of renewables, such as wind and solar, is a major driver in the expansion of battery capacity because battery storage systems are increasingly paired with renewables,” the EIA said.

 The world’s largest solar-powered battery – 409 MW – is under construction at the Manatee Solar Energy Center in Florida. The battery project is scheduled to be in operation by late 2021.

Renewable generation also got a boost from Congress, just before it recessed in December, with the passage of an omnibus energy bill, which included extensions of solar and wind tax credits.

The solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC) was extended for two years with the credit remaining at 26 percent for projects begun in 2021 and 2022 and then stepping down to 22 percent in 2023 and 10 percent in 2024 only for commercial projects.

The energy bill also has additional funding for research and development, and support for more sensible access to federal lands for renewable energy projects.

The wind Production Tax Credit (PTC) was extended for one year with land-based wind projects eligible for 60 percent of their full value and offshore projects qualifying to 30 percent of their value on projects that begin construction through Dec. 31, 2025.

Natural gas-fired plants will make up 6.6 GW of new capacity and about 1 GW of power will come from the new nuclear reactor at Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle.

While Plant Vogtle will be adding nuclear capacity to the national generation fleet, the closure of nuclear plants will account for 56 percent of the 9.1 GW capacity losses in 2021, the EIA said.

The 5.1 GW of nuclear generation set to close this year equals 5 percent of the country’s nuclear generation capacity.

The biggest nuclear closure will be in Illinois where Exelon Corp. is shuttering two plants – the Dresden Generating Station and the Byron Generating Station. Each plant has two reactors with a total, combined generating capacity of 4.1 GW.

In April, a 1-GW unit at the Indian Point nuclear plant, in New York, is also scheduled to retire.

“If all five reactors close as scheduled, 2021 will set a record for the most annual nuclear capacity retirements ever,” the EIA said. “The decrease of U.S. nuclear power generating capacity is a result of historically low natural gas prices, limited growth in electricity demand, and increasing competition from renewable energy,”

Losses from the shuttering of coal-fired plants – in the last five years 48 GW have been closed – will slow with 2.7 GW retired. That still will equal 30 percent of the capacity retired in 2021.

The coal-fired retirements are coming primarily from older units, with a capacity-weighted-average age of more than 51 years.

Four states – Maryland, Florida, Connecticut and Wisconsin – account for almost two-thirds of the capacity retirements. The biggest closure set for 2021 is the Chalk Point Generating Station, in Eagle Harbor, Md., where both units, totaling 670 MW are to close. The announced retirement date is June 1, 2021.

The next-largest retirements will Tampa Electric’s, 445-MW Big Bend Unit 2. The Florida utility also converted Big Bend’s Unit 1 from coal-fired to natural gas-fired.

Other major closures include a unit at the Bridgeport Harbor Station in Connecticut and the Genoa Generating Station in Wisconsin.

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