By - Jim Vess

Wind and Solar dominate a big year for new generating capacity in 2016

Energize Weekly, March 22, 2017

The broad shift in U.S. electricity generating capacity—as coal declines while natural gas and renewable resources rise—has been easy to see in the overall numbers, but a federal analysis has drilled down in the data, offering stark illustrations of what is going on.

The percentage of electricity from coal-fired generation declined to 33 percent in 2015 from 52 percent in 1997, as natural gas-fired generation climbed to 33 percent and renewables to 13 percent, according to the federal Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Within those big numbers are, however, some revealing smaller ones. “Smaller numbers can sometimes tell the story,” said Suparna Ray, the EIA analyst who authored the study.

Here are some of those smaller, more telling numbers:

  • In the last 15 years, about 20 gigawatts (GW) of new coal-fired capacity has been added to the U.S. electricity generating portfolio, but in 2015 alone, 23 GW of coal-fired capacity was retired.
  • While it took 15 years to add that 20 GW coal, more than 16 GW of wind and solar were added in just 2016.
  • During that same 15-year period, 10 times as much natural gas-fired generation as coal was added—228 GW.
  • Among the renewable sources, hydropower has always been the dominant generation source, but in 2016, wind power nudged past hydro accounting to 81.3 GW compared with 79.9 GW for hydro. They each now represented about 6 percent of total generation.

Even though natural gas has been the primary form of generation—from 2002 to 2006 it, made up most of the new capacity—in recent years, renewable technologies have made up a bigger share. In 2016, wind and solar accounted for 60 percent of the utility-scale capacity additions—8.7 GW for wind and 7.7 GW for solar. Natural gas-fired generation’s 9 GW of new capacity accounted for 33 percent.

Overall, 2016 posted the largest addition of capacity since 2012 with a total of 27 GW added. There were 12 GW of retirements. The 2016 net gain of 15 GW was the largest net addition since 2011.

“This is a sign of a dramatic shift,” said Adam Bloom, a member of the Rocky Mountain Institute’s energy forecasting and modeling group. “There is a structural change going on there with aging coal plants, cheap natural gas and a continuing decline in the price of renewables.”

The EIA analysis notes that “most operating coal plants were built prior to 1980, and a significant portion of U.S. hydroelectric capacity is even older—the oldest hydro plant still operating was built in 1891. Most of the natural gas fleet and almost all wind and solar capacity has been built since 2000.”

Bloom said that there is also a growing acceptance of renewable generation on the part of the utility industry. “As you add more renewables, you get more comfortable with them,” he said.

Bloom pointed to the record set by the Southwest Power Pool (SPP) early in the morning on Feb. 12 when it met 52 percent of its electricity demand with wind generation.

In announcing the record, Bruce Rew, SPP vice president of operations, said in a statement, “Ten years ago, we thought hitting even a 25 percent wind penetration level would be extremely challenging, and any more than that would pose serious threats to reliability. Since then, we’ve gained experience and implemented new policies and procedures. Now we have the ability to reliably manage greater than 50 percent wind penetration. It’s not even our ceiling.”

Ray, the EIA analyst, said in the short run, the trends are likely to hold. Bloom said that prices and technological improvements are on the side of renewable generation. “What is the limit?” he asked. “That’s what we are exploring.”

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