Two new federal government reports underscore not only the continued rapid growth of renewable energy sources (i.e., biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar, wind) in the electric power sector but also the ongoing failure of government forecasts to accurately anticipate and predict that growth.
In the first 2016 issue of its monthly “Energy Infrastructure Update” report, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) notes that five new “units” of wind (468 megawatts (MW)) and six new units of solar (145 MW) accounted for 100 percent of new electrical generation brought into service in January. No new capacity for nuclear, coal, gas, or oil was reported. Renewables now account for 17.93 percent of total installed operating generating capacity in the U.S.: hydropower (8.56 percent), wind (6.37 percent), biomass (1.43 percent), solar (1.24 percent), and geothermal (0.33 percent). In fact, installed capacity for non-hydro renewables (i.e., biomass, geothermal, solar, wind) alone (9.37 percent) now exceeds that for either nuclear (9.15 percent) or oil (3.84 percent). **
The new renewable energy capacity added in January is continuing a trend. Just a month earlier, FERC’s December 2015 “Energy Infrastructure Update” revealed that renewables had accounted for 64 percent of all new electrical generating capacity installed last year.
Separately, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) has issued its latest “Electric Power Monthly” (covering all twelve months of 2015) indicating that electricity generated by renewable energy sources grew by over 2 percent compared to 2014 and accounted for almost 13.5 percent of “utility-scale” electrical output in the U.S. last year.
Moreover, EIA’s end-of-the-year data reveals significantly higher growth in the renewable energy sector than the agency had forecast less than three months ago for calendar year 2015 in its “Short-Term Energy Outlook.” At that time, EIA said it expected “total renewables used in the electric power sector to decrease by 1.8 percent in 2015. Hydropower generation is forecast to decrease by 8.2 percent, and non-hydropower renewable power generation is forecast to increase by 4.2 percent.”
In reality, compared to calendar year 2014, non-hydro renewables increased by 6.9 percent, hydro output declined by just 3.2 percent, and the total of hydropower plus non-hydro renewables grew by 2.03 percent. For calendar year 2015, grid-scale renewables accounted for 13.44 percent of net U.S. electrical generation — up from 13.16 percent in 2014. Of that, non-hydro renewables accounted for 7.3 percent while conventional hydropower was 6.14 percent. Generation by all non-hydro renewable sources grew in 2015. Biomass was up by 0.3 percent, wind by 5.1 percent, geothermal by 5.6 percent, and solar by 49.6 percent.
Renewable energy growth is significantly outpacing earlier EIA projections. Less than four years ago, in its “Annual Energy Outlook 2012,” EIA forecast that non-hydro renewables would grow at an annual rate of 3.9 percent and provide about 250,000 thousand megawatt-hours in 2015 while non-hydro renewable electrical generating capacity would reach approximately 85 gigawatts (GW). It also forecast that non-hydro renewables would not surpass hydropower until 2020.
In fact, EIA now reports actual generation from non-hydro renewables in 2015 to have hit 298,358 thousand megawatt-hours from utility-scale facilities alone; in addition, at least 12,141 thousand megawatt-hours was provided by distributed solar PV and an unknown amount from other distributed, small-scale renewables that are not grid-connected (e.g., small wind). Further, electrical generation from non-hydro renewables surpassed that from hydropower more than a year ago.
And, according to FERC, the total installed generating capacity of wind, biomass, solar, and geothermal units had reached 109.6 GW by January 2016 — and this reflects just the combined capacity of larger renewable energy facilities. FERC’s data only includes plants with nameplate capacity of 1 MW or greater and therefore does not reflect the additional capacity provided by rooftop solar or other smaller, distributed renewable energy systems.
** Note that generating capacity is not the same as actual generation. Electrical production per MW of available capacity (i.e., capacity factor) for renewables is often lower than that for fossil fuels and nuclear power. As noted, the total installed operating generating capacity provided by renewables in 2015 was about 18% of the nation’s total whereas actual electrical generation from renewables last year was roughly 13.5%; however, both of these figures understate renewables’ actual contribution because neither EIA nor FERC fully accounts for all electricity generated by distributed renewable energy sources (e.g., uncounted U.S. rooftop solar is equal to about 45% of utility-scale solar capacity and generation).
Lead image: Solar panels and wind turbine. Credit: Shutterstock.