Renewable Energy Was 16.9 Percent of US Electric Generation in the First Half of 2016

It’s finally happening. After years of research and development, of policy debates over subsidies and climate change and energy independence; renewable energy is finally starting to replace fossil fuel sources of electric generation across the nation.

According to data released on Aug. 24 by the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA), renewable energy in the U.S. through the first half of 2016, including hydro-electric power, biomass, geothermal, wind, and solar (including distributed solar), provided 16.9 percent of electricity generation. In all of 2015, that number was 13.7 percent. Non-hydro renewable energy was 9.2 percent of U.S. electric generation through the first half of 2016. For all of 2015 it was 7.6 percent.

Hydro-electric power has done well thus far in 2016, especially in California, which has recovered from record drought. In fact, hydro-electric generation in California during the first half of 2016 has already exceeded total hydro-electric generation for all of 2015. But despite this growth, hydro-electric power still rises and falls dependent on weather and climatic factors. Conversely, renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar energy, are continuing to grow significantly each year.

Since June, numerous large-scale wind and solar plants have already been completed. More are under construction. So renewable energy generation will rise even higher by year’s end. And while its percentage will be tempered by summer peak demand, renewable energy will still likely exceed 16 percent of total U.S. electric generation and 9 percent from non-hydro generation sources during 2016. Next year looks to be even better. With thousands of megawatts of solar and wind under construction, 2017 could see non-hydro renewable energy rise to well over 10 percent of U.S. electric generation.

In 2010, non-hydro renewable energy was just 4.2 percent of U.S. electric generation. It will at least triple by 2020. That’s a big accomplishment in only a decade for the world’s largest economy.

Part of the reason for this growth is that U.S. electric generation has fallen or been relatively flat since its peak in 2007. In fact, electric generation this year is down 2.5 percent compared with the first half of 2015. Even if generation increases through the rest of the decade, it is not expected to be significant growth.

Coal-fired power is down 20 percent thus far this year after dropping 14 percent between 2014 and 2015. Natural gas is only up by about 7.6 percent. So wind and solar power (increasing 23 percent and 31 percent, respectively) are making up for a lot of that lost generation from coal.

Nuclear power is up by about 1 percent and will rise more due to the new nuclear reactor fired up this summer in Tennessee. However, the longer term trend for nuclear power looks bleak with facilities in Illinois, Massachusetts, Nebraska, and New Jersey to close this decade. Only two new nuclear plants are under construction in the U.S. with commercial operation expected in 2019 and 2020 if no further delays occur.

For renewable energy, growth is occurring in virtually all 50 states, as new wind and solar installations are placed into service. Every region is enjoying this growth. Requests for interconnection to utilities throughout the country are now primarily for wind and solar projects.

This is not to say that geothermal energy and biomass do not play a part in this growth. Both have experienced growth in the past several years, but they are not growing like wind and solar energy and may stay relatively flat through the rest of the decade.

For wind power, the states with the most growth so far this year (in terms of actual generation) are Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa, and Colorado. Just those five states alone have added enough generation in the first six months of the year to power an additional three million homes.

For solar power, the states with the most growth (in terms of actual generation) are California, North Carolina, Nevada, Arizona, and Georgia. Just those five states alone have added enough generation in the first six months of the year to power nearly an additional one million homes. It should be noted that Utah (ranked 6th on that list) has increased solar power generation over 700 percent so far this year.

In Iowa, wind power is rivaling coal as the top source of electric generation. By 2017, Iowa may become the first U.S. state in history to generate a majority of its power from wind.

California, the state with the “crazy” idea to have a third of its power come from primarily non-hydro renewable energy sources by the end of 2020, is generating nearly 30 percent of its generation from non-hydro renewable energy so far this year; not to mention importing significant generation from solar, geothermal, and wind power from its neighbors.  

What these numbers do show us is the manifestation of years of dedication to investing in renewable energy technologies; to reduce the cost, increase the efficiency, and increase the scale. Policies supporting renewable energy turned an industry that by the end of the last century was almost non-existent to the primary source of new energy resources today. Wind and solar energy were only two tenths of one percent of U.S. electric generation in the year 2000 and most of that generation was in California. The last several years have seen the fruits of those efforts. Wind energy generation doubled between 2010 and 2015. Solar energy generation increased by more than 20 times between those years. By the end of 2017 solar energy will likely double 2015 generation.

The first half of 2016 was exciting and promising. The future looks even brighter, if not just a bit windier.

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Daniel Fleischmann is the owner of Mountain Man Alternative Energy Consulting. He has a decade of experience developing and managing renewable energy projects in the U.S. and has helped develop over $600 million in renewable energy capacity.

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