Renewables Now Account for Nearly One-Fifth of Total US Generating Capacity

Washington DC — Renewable energy dominated new U.S. electrical generation put into service during 2016, according to the latest issue of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) monthly “Energy Infrastructure Update,” released last week with data through Dec. 31, 2016.

Combined, newly installed capacity from renewable sources (i.e., biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar, wind) totaled 16,124 MW or 61.5 percent, surpassing that from natural gas (8,689 MW), nuclear power (1,270 MW), oil (58 MW), and coal (45 MW) combined.

This is the second year in a row in which the majority of new generating capacity came from renewable energy sources. In 2015, renewable sources added 12,400 MW of new generating capacity, or 64.8 percent of the total. Almost half of new capacity (49.6 percent) came from renewables in 2014.

During calendar year 2016, new wind generating capacity grew by 7,865 MW and was nearly matched by new solar generating capacity (7,748 MW). There was also 314 MW of new hydropower capacity and 197 MW of new biomass capacity; there was no new geothermal steam capacity added in 2016.

The rapid growth of renewables — particularly solar and wind — resulted in their seizing an ever-growing share of the nation’s total generating capacity. Five years ago, renewable sources cumulatively accounted for 14.26 percent of total available installed generating capacity; now they provide almost one-fifth (19.17 percent): hydropower, 8.50 percent; wind, 6.92 percent; solar, 2 percent; biomass, 1.42 percent; and geothermal, 0.33 percent.

Each of the non-hydro renewables has grown during the past half-decade and their combined capacity (10.67 percent) is now greater than that of nuclear power (9.00 percent) and nearly three times that of oil (3.79 percent).

By comparison, the shares of the nation’s energy capacity provided by oil, nuclear power, and coal have all declined. Today, oil’s share is only 3.79 percent, nuclear power is 9 percent, and coal is 24.65 percent — five years ago, they were 4.61 percent, 9.44 percent, and 29.91 percent, respectively. Only natural gas has experienced modest growth and that is from 41.6 percent in 2011 to 43.23 percent today.

The greatest percentage increase of any energy source has been experienced by solar whose share of the nation’s generating capacity (2 percent) is now nearly 12 times greater than in December 2011 (0.17 percent). Moreover, its growth is accelerating — new solar capacity in 2016 (7,748 MW) more than doubled that added in 2015 (3,521 MW). It now exceeds that of biomass and geothermal combined.

The focus of the new Trump Administration on fossil fuels is not only environmentally irresponsible but totally wrong-headed in light of the latest FERC data. Year-after-year, renewables are proving themselves to be the energy sources making America great again. 

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission released its most recent 8-page “Energy Infrastructure Update,” with data for calendar years 2015 and 2016, on February 1, 2017. See the tables titled “New Generation In-Service (New Build and Expansion)” and “Total Available Installed Generating Capacity” here. FERC data for December 2011 can be found here.

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 2016 is now 19.17 percent of the nation’s total whereas actual electrical generation from renewables year-to-date (according to the latest U.S. Energy Information Administration figures) is roughly 15.2 percent. However, both of these figures understate renewables’ actual contribution because neither EIA nor FERC fully accounts for all electricity generated by smaller-scale, distributed renewable energy sources. FERC’s data, for example, is limited to plants with nameplate capacity of 1 MW or greater and thereby fail to include distributed sources such as rooftop solar.

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Ken Bossong is the Executive Director of the SUN DAY Campaign. The SUN DAY Campaign is a non-profit research and educational organization founded in 1993 to promote sustainable energy technologies as cost-effective alternatives to nuclear power and fossil fuels.

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