Renewables Hit 21% of U.S. Electrical Capacity; Wind at 8%; Solar Over 3%

06 Feb 2019

According to an analysis by the SUN DAY Campaign of data just released by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), natural gas dominated new electrical generating capacity in 2018. However, renewable energy sources (i.e., biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar, wind) seem poised to swamp fossil fuels as new generating capacity is added over the next three years.

FERC's "Energy Infrastructure Update" report (with data through December 31, 2018) notes that new natural gas generation placed in service in 2018 totaled 20,048 MW or 64.9% of the total (30,881 MW). Renewable sources (i.e., biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar, wind) accounted for 10,392 MW or 33.7%. The balance (1.4%) was provided by nuclear (350 MW), waste heat (51 MW), oil (25 MW), coal (10 MW), and "other" (5 MW).

Supported by a late surge of new generating facilities (1.943 MW) in December, wind ended 2018 with 6,028 MW of additional capacity for the year or over 19.5% of the total. It was followed by solar (4,181MW) or 13.5%.  However, new capacity from wind and solar combined in 2018 (10,209 MW) was actually one-quarter less than that added in 2017 (13,601 MW).

FERC's data also reveal that renewable sources now account for 21.0% of total available installed U.S. generating capacity.** Five years ago, renewables were 16.0%. Their total installed generating capacity has increased by 35.6% over the past half-decade (from 185.16 GW to 250.99 GW). Utility-scale solar has now reached 3.0%* of the nation's generating capacity while hydropower and wind account for 8.4% and 7.9% respectively.

Moreover, the same report indicates that proposed generation and retirements over the next three years include net capacity additions by renewable sources of 183,816 MW. That is 4.2 times greater than the net new additions listed for coal, oil, and natural gas combined (43,312 MW).

Net proposed generation additions from wind alone total 97,455 MW while those from solar are 70,902 MW -- each greater than that listed for natural gas (59,900 MW). Within just the past month (i.e., since the release of FERC's November 2018 "Energy Infrastructure Update" report), the amount of net new solar and wind proposed to be added by January 2022 has increased by 9.1% from 154,344 MW to 168,357 MW.

Meanwhile, FERC lists only a single new 17-MW coal unit for the upcoming three-year period but 15,244 MW in retirements. Oil will also decline by 1,361 MW. However, FERC inexplicably lists nuclear power as increasing by 2,090 MW. 

"The dramatic expansion of natural gas capacity in 2018 does not bode well for efforts to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions," concluded Ken Bossong, Executive Director of the SUN DAY Campaign. "However, the continued growth of wind, solar, and other renewables and the probability of a significant increase within the next few years does provide a bit of hope for addressing the worsening perils posed by climate change."

* FERC only reports data for utility-scale facilities (i.e., those rated 1-MW or greater) and therefore its data does not reflect the capacity of distributed renewables, notably rooftop solar PV which - according to the U.S. Energy Information (EIA) - accounts for approximately 30% of the nation's installed solar capacity. That would suggest that solar capacity is now actually 4% or more of the nation's total.

** Capacity is not the same as actual generation. Capacity factors for nuclear power and fossil fuels tend to be higher than those for most renewables. For the first 11 months of 2018, the EIA reports that renewables accounted for a little more than17.6% of the nation's total electrical generation - that is, a bit less than their share of installed generating capacity (almost 21.0%).