December 6, 2016

Renewable Energy in US Gained 24 Percent Through First Nine Months of 2016

The U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) on Nov. 29 released electric generation statistics through the end of September 2016. Generation from geothermal, solar, and wind energy increased by 24 percent compared with the first nine months of 2015. Non-hydro renewable energy, including biomass, has made up 8.5 percent of U.S. electric generation thus far in 2016.

Overall, renewable energy sources, including hydro-electric power, made up 15.1 percent of total U.S. electric generation through the first nine months of 2016. This is down from 16.9 percent during the first half of 2016 (with 9.2 percent from non-hydro renewables), but still far ahead of 2015. Non-hydro renewable energy is still expected to be over 9 percent of total generation by the end of the year, up from 7.6 percent in 2015.

Through the first nine months of 2016, total power generation in the U.S. is down by roughly one half percent, while consumption is down by about 1 percent, most significantly from the industrial sector. This has enabled renewables to gain a significant market share.

Coal generation had been floundering through the first half of 2016, down by over 20 percent compared with the first half of 2015. Coal has since made up some ground, but is still down over 13 percent compared with the first nine months of 2015. Even though the new administration has promised to revive the coal industry in the years ahead, the numbers don’t paint a positive picture.

Non-hydro renewable energy is still expected to be over 9 percent of total generation by the end of the year, up from 7.6 percent in 2015.

In addition to a 13 percent drop in generation, over 6.5 GW of coal-fired capacity has already been retired thus far in 2016. Several states are transitioning out of coal in years to come. Coal-fired electric generation in New England dropped by nearly half compared with last year. After coal-generation dropped by 14 percent between 2014 and 2015, there hasn’t been a rebound. Only five out of the 48 states that generate coal had coal generation increase this year; only two states (Hawaii and South Dakota) have had a significant recovery.

Natural gas generation is up 7.4 percent thus far in 2016 and has made up roughly 35 percent of electric generation. In 2015 it was 33 percent of total generation, and in 2014 it was less than 28 percent. Interestingly, this year's increase has not been driven by the three largest natural gas generating states: California, Florida, and Texas. Florida's natural gas generation is up by less than 5 percent, Texas natural gas generation has dropped slightly, and California’s natural gas generation is down by 15 percent.

Nuclear power generation is at about the same level as 2015; slightly less than a fifth of U.S. electric generation. Tennessee is starting to see an increase since the Watts Bar 2 plant reached commercial operations this summer, while Nebraska will see a significant reduction after shutting down one of its two nuclear plants last month. 

Renewable energy is growing everywhere, but clearly California’s renewable energy industry is the most robust. Biomass, geothermal, solar, and wind made up 29.4 percent of total generation thus far in 2016; up from 26.1 percent through the first nine months of 2015. It was only 13.8 percent just five years ago. 44 percent of California’s generation has been from hydro and renewables so far this year (hydro-electric generation has doubled compared with last year). This compares with 33.5 percent during the first nine months of 2015. Generation from solar, including distributed solar, was 13.6 percent of California’s generation through September. 

But while California is the king of renewable energy in the West, other states are making tremendous progress. For example, Utah increased generation from geothermal, solar, and wind energy from approximately 2.7 percent of total generation during the first nine months of 2015 to 5.8 percent through the first nine months of 2016.

During that time, New Mexico doubled its generation from wind power, which is now about 11 percent of total generation. Nevada has increased geothermal generation by over 25 percent compared with 2015. Geothermal generation in Nevada has tripled in the last 11 years.

Elsewhere in the country, Texas wind generation is up over 12 percent of total generation. It’s neighbor Oklahoma is double that, at 24 percent of total generation. Kansas is 28 percent. Iowa is 33.8 percent.

Meanwhile, in the Southeastern U.S., Georgia has quadrupled solar generation compared with the first nine months of 2015. In North Carolina, it has nearly tripled. During September of 2016, North Carolina connected on average two new solar plants to the grid each week. The Tarheel State is now ranked third behind California and Arizona for total generation from solar energy.

Solar continues to grow throughout the U.S. with 45 out of 50 states increasing generation by over 20 percent compared with the first nine months of 2015. Half of all U.S. states increased solar generation by more than 50 percent.

Quietly, geothermal is on track for its best year ever. Geothermal generation is on pace to generate over 17,000 GWh this year; an industry record and still the most any country has ever generated in one year. 

The U.S. renewables market continues to be one of the strongest worldwide, even when compared with developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Europe continues to struggle, with some countries expected to barely add any new renewable energy capacity this year.

The U.S. is expected to continue growing into 2017. With thousands of MW of new solar and wind projects reaching commercial operation in Q416 or during the first half of 2017, non-hydro renewables will likely exceed 10 percent of all U.S. generation next year, nearly double its contribution just five years ago. It could rise to over 15 percent by 2020.

These numbers indicate the strength of the U.S. renewable energy market and the results achieved should send notice to lawmakers to continue their support in the next Congress.

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