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New U.S. Capacity from Renewable Sources Far Outpace Natural Gas

Tom Schueneman's picture

Environmental writer, journalist and web publisher. Founder of

  • Member since 2018
  • 202 items added with 140,043 views
  • May 6, 2016


The first quarter of 2016 is one of lopsided records. First there are the monthly temperature records, with February the most unusually warm on record followed by March, with yet a new record deviation. In the midst of these increasingly worrisome records is another, offering hope that the response to these changing climate patterns is underway.

The latest “Energy Infrastructure Update” report just released by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Office of Energy Projects shows a quarterly record for new US electrical generating capacity from renewables. According to the FERC report, renewable energy sources outstripped natural gas for new capacity brought online in the first three month of 2016 by a factor of 70:1.

Gas, swamped

In total, renewable sources provided 1,291 megawatts (MW) of new generating capacity in the first quarter 2016, while natural gas contributed only 18 MW. No new capacity came from coal, oil or nuclear.

Nine new “units” of wind power provided 707 MW, followed by 44 units of solar for 522 MW, 33 MW from biomass and 29 MW from hydropower. Two new units of natural gas provided the final 18 MW of new capacity for the quarter. In January, solar and wind were the only new sources capacity. In march 100 percent of new capacity came from wind, solar and biomass.

Renewables growing share

Renewable energy sources now account for 18.11 percent of the total available installed U.S. generating capacity. Contrast that to FERC’s first Energy Infrastructure Update report released in December of 2010, when renewable installed capacity stood at just 13.71 percent.

Of the 18.11 percent now available, hydro provides 8.58 percent, wind 6.39 percent, biomass contributes 1.43 percent, solar 1.38 percent and geothermal steam 0.33 percent. The share of non-hydro renewables is now 9.53 percent of total capacity, exceeding that of conventional hydro (8.58%), nuclear (9.17%) or oil (3.83%).

This accelerating trend underscores a tendency among some government forecasters to underestimate the growth of renewable energy.

“While often touted as being a ‘bridge fuel,’ natural gas is increasingly becoming an unnecessary bridge to nowhere,” noted Ken Bossong, Executive Director of the SUN DAY Campaign. “As renewables continue to rapidly expand their share of the nation’s electrical generation, it’s becoming clear that natural gas will eventually join coal, oil, and nuclear power as fuels of the past.”

* 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.

According to the most recent data provided by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, actual net electrical generation from utility-scale renewable energy sources totaled about 14.3 percent of total U.S. electrical production as of January 31, 2016

However, this figure understates renewables’ actual contribution because neither EIA nor FERC fully accounts for all electricity generated by distributed, smaller-scale renewable energy sources such as rooftop solar (e.g., FERC acknowledges that its data just reflect “plants with nameplate capacity of 1 MW or greater”).

The SUN DAY Campaign is a non-profit research and educational organization founded in 1992 to aggressively promote sustainable energy technologies as cost-effective alternatives to nuclear power and fossil fuels.

Image credit: Sandia Labs, courtesy flickr

The post New U.S. Capacity from Renewable Sources Far Outpace Natural Gas appeared first on Global Warming is Real.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 6, 2016

Inconsequential, capacity-factor-challenged, intermittent renewable energy.

Tom, you and EDF need to stop playing the “capacity” card. It might impress People Magazine readers, but here at TEC we’re quite aware that natural gas generation is higher than it’s ever been, it dwarfs all renewables combined, and is only increasing.

Your supposed “bridge” is a destination – but perhaps you knew that already.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on May 7, 2016

The comparison between new nameplate capacity for wind and solar vs. natural gas is misleading. Not so much because it’s nameplate capacity that’s being compared — which others will point out is far greater for wind and solar than what those resources is actually deliver — but because with no discussion of the reasons and the implications, readers are left to draw the wrong conclusions.

The US is currently oversupplied with generating capacity. Whether that’s due to improved energy efficiency or the sorry state of the economy I’ll pass over. One way or the other, in most parts of the country it’s a bad time to be adding new capacity. So the 25x downturn in new gas generating capacity in the first three months of 2016 compared to the first three months of 2015 is no a big surprise.

The more interesting question is why new wind and solar capacity haven’t been similarly affected? But that’s hardly a mystery. And guess what? It has nothing at all to do with the competitive attributes of those systems.

I’m not a tax accountant, but as I understand it, the investment tax credit rebates to the owners 30% of the cost of the facility in the year it opens. So for every $100 of cost, U.S. taxpayers deliver the builder a check for $30. But the way financing works, only $20 of the $100 of cost came out of the pockets of the company to whom that $30 check is written. The other $80 was raised by sale of corporate bonds. The bondholders see nothing of the $30 rebate; all they’re owed is their principle and a modest interest on the bond debt. So in one year, the builder receives full repayment plus $10 profit for the $20 of their own money they put into the project. It’s a marriage made in free-rider heaven between subsidies and leverage.

Oh, and of course for several years following, the builder can claim accelerated depreciation. Just in case they have income elsewhere on which they might otherwise owe taxes. And the revenue from sale of renewable energy? With renewable portfolio standards and “must take” dispatch rules, that should certainly be enough to cover payments to bondholders. And if, through some quirk of mismanagement or corruption it isn’t, well there’s always bankruptcy. It’s easy for corporations to pull off, after transferring assets to shielded entities. Just ask Donal Trump.

In this environment, is it any wonder that there should be a boom in renewable energy capacity? If this were a viable path to getting us off fossil fuels, it might arguably be worth the cost. But it isn’t a viable path. There’s no requirement that the new intermittent capacity be usable in practice. No requirement for energy storage or the ancillary services needed to allow the new capacity to integrate with the grid. Just build the capacity, collect your payoff, and leave the troublesome problems of making it work to others. That’s a strategy guaranteed to break down fairly quickly. When it does, it will trigger a massive backlash against the renewable resources it was intended to support.

Josh Nilsen's picture
Josh Nilsen on May 7, 2016

Your opinions just aren’t valid Bob.

You ONLY favor nukes, you refuse to give any other source of energy a chance and for that you cannot be trusted.

Someone like you was talking about how stupid an idea like the internet was in the late 1980s. Someone like you was talking about how stupid an idea like the automobile was in the 1890s. Someone like you was saying how no one would ever pay 400$ for an ipod when they can buy a CD player.

This is the free market PUNCHING YOU IN THE FACE with facts, you still refuse to accept them.


Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on May 9, 2016

Josh, there are always people on both sides of any issue, so how should we judge which side is correct? What evidence do we really have?

As your free market comment suggest, the market is building a lot of renewable capacity. But the technology being used is not suitable for use at high penetration; it needs fossil fuel for balancing. There is no new pumped-hydro getting built, and the occasional tiny grid-battery demo that is built is not cost competitive with pumped-hydro, thus is even further from viability.

There is simply no reason to believe variable renewables will ever go above 40% of the grid’s total generation. Nations that embrace renewables had better get used to the idea of fossil fuel with CC&S, because that is likely to be the dominant low CO2 emitting energy source for them.

Hans Hyde's picture
Hans Hyde on May 9, 2016

Thank you to some of the comments below, notably by Roger Arnold.

Tom, slicing and dicing data, aka “cherrypicking” to prove your case is not very effective from a pragmatic standpoint that the US is far from becoming renewable energy powered. Working percentages only goes so far especially as new technologies scale. So, although solar deployments measured against themselves seem astronomical currently in the US, they will fall to the same constraints as did wind, each new gigawatt of installed capacity will only incrementally increase wind’s overall capacity and production.

Focusing against nat gas, fails to account for the reality that we surpassed 500 GW of installed capacity last year. Factor in underutilization and nat gas economics, the US nat gas fleet could replace the coal fleet overnight, something neither wind nor solar could say. Every couple weeks, I read of another 1 GW of nat gas capacity authorized, and this is mainly for the Eastern US where new renewable capacity is starkly not matching that of nat gas.

The point being, cherrypicking and cheerleading RE deployments are no guarantee they will replace/displace our fossil/nuclear generation sources, as largely nat gas is taking up this space whether I like it or you like it.

Why the US Energy Space Struggles Instead of Surging…

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on May 10, 2016

The “first three months” of 2016 must have been a fortunate time window to choose for this new capacity comparison.

“The 1,358-MW Brunswick natural gas-fired power plant in Virginia began producing electricity on April 25.”

Briefly surveying US gas plant construction shows at least half a dozen others under construction in the mid-west alone.

And then there is the imminent startup of a single reactor, the 1.4 GW Watts Bar 2 reactor in TN, will likely generate more electricity in a year than all the variable renewable power built in the US over for several years.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on May 10, 2016

From Platts:

New natural gas power plants
In terms of new generation builds, the numbers are staggering. Bentek’s North American Power Plant Databank shows natural gas power plants growing at a rate of 11.8 GW of 2015, 18.6 GW in 2016, 35.9 GW in 2017, and 26.3 GW in 2018. To break these numbers down further: 18.5 GW are under construction, 31.6 GW are in advanced development, 29 GW in early development, and 36 GW planned.
Put simply, North America is planning on building over 90 GW of natural gas generation in over the next four years. …

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on May 10, 2016

Throw in 200GW of solar and wind over next 5-7 years and we should put a good dent into the remaining 200GW of coal capacity.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on May 10, 2016

Joe, you are aware that wind MWh pricing is already increasingly going negative, aware of the increasing duck shape distortion in the CA conventional grid load driven by solar, aware that there is no massive transmission project underway in the 5 to 7 yr time frame. Especially given the new gas capacity already underway and within this context, how do you imagine 200 GW more solar and wind could be justified in that time frame?

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on May 10, 2016

And then there is the imminent startup of a single reactor, the 1.4 GW Watts Bar 2 reactor in TN, will likely generate more electricity in a year than all the variable renewable power built in the US over for several years.


For some reason TVA thinks that Watts Bar 2 is a 1,100MW plant – similar to Watts Bar 1.
“Each unit produces about 1,100 megawatts of electricity”

Plus – last year Watts Bar 1 – according to EIA stats produced 8,449 GWh of electricity

Looking at Y-Y data on wind for the first two months of 2016 vs 2015 the increase in production of electricity was 8,504 GWh.

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on May 10, 2016

Obviously I am not the person who is justifying all of these projects. Each state/utility/region probably has multiple reasons for implementing wind/solar. But here are some potential reasons.

In CA – there is a law requiring the state to move to 50% renewables. Plenty of other states have various renewable standards that have different timescales.

Serving as a hedge against Nat Gas prices – if NG usage grows too quickly then prices will rise. Increased renewables production can help keep NG “flat”. I think TX/OK and Southeast are especially cognizant of this. Huge amount of solar/wind coming online here in next few years. Nat Gas usage in TX/OK will peak in next couple of years if it hasn’t already done so.

Getting a head start on CPP. Won’t get into politics here but some states are moving towards this.

It’s cheaper. In places like Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, etc… wind can lower overall costs. In Southwest – solar can lower overall costs.

Not sure why you think we need large transmission projects. There are plenty of small/medium projects continually occurring. CA and the West(OR,UT,MT,WY,AZ,NM,NV) already have plenty of transmission capacity. As coal imports to CA from UT,NM,AZ are shutdown there will be plenty of room on these lines. Same goes for MT exports to OR,WA. TX/OK can build a lot more solar/wind. There are huge opportunities in FL and the SouthEast for solar to replace coal etc…

I am sure you are aware of the one huge transmission project the Clean Power Line has been approved and according to linked article will be in usage by 2020.

By the way, I actually think we may be moving too fast in implementing renewables but then again CO2 emissions are cumulative and declines today do matter.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on May 10, 2016

What you describe is a plausible for 10, 20, optimistically 50 GW of solar and wind in the US over 5 to 7 years, not 200 GW, as the cost of curtailed power will become significant at that level. States like CA have made decrees before. Funding them is another matter.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on May 10, 2016

” Nat Gas usage in TX/OK will peak in next couple of years if it hasn’t already done so.”

Next couple of *decades* perhaps.
“Texas 3,400 MW, gas-fired power plant moves forward”

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on May 11, 2016

There are at least 20GW of solar/wind under construction right now… to be finished by EOY. We’ll see how the curtailed power plays out…

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on May 11, 2016

We’ll see. Plenty of coal to eliminate in TX so obviously this prediction will be tough.

Here are current plans for wind in TX.

Here are current ERCOT plans for solar. Just getting started. Solar can share same transmission lines as wind. Within a few years solar will bypass wind in yearly installations in X.

By the way, here is a new gas turbine model that will replace many older peakers in TX.

Finally, early in the year, but 2016 – thru March – is looking pretty good for my prediction. Both coal and Nat Gas down vs. 2015.

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on May 11, 2016

“Comment awaiting moderation”

Does anyone have any idea what determines whether a comment “qualifies” for moderation? I have been getting these frequently lately and the time gap before approval disrupts conversations.

For instance I just added a reply to Mark’s comment above and it is now awaiting approval… which probably won’t happen till at least tomorrow.

Seems to happen for 1 out of every 3 comments.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on May 11, 2016

Url embedded in the post I believe trips the moderation filter for purposes of catching spam etc

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on May 12, 2016

You’ve still given us no reason to believe that Texas is heading for anything higher than 40% combined penetration for wind & solar, which will be impressive growth from their 10% value for 2015 (actually, I’ll stick with 40% max for the US, but 50% max for Texas and the rest of the wind belt, lest Clayton remind us of the excellent wind resources therein).

For the about same cost, we could have 80% clean electricity using nuclear+solar+hydro. So the wind-first approach is likely to have 3x the fossil fuel use, plus have a larger coal-fraction (due to higher fossil fuel capacity factor).

GE’s new gas-fired generator which you’ve linked above, at 49% efficient is impressive (although it’s actually a 9 MW turbo-charged piston engine targeted at combined-heat&power rather than a utility-scale gas turbine; pistons are much more expensive per Watt). I guess GE doesn’t believe that fossil fuel is going out of style.

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on May 13, 2016

I have been keeping an eye out but I haven’t seen any nuclear projects that might go live in TX over the next 15 years. Do you have something I’m missing?

I think SMRs might work in TX by 2030s – good complement to the wind/solar market there. In the meantime wind/solar will eliminate most if not all of the coal usage in TX.

Wind/solar will be a 60% in TX by 2030 with about 30% Nat Gas and coal will be less than 10%.

Tom Schueneman's picture
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