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Wind and solar are losing ground to gas

David Wojick, Ph.D.'s picture
Founder ClimateChangeDebate.org

Independent expert on the interface between science, technology and Federal policy. Projects include research, complex issue analysis and writing. Former faculty Carnegie Mellon, also Senior...

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The subsidies that never die — for wind and solar power — are back. With Christmas coming on the Lame Duck Congress elected to throw untold additional billions at renewables.

What is amusing is that gas-fired power generation, a fossil fuel with no subsidy, is still growing faster than wind and solar. Far from taking over, wind and solar are actually losing ground to fossil fuels in the American power capacity mix.

The last year we have comprehensive construction data for is 2018, from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. This was a good year to use because there was a bit of a race on to build renewables before the subsidies stopped, which they were then scheduled to do. (Unfortunately, due to the Lame Ducks this is no longer true.)

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First we will look at the basic numbers, followed by some interesting factors. We are talking about what is called electric power generating capacity, which is measured in megawatts or MW for short. This is the ability to generate a million watts of juice. A large power plant may run around 600 MW.

For starters, in 2018 we built about 19,000 MW of gas fired generators, 9,000 MW of wind powered and 7,000 MW of utility scale solar. (So-called “behind the meter” typically tiny solar is not included.)

So right away we built more gas, at 19,000 MW than the 16,000 MW of renewables. Thus wind and solar’s fraction of America’s generating capacity actually went down, not up. Renewables lost ground.

But this is just the tip of the difference. These numbers are just what the generators can produce under ideal conditions, which is called “nameplate capacity”.

For solar these ideal conditions are basically a clear sky, with the sun overhead and no snow or dirt, etc., on the collector. For wind they are typically a sustained air flow exceeding 30 miles per hour or so. Note that these crucial conditions do not occur all that often.

This is why wind and solar are called “intermittent”, because they frequently produce far less power than their nameplate capacity; often they produce none at all. In contrast, gas fired power runs most of the time, although it does need a certain amount of downtime for maintenance.

The difference between actual power generation and nameplate is called the “capacity factor” or CF for the generator. The typical capacity factors for different generating technologies are pretty well known, although they can vary from machine to machine.

To be generous to renewables, let’s say that solar has a CF of 15% and wind 40%. (The standard numbers are lower.) Gas easily has 80%. Applying these factors to our construction numbers gives the following actual generating capacities:

Gas: 19,000 x 0.8 = 15,200 MW

Wind: 9,000 x 0.4 = 3,600 MW

Solar: 7,000 x 0.15 = 1,050 MW

So our new gas capacity is around 15,200 MW while new renewables are just 4,650 MW, which is 31% or less than a third as much actual generating capacity.

Put another way, America increased its fossil fuel generating capacity by three times as much as it did for renewables. Clearly renewables are falling behind fossil fuels, and by a lot.

Nor is 2018 unique. Looking at the six years 2013 thru 2018, in every case the actual generating capacity (including CF) added for gas fired generation has exceeded that for wind plus solar. Renewables never gain ground over fossil fueled power, they always lose it.

Then there are grid scale battery systems, which are supposed to someday provide our juice when the intermittent renewables do not do so. Total capacity added in 2018 was around 200 MW, or basically nothing. Same for the prior years.

At this point batteries are just a specialized tiny contrivance used to maintain grid stability. Ironically this need has arisen because of the unpredictably erratic nature of wind and solar generation. As actual power supply systems, batteries do not yet exist, and may never exist because they are very expensive.

America is not moving toward wind and solar for power generation; we are actually moving away from renewables. You would never know this listening to the press and the politicians.

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 1, 2021

"What is amusing is that gas-fired power generation, a fossil fuel with no subsidy, is still growing faster than wind and solar. Far from taking over, wind and solar are actually losing ground to fossil fuels in the American power capacity mix."

Bravo - can't be emphasized enough, David. The only valid purpose "renewables" are serving is guaranteeing dirty, gas-fired generation an unlimited future.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 4, 2021

Looking at EIA's data for 2018 to 2019 to 2020 to 2021 (obviously including forecasts), I see:

Natural gas growing 112 billion kWh in 2019, 32 bkWh in 2020, and dropping 207 bkWh in 2021 (ending 2021 at a lower point than 2018)

Coal dropping 180 bkWh in 2019, 191 bkWh in 2020, and growing 176 bkWh in 2021 (ending 2021 at a lower point than 2018)

Renewable energy growing 22 bkWh in 2019, 59 bkWh in 2020, and 77 bkWh in 2021 (ending 2021 at a higher point than 2018)

In absolute terms, it's still of course a fossil dominated grid, But looking at the trends and who's gaining or losing ground, I wouldn't say it's so easy to say that renewables are losing ground-- if anything, they're gaining ground but just at too slow of a rate

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 4, 2021

If 1) natural gas is gaining ground faster than renewables, and 2) there's no evidence that won't continue indefinitely - renewables are going backwards.

OT, does EIA actually measure energy in units of  bkWh (billion kilowatthours) instead of TWh (terawatthours)? Kinda like saying my desktop computer, instead of 1 TB of memory storage, has 1 bkB ("1 billion kilobytes")...

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 4, 2021

If 1) natural gas is gaining ground faster than renewables, and 2) there's no evidence that won't continue indefinitely - renewables are going backwards

Of course using past trends to predict future results will also be subject to uncertainty, but the numbers I cited showed gas growing faster than renewables in 2019 and slower in 2020 and 2021. So in this small sample size (which includes uncertain predictions for 2021), renewables can thus be labeled as not going backwards

OT, does EIA actually measure energy in units of  bkWh (billion kilowatthours) instead of TWh (terawatthours)? Kinda like saying my desktop computer, instead of 1 TB of memory storage, has 1 bkB ("1 billion kilobytes")...

It does seem to be a standard unit that they use-- here's another example: "In 2019, about 4,127 billion kilowatthours (kWh) (or about 4.13 trillion kWh) of electricity were generated at utility-scale electricity generation facilities in the United States."

My guess would be that given these are equivalent, that they're trying to make the data at least slightly more 'accessible' to non-experts who will recognize that their utility bills are in kWh? Can't find any definitive explanation on EIA's site though

Daniel Duggan's picture
Daniel Duggan on Jan 5, 2021

You have to love statistics, there’s something in there for everyone, always a positive angle to be found, no matter the point of view held.

Here’s my take; more gas generation was commissioned, but how much was decommissioned?   The total installed base will not have increased by the amount of new build, but by the delta.

Availability of 80% for gas, 40% wind and 15% solar is over-generous to wind & solar and must include a lot of old end of life gas turbines which don’t receive proper maintenance.  For new build gas I’d go with a minimum of 88% availability, and a lot more when it’s a peaking unit which runs few hours and requires little annual maintenance.  28% load factor is reasonable for onshore wind, and 13% for solar.

Dispatchability is the other factor.  When not on a rare planned maintenance shut-down the gas plant can be dispatched virtually 100% of the periods required and can maximise income by running on full load at peak times.  In contrast wind and solar cannot be depended-upon to be available when needed, and often, output is available at a time of low demand and low prices, sometimes no demand and negative pricing.  That and the huge cost of grid stabilization and back-up dispatchable generation is why variable renewables cannot operate without subsidy.  Is an never-ending RE subsidy a good investment?  Our governments believe so, should we not trust them?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 6, 2021

Matt, among the many excellent points Daniel raises is the following:

"You have to love statistics, there’s something in there for everyone, always a positive angle to be found..."

A paraphrase of Mark Twain's "there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."

"...but the numbers I cited showed gas growing faster than renewables in 2019 and slower in 2020 and 2021."

To gild the wilted lily of their accomplishments, Church of Renewables congregants often cite percentage increases for wind and solar, or increases in capacity.

Both statistics artificially inflate their value: 1) A "200% increase" in generation that was next-to-nothing, remains next-to-nothing. And 2) increased capacity only reveals investors are mining public perception for value which may be non-existent. Plastering the landscape with solar or wind farms will never make the sun shine at night, or the wind always blow.

I'll add that solar and wind might be good investments for those who believe 2020's global pandemic will continue indefinitely, for a world where economic development remains at a standstill. But I'm not that cynical.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 6, 2021

Both statistics artificially inflate their value: 1) A "200% increase" in generation that was next-to-nothing, remains next-to-nothing. And 2) increased capacity only reveals investors are mining public perception for value which may be non-existent. Plastering the landscape with solar or wind farms will never make the sun shine at night, or the wind always blow.

My comment did neither of those. I pointed out that the generation (not capacity) of renewables grew more over the past few years than the generation of natural gas in absolute terms rather than percentage. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 6, 2021

Not even close. From 2017-2019 gas generation is up 290 TW.

Solar (29 TW) and wind (45 TW) are up 74 TW. Natural gas generation grew 291% faster than wind and solar:

EIA's data browser doesn't yet offer data for 2020, but I understand renewable generation grew faster than gas last year. That I can believe. If you can show me wind and solar grew 291% in 2020, my humble apologies.

For planning purposes, however, do we assume the economy will remain crippled by COVID-19? As I wrote earlier, I'm not that cynical.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 6, 2021

Reiterating my original comment:

Looking at EIA's data for 2018 to 2019 to 2020 to 2021 (obviously including forecasts), I see:

Natural gas growing 112 billion kWh in 2019, 32 bkWh in 2020, and dropping 207 bkWh in 2021 (ending 2021 at a lower point than 2018)

Coal dropping 180 bkWh in 2019, 191 bkWh in 2020, and growing 176 bkWh in 2021 (ending 2021 at a lower point than 2018)

Renewable energy growing 22 bkWh in 2019, 59 bkWh in 2020, and 77 bkWh in 2021 (ending 2021 at a higher point than 2018)

And the data that goes with that, showing an absolute (not percentage) forecast growth in total renewables from 2018 to 2021 (158 bkWh) that outpaces the total growth of natural gas over that same time period (-63 bkWh) as well as the growth in coal (-195 bkWh): https://www.eia.gov/outlooks/steo/data/browser/#/?v=22&f=A&s=0&start=2016&end=2021&map=&linechart=NGEPGEN_US~RTEPGEN_US~CLEPGEN_US&maptype=0&ctype=linechart

Again, I stated I recognize it's always shaky when you're looking at forecasts of future numbers, even just one year into the future, but I shared that data with the statement that: 

In absolute terms, it's still of course a fossil dominated grid, But looking at the trends and who's gaining or losing ground, I wouldn't say it's so easy to say that renewables are losing ground-- if anything, they're gaining ground but just at too slow of a rate

I think my tempered conclusion there is pretty fairly backed up by the data. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 7, 2021

Matt, you're looking at 2021 through a microscope. As coal is replaced by gas, renewables are taking none of its market share. They've become its lifeblood:

Benjamin Cross's picture
Benjamin Cross on Jan 5, 2021

We are rapidly "diversifying" to natural gas with more renewables being added that need backup while we shutdown coal and nuclear plants. We really should be integrating a diverse set of energy resources to optimize efficiency and achieve sustainability with minimum environmental impact. Like with your financial portfolio, integrating diversity creates predictability and stability which is what we really needed instead of all the uncertainty, unpredictability and instability that drive up costs. We are developing excess capacity and creating stranded assets. Remember, at least as engineers, we are supposed to be improving overall efficiency, reliability, availability, affordability, and resilience. Also remember, from an energy perspective, our goal is not to create more jobs it is to create more low cost energy that can create the jobs. 

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 5, 2021

Remember, at least as engineers, we are supposed to be improving overall efficiency, reliability, availability, affordability, and resilience. Also remember, from an energy perspective, our goal is not to create more jobs it is to create more low cost energy that can create the jobs. 

Well said, Benjamin. Though of course the goal of reducing carbon intensity of the grid (however that is achieved-- there are clearly many different approaches and strategies to get there as this conversation demonstrates) is becoming a critical pillar priority as well. 

Gene Nelson's picture
Gene Nelson on Jan 5, 2021

Well stated, David!  You raise some of the points Californians for Green Nuclear Power, Inc. (website at CGNP dot org )has been raising in their filings since 2016  before the California Public Utilities Commission, the California Energy Commission, the California Independent System Operator and now, before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in docket   EL21-13.  CGNP's statistics show for the half year ending January 31, 2107, the capacity factor for California solar and California wind were very close to 20%. That means that natural gas firms California solar and California wind at about 80%. It gets worse. Because the fossil-fired generation is dispatched (turned on and off) intermittently, the result is much lower efficiency for the fossil-fired generation (i.e. greater emissions.)  The likely reason those taxpayer-funded subsidies for solar and wind never go away is the deep pockets of the fossil fuel interests that benefit from this form of centrally-planned inefficiency and complexity. (Fossil fuel interests are aggressive lobbyists at all levels of government. )  The background is found in a August 11, 2016 Washington Post article by Chris Mooney that may be located by searching for its title, "Turns Out Wind and Solar Have a Secret Friend : Natural Gas."  Searching for the phrase "Natural Gas Complements Renewables"  reveals additional relevant information, such as the two-page backgrounder from INGAA, the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, a trade group based in Washington, DC. Note also the INGAA press release from June 18, 2018 titled, "U.S., Canada to require $800 billion in natural gas, oil and NGL infrastructure investment." The press release discloses these natural gas interests expect 16 gigawatts (16,000 MW) of nuclear plant retirements by 2035. These special interests have been lobbying to support the goal of US nuclear plant retirements to expand the market for natural gas-fired generation for well over a decade. This substitution of unsafe (recall PG&E's San Bruno Natural Gas Pipeline Explosion on September 9, 2010) dispatchable highly-emitting and less-economical natural gas for safe, dispatchable and economical zero-emissions nuclear power will result in substantial emissions increases associated with this huge increase in natural gas fired generation - with significant societal harms.

Tim Burrows's picture
Tim Burrows on Jan 5, 2021

David, who is claiming that renewable generation capacity is growing more quickly than natural gas generation capacity?

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Jan 6, 2021

It´s amazing that the article never once mentions either coal or nuclear.  Yet, the title portrays renewables as losing out to natural gas. Yes, statistics are used to tell some strange stories.

This graphic portrays a more nuanced view of the ebb and flow of energy sources in the US since 1949. The author of this article and graphic is certainly no fan of wind and solar.  But even he suggests that the increase in the use of gas is due to “…oceans of shale gas were accessed for the first time in shale rock formations with revolutionary drilling and extraction technologies (hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling) and its share quickly surpassed coal for the first time in 2016."

After running the graphic once or twice, and if you insist on making this something of a horse race, who is to say that nuclear did not “lose ground” to renewables, or that coal did not “lose ground” to natural gas?  And maybe hydro is “losing ground” to wind and solar! 

Regardless, the following are true:

1. Since non-hydro renewables, namely solar and wind, came on the scene in a significant way in about 2000, they have only increased, and more rapidly in recent years. 

2. Coal and petroleum have decreased since 2010 and 1977, respectively.

3. Nuclear peaked in 2001, and has slightly decreased since then.

As for prognostications, I think it is safe to say that for the next few years, renewables will continue to increase. 

After that, who knows?

I believe the correct word for describing your analysis is “sophistry”. From Merriam Webster: “Sophistry is reasoning that seems plausible on a superficial level but is actually unsound, or reasoning that is used to deceive.”  Or, just BS.

 

 

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 7, 2021

"Nuclear peaked in 2001, and has slightly decreased since then."

U.S. nuclear set a record in 2019, producing 809 TWh. That's 84% more clean electricity than all renewables combined (439 TWh).

Gene Nelson's picture
Gene Nelson on Jan 7, 2021

Bob: Please use the EIA data browser to show nuclear power's annual production trends.  Thanks!

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