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Renewables account for 78% of US’ capacity additions in 2020

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Renewable energy sources (i.e., biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar, wind) strongly dominated new US energy generation capacity additions in 2020, according to the SUN DAY Campaign of data released by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

Combined, renewables accounted for 22,451MW, or more than three-quarters (78.09%) of the 28,751MW of new utility-scale capacity reported to have been added last year.

Wind (13,626MW) and solar (8,543MW) each contributed more new energy generation capacity than did natural gas (6,259 MW).

FERC’s latest monthly “Energy Infrastructure Update” report (with data through December 31, 2020) also reveals that natural gas accounted for 21.77% of the total, with very small contributions by coal (30MW), oil (6MW), and “other” sources (5MW) providing the balance. There were no new capacity additions by nuclear power or geothermal energy during the year.

Wind farms added 5,004MW in December alone and provided nearly half (47.39%) of the new capacity for the year. Solar accounted for 29.71% of new generating capacity. Combined with a small amount of hydropower, wind and solar were the only new sources of new generating capacity during six (June through November) of the twelve months of 2020.

Renewable energy sources now account for 24.06% of the nation’s total available installed generating capacity and continue to expand their lead over coal (19.65%) and nuclear power (8.57%). The generating capacity of just wind (9.83%) is nearly a tenth of the nation’s total, while wind and solar combined account for 14.15%, and that does not include distributed (e.g., rooftop) solar.

For perspective, ten years ago, FERC reported that installed renewable energy generating capacity was 13.71% of the nation’s total. Five years later, it had increased to 17.83%. With current capacity now at 24.06%, renewables now appear to be on track to reach – and likely exceed – 30% of the nation’s total generating capacity by 2025.

In fact, FERC data suggest that renewables’ share of generating capacity is on track to increase significantly over the next three years (i.e., by December 2023).  “High probability” generation capacity additions for wind, minus anticipated retirements, reflect a projected net increase of 21,938MW while solar is foreseen growing by substantially more – 36,691MW. By comparison, net growth for natural gas will be only 17,279MW. Thus, wind and solar combined are forecast to provide more than three times (3.39%) as much new generating capacity as natural gas over the next three years. Hydropower is also projected to experience growth (898 MW), while biomass and geothermal may dip by 217MW and 2MW respectively.

On the other hand, the generating capacities of coal and oil are projected to plummet – by 24,024MW and 4,369MW respectively. In fact, FERC reports no new coal capacity in the pipeline over the next three years and just 5MW of new oil-based capacity. Nuclear power is likewise forecast to drop sharply – by 4,330MW, or more than 4% of its currently operating capacity.

In total, the mix of all renewables will add more than 59,308MW of net new generating capacity to the nation’s total by December 2023 while the net new capacity from natural gas, coal, oil, and nuclear power combined will actually drop by more than 15,400MW.

If FERC’s projections prove accurate, over the next three years, renewable energy generation capacity should account for comfortably more than a quarter of the nation’s total available installed generating capacity – increasing to 27.92%. Meanwhile, coal’s share will drop to 17.07%, nuclear’s to 7.93%, and oil’s to 2.76%. Natural gas’ share will also decline slightly to 44.15%, compared to 44.33% now.

In fact, renewables’ share could – and probably will – be even higher. Over the past 23 months, FERC has been regularly increasing its renewable energy projections in the monthly “Infrastructure” reports. FERC’s first such projection – provided in its March 2019 report – forecast the addition of  36,608MW of wind and solar during the ensuing three years. In its most recent report, those forecasts had grown to 58,629MW of new solar and wind capacity by December 2023.

Moreover, FERC’s data also outline a second – albeit less probable – scenario for even higher net additions by solar (151,199MW) and wind (80,256MW), which would be more than five times those projected for natural gas (43,474MW).

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