Near-term future for renewable electricity

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U.S. Department of Energy/Caithness Energy: Shepherds Flat Wind Farm near Arlington, Oregon.

AUSTIN, May 19, 2014 — The United States is in the midst of a golden era for renewable electric power growth, especially wind and solar. Wind farms spring up like mushrooms. Solar farms pepper the southwestern deserts. The latest renewable trend is rooftop solar for homes and businesses.

What is the future of renewable electricity given today’s burgeoning growth?

The surprising answer is found in an exceptionally revealing new graph showing electric capacity additions by fuel type for the United States from 2013-2040.


READ ALSO: Do we really cause global warming?



The graph, Figure MT-31, is from the U.S. Energy Information Administration “Annual Energy Outlook for 2014” just released earlier this month. The relevant section of the report is titled, “Market Trends: Electricity demand“.

EIA: Projected new electric generating capacity additions by fuel type from 2013-2040
EIA: Projected new electric generating capacity by fuel type from 2013-2040

This one graph outlines a remarkably comprehensive overview of the long-term future for electric energy growth in the United States through 2040 and beyond.

Pertinent highlights:

  • New coal-fired electricity virtually disappears after 2015
  • Natural gas and renewables account for 97% of new growth
  • Natural gas will provide 73% of the new capacity
  • After plummeting, renewables begin steady growth after 2025
  • Nuclear kicks in 3% to the mix

Considered in total, what does this EIA projection mean?

Coal

We are seeing the end for new coal-fired electric plants after 2015.

Except for a federal investment in clean coal and one unsubsidized coal plant, no new large coal plants are scheduled to be built, according to EIA data.

CCS technical glitches and cost overruns are proving that low-emission coal is not cost effective. No utility-scale CCS coal plant has ever went into commercial service. Few will.

New MATS emission regulations that take full effect this year and next are already enough to kill coal. Soon-to-be approved carbon dioxide emission standards will seal coal’s fate.

EIA says most coal plants scheduled for retirement will be replaced by natural gas.

Renewables

For now, renewables are king of the electric energy hill. From 2013-2015 they’ll supply far more new capacity than all other electric energy types combined, including fossils. After 2015, though, new utility-scale renewable electric construction falls like a wounded bird from the sky!

By 2020-2025 there will be only 1/6th the growth of new renewable capacity in a 5-year period than in the 3-year period from 2013-2015. That’s a big drop, driven by the end of various federal and state subsidy programs.


READ ALSO: Lights out for solar power after 2015


Worst yet, the graph only shows nameplate capacity growth. The amount of usable electricity per megawatt of nameplate capacity for onshore wind (35%) and solar PV (25%) is only about 1/3rd that of base load natural gas (87%).

From 2013-2015, renewables will supply 30 percent of all new capacity and natural gas only 16 percent. Yet, because of its high capacity factor, natural gas will still supply much more new usable electricity than all renewables combined.

The turning point for green energy comes after 2025. Renewables begin a steady increase in new capacity that will continue through 2040 and beyond. Solar will lead the way, says the EIA.

Sometime after 2040 renewables will finally become the dominant supplier of new U.S. electric capacity. In Figure MT-31, if the drop rate for natural gas and growth rate for renewables after 2025 remain linear then the crossover for new capacity looks to happen around 2060.

Renewables will eventually replace fossil fuels in the decades that follow.

EIA: Total projected U.S. electricity production by fuel type, 1990-2040
EIA: Total projected U.S. electricity production by fuel type, 1990-2040

EIA projects about 20 percent growth in electric usage between now and 2040. Renewables will provide some of that, but most will come from natural gas.

Coal’s uncertain future calls into question whether it will maintain its share of electric production as projected. Any decreases in coal will be filled in by natural gas and renewables. Figure MT-31 shows small reactor nuclear plants of the future may contribute after 2040.

Natural Gas

Natural gas is the key crossover fuel leading the United States into an inevitable renewable electric energy future, sometime after 2060.

EIA projects that 73 percent of all new capacity brought online from 2013-2040 will be natural gas. Given its high 87 percent capacity factor compared to renewables, it’s a far bigger contribution than even 73 percent sounds. Mostly, it provides new capacity and replaces retiring coal-fired plants, according to the EIA.

Wind and solar, the dominant electric renewables, require natural gas peaker plant backup to meet critical peak demand needs. Renewables combined with natural gas are the dynamite combination to take the United States into a sustainable future.

Natural gas has already lowered overall U.S. CO2 emissions. Combined with renewables, emissions will decline faster.

Conclusions

After 2015, renewable electric energy has a bleak short-term future, but a very bright long-term one.

Economics will determine the future direction for U.S. electric energy. Government environmental policy will play an important role, for sure, but not a dominant one.

Figure MT-31 demonstrates that principle in action. It shows new renewable capacity drops to 1/6th today’s high growth rate after government subsidies dry up. Then later, after 2025, it finally becomes cost competitive without subsidies. After that renewable electric grows while fossil fuels slowly decline towards the end of the century.

For now, the unprecedented rise of clean-burning natural gas has changed everything.

It’s the cheapest, most plentiful electric energy source there is and will remain so for a long time to come. That is why 73 percent of all new generating capacity added between now and 2040 will be natural gas.

From a policy standpoint, governments should strongly leverage the advantages of natural gas while nurturing renewables until they are ready for prime time. It’ll steadily reduce unwanted emissions, too.

It’s the smart thing to do, but nobody ever accused governments of being smart.

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  • Steve Davidson

    Further evidence that renewables face a bleak near-term future before they begin to flourish again after 2025 comes from a different EIA dataset.

    The EIA tracks and reports on all new power plants actually scheduled to be opened. They are grouped by energy type and year.

    Google “Table 4.5. Planned Generating Capacity Changes, by Energy Source, 2013-2017” to see their current results.

    Solar peaked at 3,460MW of new nameplate capacity from 44 new plants in 2013, but dribbles down to just one 200MW plant in 2017.

    Wind is worse off. It’s scheduled to add 2,509MW of new capacity from 28 wind farms this year (2014), but trails off to ZERO new capacity in 2017.

    Natural gas, on the other hand, adds 34,000MW of new capacity between now and 2017, roughly twice that of all renewables combined. It’s 87% capacity factor means it could add roughly 6 times more usable electricity than wind and solar combined.

    EIA doesn’t track rooftop solar which is a booming business these days. That will add to the renewable total, but just how much isn’t accurately quantified as far as I can find.

  • Elop Dev

    The term “rule of law” is used to describe rules, such as those defined in the United States’ Constitution, designed to preserve liberty by placing limits upon centralized government’s power to coerce and control.

  • Frank’s Inatra

    If we cannot estimate the value of the efforts we’re considering, we have little choice but to depend upon others to direct our way ahead.

    • Steve Davidson

      Therein lies the rub… there are those among us who would lead us by the nose to what they think is best for us, no matter how much it costs us.

      Every American is directly affected by energy policy and it is up to us, as a citizenry, to chart our own path and not allow elected officials chart that path for us. We really need to understand the issue for ourselves in order to tell our elected representatives what to do.

  • Jasmine An’deez

    Liberty and free markets free us from the shackles of collective agreement that bound bands of our ancestors to their primitive instincts.

    • Steve Davidson

      If you are suggesting free markets should be allowed to operate and let the chips fall where they may, then that makes for sound energy policy.

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