Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Record Amounts of New Renewable Capacity Are Being Added

Solar array on a Massachusetts landfill. (Massachusetts Dept. of Environmental Protection ( CC-BY-SA 2.0. (

George Harvey

Both in the United States and in the rest of the world, record amounts of renewable capacity are coming online. There were still increases in carbon emissions in 2021, including from coal-burning power plants, but that was largely because of the economic rebound from restrictions related to Covid-19.

For the first time, over 10% of the electricity generated worldwide was from solar and wind power, according to research from the U.K. think tank Ember (). Fifty countries got more than 10% of their electricity from solar and wind, and these include most of those that use a lot of power. The U.S., Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile are on that list, as are all of the countries in western Europe except France, which is heavily dependent on nuclear power, and Norway, which is heavily dependent on hydro-electric power. China is on the list, as are Japan and Australia.

Fossil fuels and nuclear

Since the boom in fracking, use of natural gas has increased rapidly in the U.S. There are some important points that have to be made about that fact, however. One is that natural gas use has largely displaced the use of coal. Another is that the growth in use of natural gas may already have peaked. New natural gas plants are not coming online as fast as they did two years ago, and with old gas plants retiring, the capacity is not increasing by much at all. According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) 20,571 megawatts (MW) of natural gas generating capacity were added in 2018, but the amount fell each year to 5,489 in 2021. So far this year, barely any natural gas capacity has been added in the U.S. FERC’s data on generating capacity can be found on a month-by-month basis at under the Energy Infrastructure column.

In terms of percentage of generated output, natural gas has not increased much at all despite its growth, going from 44.11% in 2018 to 44.16% in 2021. The reason for this is that huge amounts of solar and wind power have been added each year, and though natural gas use has increased, it has not changed much as a percentage of the total. Also, since consumption of natural gas is no longer growing quickly, and use of coal has declined, from 22.23% in 2018 to 18.49% in 2021, the consumption of fossil fuels has been falling overall. Nevertheless, there was a recovery in the amount of energy produced from fossil fuels in 2021, as the economy increased after the 2020 slowdown and demand for energy increased. Data on generating electricity comes from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) and can be found at .

We might note that the data from the EIA shows that the output of U.S. nuclear plants has been falling slowly, as reactors have been shut down. Also, hydropower depends on weather, going up in wet years and down in droughts, but it is not growing or declining much.

Renewable energy

Wind power accounted for 7.94% of our electricity in 2018, but it has been growing quickly. It surpassed both hydropower and nuclear in 2020 and produced 10.68% of our electricity in 2021. Wind capacity rose from 94.95 GW in 2018 to 130 GW in 2021, for a growth rate of nearly 12% per year over three years.

It is solar power that really stood out over the time, however. In 2018, the U.S. solar power capacity was 35.82 GW; that rose to 67.78 GW in 2021. That is an annual growth rate of a bit over 23%. (Please note that we are only counting utility-scale installations, and the actual figures for solar power might be 40% higher when smaller systems are included.) The percent of our capacity that was utility-scale solar rose from 2.99% to 5.44% over the three years of 2018 to 2021.

All forms of utility-scale renewable electricity production increased in 2021 with the single exception of hydroelectric power, which has declined due to the drought in the West. EIA data shows that for the first quarter of each year, solar power increased from 16,370 megawatt-hours (MWh) in 2020 to 21,410 MWh in 2021, and 29,097 in 2022. The EIA estimates of solar power for the first quarter of each year with smaller systems included shows an increase from 24,252 MWh in 2020 to 30,696 MWh in 2021 and 40,522 MWh in 2022.

We received a note on installations in the U.S. for the first quarter of 2022 from the SUN DAY Campaign at the end of May. According to SUN DAY, 97.4% of all electric generation additions made in the first quarter of 2022 were renewable resources. Also, 24.4% of the electricity generated in the first quarter came from renewable resources. Both of these figures are new records ().

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