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Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Renewables Rule and Solar Shines Brightest

George Harvey

A field of solar arrays. (American Public Power Association, Unsplash, www.bit.ly/39tXZGP)

In its last issue, Green Energy Times had an article, “EIA Projects Huge Decline for Natural Gas Generation” (www.bit.ly/EIA-gas-decline). With new information from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), we can say more about that and the implications for renewable energy.

It is now pretty clear that we have hit a turning point. Data from FERC for the year 2020 was released in February, and when we compare capacity installations for 2020 with those of 2019, we see a remarkable change. The monthly data can be viewed by going to www.bit.ly/FERC-staff-reports and clicking on Energy Infrastructure.

Additions of solar and wind capacity together were up 40% in 2020, compared to 2019. In 2020, there were 22,169 megawatts (MW) of solar and wind capacity installed, compared to 15,869 MW of new capacity in 2019.

Additions of natural gas capacity were down 38.5% in 2020 from 2019. They fell from 10,185 MW in 2019 to 6,159 MW in 2020.

In absolute terms, natural gas capacity grew in 2020 but not as fast as the capacity of the grid as a whole. The difference was great enough that the percentage of our electricity that was generated from natural gas actually fell. In 2019, natural gas provided 44.67% of our electricity, but in 2020, it provided 44.33%.

The fall of coal is continuing. In 2019, it was 20.89% of our generating capacity, and for 2020, that had fallen to 19.65%. This may not seem like much of a decline, given the various news pieces we have seen about coal-burning power plants falling out of use, but we should note that the decline in capacity is happening at a time when coal’s capacity factor is also declining. And in fact, it has fallen to below 50%. In plain language, this means that we have fewer coal-burning power plants, and the ones we do have are being used less than they had been.

When we combine coal and natural gas, we find that the total generating capacity of the two has fallen about 1%. With lower capacity factors, electricity generated by these two sources fell more than that. Oil-fired capacity declined last year marginally. The same is true for nuclear power. Nothing in fossil fuels and nuclear power has a growing market share, and the only one growing in absolute terms, natural gas, is doing so in rapidly declining amounts.

The decline of natural gas is also the subject of an Energy Information Administration (EIA) report in January, which sees 6,600 MW of new natural gas capacity added in 2021 (www.bit.ly/EIA-forecast-2021). This was reported in G.E.T., as we noted above. However, the latest FERC report, cited above, anticipates 9,092 MW retired over the next three years, so it may be that the net additions of natural gas this year would be about 3,600 MW.

While the FERC report said 8,543 MW of new solar capacity was added in 2020, the report from the EIA in January anticipates 15,400 MW of solar added in 2021. These are figures we should take with some caution. The federal government has only very recently started trying to account for solar installations of less than 1 MW. Since roughly 40% of solar capacity installed is in systems less than 1 MW, the FERC figure could actually represent only 60% of the amount actually installed. If that is the case, then the amount actually installed in 2020 could have been over 14,000 MW. And if that is the case, then the EIA expects growth of about 10%. That would also mean, however, that solar photovoltaics are much more important than most people understand.

In any event, the report from the EIA says it expects that 39% of all new capacity in 2021 will be solar, and 31% will be wind. There would be no installations of coal-power plants, and natural gas would account for 16% of the share. A small amount of nuclear power is expected to provide 3% of the new capacity.

As we might all know, solar power is intermittent and wind power is variable. They both have the advantage that they can be curtailed, which thermal power plants cannot. In effect, they can be shut off to prevent too much power from going onto the grid. While batteries offer a solution to supplying energy from the sun and wind when neither is generating, they also offer a solution to the problem of curtailment. The result is that battery use is also growing, and the EIA expects 11% of new capacity will be batteries.

With low prices for renewable electricity, and with those prices heading lower, the fossil fuels industries can only decline. And we may have turned that corner already, in the last two years.

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