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Reading The Renewable Energy Tea Leaves In Latest FERC Report

We got all excited when our friends over at the SUN DAY Campaign tipped us off to the latest federal report on newly installed electrical generating capacity in the US, given that the overall picture looks so rosy for renewables. However, the devil is in the details. When you break it down by category, you can see that some forms of renewable energy are still lagging far behind. The question is, for how long?

The new energy report, from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), is titled “Energy Infrastructure Update.” It covers the first three quarters of 2013, to September 30.

new FERC report highlights renewable energy

Palm Springs wind farm by Bonita La Banane.

The Good News About Renewable Energy

First, the good news. SUN DAY summarizes it thusly:

…renewable energy sources (i.e., biomass, geothermal, solar, water, wind) accounted for 30.03% of all new domestic electrical generating capacity installed in the first nine months of 2013 for a total of 3,218 MW.

That is more than that provided thus far this year by coal (1,543 MW – 14.40%), oil (27 MW – 0.25%), and nuclear power (0 MW – 0.00%) combined.

Now, let’s take a look at the breakdown, keeping in mind that the numbers cover installed capacity, not the actual output.

As you might expect from all the solar power news we’ve been covering, solar is a bright spot in terms of new installations, with 146 units accounting for 1,935 MW (megawatts). That’s a huge jump over the same period last year. Also, though it is far less than the 5,854 MW achieved by natural gas so far this year, it still attains a respectable spot in the thousands-of-megawatts range.

Solar also beat out coal, which has seen its numbers slip from 2,359 MW in this period last year, down to 1,543 MW in 2013.

Wind Is Down, But Not Out

Several other forms of renewable energy tracked by FERC haven’t fared so well this year, notably wind power. Only 9 units totaling 961 megawatts went online from January to September, compared to 87 units totaling 5,043 MW last year.

That drop off is rooted in the now-familiar obstructionist political strategy of Republican leadership in Congress, which among other things displayed itself in the refusal to extend a key, long-running federal tax credit for wind power last year.

Uncertainty over the tax credit slowed the wind industry down in 2012, but a one-year extension finally went through at the last minute. Since there is typically an 18-month lag in wind installations, the slowdown may manifest itself in the FERC reports going into 2014, but all else being equal, things should pick up after that.

Keep in mind that the US hasn’t even begun to tap its offshore wind resources, too, and that massive new wind transmission lines are set to start humming, the Texas CREZ project being just one example.

Geothermal Hasn’t Even Started Yet

The US is sitting on an incredibly rich pile of untapped geothermal resources, but even after decades of R&D it has yet to take off as a mainstream energy source.

Practically all of that nice new technology (developed partly with an assist from taxpayers, btw) has been going overseas. Notably, one key customer for US geothermal companies is Kenya, where the government is aggressively supporting geothermal projects.

Ironically, as we’ve noted before, some of that taxpayer-supported technology has also gone to revolutionize gas and oil drilling, leading to today’s notorious fracking boom.

The US geothermal sector could soon claim its own, though. A few years ago, the Department of Defense realized that there was enough geothermal potential under military property to power all of its electrical needs, with plenty left over for the civilian grid.

That explains why geothermal got a major chunk of the Defense Department’s $7 billion renewable energy buy, with contracts for multiple projects going to Constellation NewEnergy, ECC Renewables, Enel Green Power North America, LTC Federal, and Siemens Government Technologies.

Now consider that the US still has significant untapped hydropower resources including wave and tidal energy, and that the distributed renewable energy sector has also barely gotten off the starting block, and you can see how that FERC report will look very different just a few years down the road.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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