Why Other Renewables Are Surpassing Hydro

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Rocky Mountain Institute.
By Laurie Guevara-​Stone.

2014 is predicted to be the first year in history that non-hydro renewable generation exceeds hydropower generation in the United States. This is a big change—only a decade ago hydropower produced three times as much electricity in the U.S. as the combined contributions of non-hydro sources such as wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal.

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) recently released data showing that this past April marked the eighth consecutive month that non-hydropower surpassed hydro. In April solar, wind, and other non-hydro renewables made up 7.4 percent of all U.S. generation, while hydropower made up 7 percent of the total, according to the EIA’s Electric Power Monthly. With non-hydro renewables’ continued cost decline, their growing investment and annual capacity additions, along with a decline in the growth of hydropower, that gap is predicted to continue to grow. The EIA predicts that non-hydro renewables will provide more than twice as much generation as hydropower by 2040. The following four reasons explain why non-hydro renewables are surging ahead.


Much of the growth of non-renewable hydro generation can be attributed to declining costs. Utility scale PV prices have dropped from $3.90 per watt in 2009 to $1.85 per watt in 2014. And residential PV system prices are 28 percent less than they were only three years ago. Wind power has seen a huge drop in cost. The cost of generating electricity from wind has fallen by more than 40 percent over the past three years.


There are various reasons why hydropower generation is shrinking in the United States. California, which has long been one of the country’s hydro leaders with more than 300 dams, is facing a record drought that has lead to a dramatic decline in production from hydropower. Hydro went from providing 14 percent of California’s electricity mix for the past three decades to only 9 percent in 2013, whereas wind and solar power in the state, which provided 2 and 0.3 percent of the state’s electricity over the past decade, jumped to 5.2 and 1.5 percent in 2013 respectively. Drought is threatening to close hydro power stations in other states as well, such as Texas and Nevada.


Another reason why hydropower generation is not growing is that many of the good hydropower locations are already developed. While some renewable resources can be tapped in much of the country, the available number of potential hydropower dam sites is limited by geography, and in the United States, the most viable sites have already been developed or are off limits due to environmental concerns. In fact, while hydropower generation has remained mostly steady over the past decade, wind generation grew over 1000 percent over that same period.

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The EIA study only looked at electricity generation sources larger than 1 megawatt. RMI’s Reinventing Fire Transform vision for the U.S. electricity sector includes 80 percent renewable energy by 2050, fully half of it from smaller, distributed renewables such as solar PV on the rooftops of homes and small businesses … exactly the kind of small, non-hydro renewables not captured in the EIA forecast and which RMI co-founder and chief scientist Amory Lovins frequently notes are scaling faster than cell phones. In the first quarter of 2014, 457 megawatts of non-utility PV were installed in the U.S., meaning the gap between hydro and non-hydro renewables may be even larger than stated.

While in the country as a whole non-hydro renewables are surpassing hydro, if you take a state-by-state look, the picture isn’t the same. In the Pacific Northwest and New York hydropower still out produces other renewables, but in California, Texas, and some Midwest states, wind and solar are playing a much bigger role. And over the past ten years the number of states for which non-hydro renewable generation exceeded hydropower generation nearly doubled from 17 to 33. The EIA forecast, which some claim is conservative, predicts non-hydro renewables growing on average at about 3.2 percent per year through 2040. And if all the smaller residential and commercial systems were added in, the picture might be even brighter for non-hydro renewables.

Graph courtesy of Energy Information Administration.

Source: Rocky Mountain Institute. Reproduced with permission.

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Since 1982, RMI (previously Rocky Mountain Institute) has advanced market-based solutions that transform global energy use to create a clean, prosperous and secure future. An independent, nonprofit think-and-do tank, RMI engages with businesses, communities and institutions to accelerate and scale replicable solutions that drive the cost-effective shift from fossil fuels to efficiency and renewables. Please visit http://www.rmi.org for more information.

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