Clean Power

Published on December 23rd, 2014 | by Joshua S Hill


Wind & Solar = 77% Of New US Electricity Generating Capacity In November (Exclusive)

December 23rd, 2014 by  

Editor’s Note: Upon repeated reader request and my own interest in seeing more accurate numbers, I have included an estimate of non-utility-scale solar (i.e., residential and commercial solar) in the numbers below. I will do this from here on out. Assumptions* and sources for these estimates are at the end of this article. If you think you’ve got better assumptions for me, let me know in the comments so that future months can be even better. Given the amount of original work that goes into these reports, they are filed in our “CleanTechnica Reports” category. Thank you for your past and future support getting the word out about this useful information!

The United States Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) Office of Energy Projects released its monthly “Energy Infrastructure Update” on Tuesday, and the big winners from the month of November seem to be wind and solar, which combined added up to over 70% of all new electrical generating capacity placed into service during the month. If you add in our estimate for non-utility-scale solar, the market share of solar and wind rises to 77%.

US Electricity Capacity Update Nov

And as Ken Bossong, Executive Director of the SUN DAY Campaign, says, this is a good thing:

“With only one month left in 2014, it has become a horse race between natural gas and renewable energy as to which will dominate new electrical generation for the year. Regardless of the winner, it is apparent that coal, oil, and nuclear will be left behind in the dust.”

As individual generating technologies, natural gas will walk away the winner this year — of that there is no doubt. As can be seen in the chart and table below, natural gas has already installed 5,513 MW so far this year, while wind and solar have only reached 2,525 MW and 3,679 MW (including our non-FERC estimate).

US Electricity Capacity Update Nov YTD

Nevertheless, the signs are good for renewable energy, in particular wind and solar, in comparison to traditional champions like coal, oil, and nuclear.

With the estimate for non-utility-scale solar factored in, wind and solar accounted for 50% of new electricity generation capacity January–November 2014.

Three separate wind projects came online in November across the country. Stella Wind Farm’s 182 MW Panhandle Wind Farm Phase II expansion project located in Carson County, Texas, was brought online, following on from the 218 MW Phase I coming online in July of this year, bringing Panhandle Wind up to 400 MW total capacity.

In Murray County, Oklahoma, Origin Wind Energy’s 150 MW Origin Wind Energy Project came online, while the 20 MW Antelope West Solar Farm in Los Angeles County, California, also came online in November.

In addition to the 333 MW of new wind that came online in November, 14 new utility-scale solar projects also came online, totaling 294 MW, including the 250 MW expansion to MidAmerican Renewables’ Topaz Solar Farm in San Luis Obispo County, California.

Total generation capacity as of the end of November sees natural gas well ahead of its nearest rival, coal, with wind and solar well down the list.

US electricity capacity TOTAL Nov 2014

US Renewable Energy Capacity - Nov 2014 - Table

Editor’s Note: Notice that, with non-utility-scale solar factored in, solar has passed the big 1% milestone and is actually close to 2% of total US electricity generation capacity!

See reports from previous months:

⅔ of New US Electricity Capacity Was From Wind In October

Renewable Energy = 68% of New Electricity Capacity In September

See our recent electricity generation reports as well:

Solar PV Generation Doubles (Monthly US Electricity Generation Report)

Renewable Energy = 10% of US Electricity Generation In August

All images by CleanTechnica (CC BY-SA 4.0 license)

*Assumptions: Based off of GTM Research & SEIA reports for Q3 2014 and all of 2013, I’ve estimated non-utility-scale solar to be 67% of utility-scale solar in November, for the year through November, and for the same period in 2013. For total non-utility-scale solar power capacity in the US, I’ve put the estimate just slightly below utility-scale solar. For future reports, I will reach out to GTM Research and SEIA to see if I can get more exact historical figures than are publicly available and perhaps also better estimates for the present and future. In the meantime, please send any feedback and suggestions for improvement in the comments below or via email/Google+.

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  • Please revise the article to account for capacity factor, as that’s what matters when talking about new power on the grid.

  • bill_christian

    One very discouraging fact – fossil fuel capacity is actually still GROWING. So we put more CO2 into the air each year than the previous year. So we are actually still going in the wrong direction. I won’t feel good at all until fossil fuel use DECLINES, and we are a long way from that. We should be installing enough renewables and conserving enough that they are routinely closing and dismantling coal AND natural gas power plants. When will that happen? I strongly believe that this can only be accomplished by a very strong carbon tax. A strong carbon tax does not say “conserve” or “build solar thermal power plants” or whatever, it just says that burning fossil fuel is too painful so find whatever works to not burn it.

  • btw, I don’t know why this chart service is so set on adding two decimal points, but it seems there’s no way to remove those, so we just have to live with them.

  • Great work! All of these numbers are very encouraging.

  • Adrian

    Okay, who do we need to yell at about that 108MW of new coal? We almost got through the year with no new coal generation…

    • Seriously…

    • Larmon

      108MW seems rather small for a new coal powered turbine. My guess is that it’s nothing more than the sum of some small uprates and refurbishments to existing plants (just as the new nuclear capacity over the whole of 2014 is).

      I’ve seen thermal plants that saw their output increase by 50MW just by the natural replacement of bits and pieces (old pumps, leaky valves and such like).

      • Yeah, think it must have been.

      • Adrian

        The new capacity report for November won’t be out until January, but it looks like there was a 62MW addition/upgrade planned for November by Great River Energy in Spiritwood, ND.

        The next coal expansion on the EIA list is a pair of 0.6MW upgrades at Penn State University scheduled for April 2016. Fortunately coal retirements are massively outpacing coal additions.

    • Fact

      the entire year, down the tubes……anyone know when the last addition of coal was? how many months w/o coal additions total? At least 10 right?

      • Bob_Wallace

        A large coal plant came on line last year I believe. Coal plants can take many years to build so it’s taken a while to get the last ones out of the pipes.

  • Steve Hess

    The total US capacity graph appears to be the previous year’s YTD.

    • Very right. Thank you. I forgot the chart creation program strips a column and I have delete one. Fixing now. Luckily, the commentary was not based on that.

  • Michael G

    This is all very encouraging and thanks for your efforts to put it all together. The one thing that would really help is an estimate of real-world power generation from these capacities. I’ve read that wind is typically estimated at 25% of capacity, solar at about 20%. So 1 MW of solar capacity can’t be compared to 1 MW of coal or gas. Incorporating that perspective would help us all to see how far we have to go. (Sorry to ask you to increase your workload.)

    Long term I am optimistic, but short term, I don’t see any way of avoiding 2 degrees C warming without some game-changing breakthroughs – like “carbon capture” actually becomes profitable – though that could happen, see here:

    • Larmion

      20% for solar is about right, but 25% for wind is too low an estimate for new capacity.

      A properly sited, modern turbine achieves capacity factors of 35-40%. Even smaller (2MW) designs can still achieve 30%+ in a good spot. If you go offshore, 45% can be achieved with ease. The improvements are nothing short of spectacular: ten years ago, 25% was still considered excellent.

      Older designs had good output in strong winds, but modern turbines perform much better in weaker winds. They start spinning at weaker winds and achieve full output earlier, even if that full output is a bit lower than it was in old designs of the same size. As is so often the case, steady wins.

      Nuclear is over 90% in most countries, going as low as 70% for older plants. Geothermal too achieves 90% and over.

      Coal is around 70%, as is hydro. Gas can go over 90%, but gas plants are typically used as peak plants only, so real world capacity factor is a lot lower than that and highly variable from year to year.

      But don’t worry too much about capacity factors. Other variables matter at least as much: time of production (daytime and evening production is more valuable than nighttime production, for example), availability (how often is the plant offline for repairs, maintenance, refuelling,…) and of course, cost trumps all.

      Nuclear should have displaced all other forms of generation bar geothermal by now if capacity factor was all that mattered. The contrary is true: while existing plants are hugely profitable, new nuclear is no longer competitive in most jurisdictions.

      • Michael G

        Thanks. So using your numbers with the last table above I get:

        Solar 20 GW x 0.2 = 4 GW
        Wind 63 GW x 0.35 = 22 GW
        Biomass 16 GW x 0.7 (?) = 11 GW
        Water 98 GW x 0.7 = 67 GW
        Nuclear 107 GW x 0.9 = 96 GW
        Coal 328 GW x 0.7 = 230 GW
        Gas 491 GW x 0.7 (?) = 343 GW

        So non-hydro renewable capacity is roughly 37 GW out of 773 GW total or just under 5%.

        We have some ways to go.

        • Larmion

          Oh yeah, forgot about biomass. I don’t know the figures from the top of my head, but the technology for solid biomass (the kind that dominates in the US) is similar to coal, so much so that the two can be co-fired in many installations. As such, 0.7 seems about right.

          I really have no idea about gas in the US, especially since I don’t know how the new plants are due to be used. 0.7 seems high though.

          Why leave hydro out? It’s renewable too. I really don’t get why people want to talk about ‘non hydro renewables’.

          Still, you’re right: we have a very long way to still.

          • I think it’s primarily bcs hydro isn’t really changing much and is so much larger that it is hard to identify the growth of other renewables without taking it out. Also, depending on location & application, there can be massive emissions from hydro… or not. It depends.

          • Larmion

            – That it still dwarfs other renewables is not something that should be hidden. It serves as a useful reminder of how little solar and wind have achieved so far and how much further they have to go.

            And of course, the renewable that gave birth to modern electrical generation and over its 150 years of non stop growth mitigated more emissions than solar and wind likely ever will deserves to be celebrated every bit as much as wind and solar.

            – As per the IPCC, hydro is the electricity source with the lowest GHG emissions on average. And besides, the discussion was about the US, where methane emissions from dams are negligible (few reservoirs flooded dense vegetation and methanogenic activity is low outside the tropics).

          • Bob_Wallace

            Overall NG plants run at less than 30% in the US. It would depend on whether the new gas plants are going to be used for ‘always on’ or peaking.

            I think we tend to not talk about hydro because there is an assumption that hydro (in the US) is built out. In fact, we have potentially 10 GW from existing dams and more than 65 GW run of the river capacity that we could bring on line.

            And I think some people talk about non-hydro renewables because they want to downplay the status of wind and solar.

            During the first six months of 2014 non-hydro renewables produced 7.1% of US electricity. (That does not include commercial and residential solar consumed behind the meter.) Hydro produced 7%. Renewables at 14% are closing on nuclear at 19% and falling.

          • Bob_Wallace

            If you’re talking hypothetical CF for coal 85% is a commonly seen number. In practice coal has a lower CF in the US simply because we turn off some coal plants during times of lower demand. The PNW has so much wind and hydro in the spring that coal plants are simply shut down.

        • eveee

          That looks about right. The numbers keep changing.

          Wind power was 5% of US generation in the first 6 months of 2014.

          EIA reports non hydro renewables at 14.3%, not counting distributed and off grid generation. Non hydro renewables are now larger than hydro.

    • We do monthly reports on generation too. They are just delayed an extra month and the data come from the EIA.

      Yes, avoiding 2 degrees C warming is very hopeful at this point, not only because of the slow replacement of fossil fuels in the developed world, but also China’s & India’s growth as well as global meat & dairy consumption. We’re nowhere near on target. I don’t think we need a breakthrough. I just think political and social obstacles to deployment need to be overcome.

      • Larmion

        We should admit that 2 degrees has been missed. Even a massive, global policy change tomorrow wouldn’t be able to avoid it.

        And while that’s somewhat troubling, it’s not a disaster. Adaptation to a two degrees scenario is easily achievable with current technology and at low cost. Effects on agriculture are mild and easily dealt with through crop science and water management. Sea level rise is barely noticeable. Natural disasters may or may not see an increase in frequency, but nothing outside of what’s manageable.

        However, we’re currently on track for more than 4°C. That’s another game entirely: adaptation to such an extreme change is nearly impossible, while limiting temperature increases to below 3°C is still very much achievable at low cost. That should be the new aim.

        • I think with unexpected exponential growth (like we’ve seen in many disruptive industries), we could hit it. But I agree that it’s not likely and we are on track for more than 4°C.

          Some here will agree with that, some are more optimistic, some less “optimistic.” We’ll see…

        • JamesWimberley

          You have no basis for your optimism over the consequences of 2 degrees of warming. The number was reached simply as the warming that has a 50% chance of avoiding major harms. That is itself a frightening prospect.

          • Larmion

            I have, at least for the claims about agriculture: trials in climate controlled greenhouses as well as metabolic modelling studies.

            Effects on weather-related natural disasters are less well understood, so I’ll give you that.

            Sea level rise is equally uncertain in its magnitude, but the pace of change in a two degree scenario is known to be *very* slow. That makes adaptation rather manageable.

            But even assuming the most pessimistic predictions are true, there’s a very simple question to be answered: is the cost of preventing two degrees lower than the cost of adapting to even a worst case scenario? Given the incredible pace of change a two degrees limit requires, few people believe it is.

          • Matt

            If only it was an even 2 degrees everywhere and the water cycle didn’t change then small impact on agro would be true. But that is not what will happen. For example, in south west Ohio most of the apple crop has been lost the last several years. Why we are not at 2 degrees yet, but we would have a warm spell early, tree all bud out then a cold snap. Sometimes twice; so there is no energy left in the tree for another try.

          • Larmion

            The apple tree problem is fairly easy to mitigate. It’s a consequence of vernalization; the tendency of many plants to flower only after being exposed to a certain amount of ‘chill hours’ and a subsequent temperature increase.

            The sensitivity of vernalization varies widely from cultivar to cultivar. Selecting cultivars appropriate to the local climate (e.g. with sufficiently low sensitivity to let short warm spells pass) allows for an easy solution.

            And that’s just conventional breeding. Now that the Flowering Locus gene pathway responsible for the process is beginning to be understood, modern breeding techniques and even genetic engineering if you so desired could be used to further finetune flowering behaviors.

            The worst that could happen is that America’s near-monocultures will have to replaced by a return to so called land races, cultivars adapted to the local microclimate. Not a bad thing at all in my book.

        • Michael G

          Regrettably, I completely agree.

          An old New Yorker cartoon comes to mind. Two obvious ET aliens are talking in an office and one says to the other: “I have rejected your science fiction novel as too far-fetched. It describes a species completely destroying its own planet.”

  • Matt

    You can complain that people use TESLA monthly number to make a false pictures and then turn around and to the same with new PV/Wind on a good month. I could have picked a month that would have show the flip. The real story is that over more PV/Wind has been added YTD than NG+coal+Nuclear. Do the install rates of solar need to pick up yes, but we are making progress. There is no need to cherry pick number, and lower credibility, to so that progress.

    • We do these reports every month. 😀

      And I feel better about the solar estimates than the Tesla ones.

      • jeffhre

        Ha ha! This month is different!
        Good to see and effort to include residential solar. Need to work on refining it.

      • Matt

        Zac, just say that the YTD numbers (and likely the YTY numbers) are good enough (>50%) to should the ship is turning. My guess is there was likely a month where NG/Coal were on top. And since months can vary a lot the YTD numbers is really a big deal.

  • vensonata .

    Solar at 2%. Ok, we are on the map, at least. Double every 4 years for the next 12 years and solar will have done its work. Wind at 5% needs to double every 5 years for the next 10 years. By 2026 Solar at 30%, Wind at 35%. Total 65%. Other renewables plus efficiency improvements would leave us without coal and only a few percent gas. That crisis would have past. Doable? What do you think?

    • Larmion

      Doable? Perhaps.

      Efficiency improvements are hard to predict – they depend on private businesses and households rather than policy. Households in particular have done very little to reduce their energy use.

      The growth corridor for wind seems realistic, cautious even. After all, it can already compete on cost without incentives. Limited grid capacity is the main hurdle, but improvements seem to be on the way in Texas and the Midwest at least.

      Solar remains to be seen: utility scale solar is still highly dependent on policy incentives, which become harder to defend as solar’s share increases. Further price decreases are likely, but their extent is hard to estimate.

      However, the gas estimate is clearly wrong. The growth trajectory you suggest does not include the massive overbuild needed to compensate for periods of low wind and/or sunshine. That means gas will retain a very significant share of the market due to its backup role.

      Of course, if much of your projected increase in solar power would come from solar thermal rather than PV, that might be different – thermal allows for low cost overnight storage through molten salts. There’s little sign of a thermal boom, however.

      Geothermal might yet benefit from advances in fracking and drilling techniques and finally start growing at a healthy pace. While traditionally presented as a baseload generator, it can be used equally well as a backup/peak generator.

      CSP and geothermal could help phase out gas faster than expected, but the neither the economies of scale nor policy environment are there yet.

      Oh, and maybe batteries will come down in cost faster than even the most starry eyed optimists predicted. But that I wouldn’t bet on.

      • Vensonata

        Yes, batteries. Having lived with them for 14 years, it is perfectly clear to me that they are the linchpin in the energy transition.
        A few points: because solar and wind have become so reasonable it is possible to overbuild to compensate for intermittent weather…it is cheaper at the moment than adding extra storage. I recently tripled my pv and cut my my new battery bank by half just because the economics have changed so much in the last 4 years. But still batteries are expensive. But consider that lead acid has been the only option for small scale for a century ( not talking about pump up hydro). From everything I read on the subject, and it is a lot because I depend on storage, the biggest revolution in the history of battery storage is occurring right now, economically, technically, efficiency, safety, numerically etc. within two years expect a 50% drop in price per watt storage. Also expect consumer friendly and reliable. It is the last piece in the revolution puzzle: cheap storage. About time.

        • StefanoR99

          Are you grid connected at all? What’s your PV capacity and how much do you oversize it by? Also what’s your storage capacity? Would love to do the same thing when prices are more reasonable.

          • vensonata .

            Completely off grid. 11.4 kwh pv. 40 kwh agm zero maintenance battery at 48volts. Sustains all electrical needs for community of 15 average. 10,000sq ft main house. power tools, computers, well pumps etc. Diesel generator 30 hours per year ($75 diesel)

          • StefanoR99

            You have my dream setup. Thanks for sharing the info, estimate will be at your point in about 4 years, can’t wait…

          • Dave

            do you have a site with the project details etc. Id love to see and learn about what you have created. Thanks Dave

          • Vensonata

            I have an “energy movie” on YouTube. Unfortunately it is two years old and already out of date. We have since tripled our solar installed new batteries, continued extensive super insulation of the main building and finished a ” low mass solar porch” which is working like a charm. Check out “birken monastery energy movie” youtube.

          • Dave

            Thanks, planning off grid as well in the next 5-10 years

      • jeffhre

        “However, the gas estimate is clearly wrong. The growth trajectory you suggest does not include the massive overbuild needed to compensate for periods of low wind and/or sunshine. That means gas will retain a very significant share of the market due to its backup role.”
        Gas generation and infrastucture is in place. And continues to be installed. The only way a “massive overbuild” would be needed would be if all gas powered generation facilities suddenly, catastrophically, inexplicably, unilaterally, stopped functioning.

        • Larmion

          Vensonata is thinking about a scenario where fossil fuels get replaced (nearly) entirely. That would entail mothballing perfectly fine gas capacity, perhaps through a subsidy scheme.

          You typically argue based on the premises set by the person who started it. That’s what I did.

          • JamesWimberley

            No, you suggested massive new overbuild would be needed in a high-renewables scenario. That’s wrong, as jeffhre points out: the gas capacity is already there. It would lose money, as is already happening to coal in Germany, but that’s another story.

          • Larmion

            Yes, but vensonata speaks of ‘only a few percent’ gas generation. That, as I’m sure you’ll agree, would require massive overbuild.

            Of course, jeffhre’s scenario in which the vast (and quite modern) NG capacity the US has will be used for a long time is much more realistic.

          • eveee

            Not sure on needing to build out natural gas generation re the scenario discussed. Currently, natural gas is near half of electricity production from EIA numbers. I couldn’t believe it. Take a look if I got it right. Also, there is some specific info on the little bit of coal added.



          • Bob_Wallace

            The real NG issue is, I think, capacity and not how much we are now generating from NG.

            What we don’t know is the worst case day conditions. How much dispatchable generation would we need if we were at the end of a multi-day low wind/solar period and had used up our stored power.

            We can count on some wind and solar every day, they don’t fall to zero. We will have geothermal, hydro (including run of river), and probably tidal inputs. We can probably find some dispatchable loads (some pulp mills which we can pay to close, for example). And we can import power from other grids, not all parts of the country will have the same weather.

            We can minimize the amount of NG/whatever deep backup by turning it on before storage is exhausted and running in “hybrid” mode, stretching storage and storing some generation during lower demand periods.

            But unless we develop inexpensive long term storage we will need the ability to fire up something a few times a year to pull us through until the weather changes.

            Right now (end of 2012 – most recent EIA numbers) the US has/had 206,774 MW of NG capacity out of a total 602,691 MW generation. (The EIA labels PuHS as capacity. I left it out of these numbers.)

          • Bob_Wallace

            I expect we’ll overbuild NG simply because grid/utility companies are used to burning stuff for electricity. As they are forced to close coal plants they will install CCNG.

            As the price of wind and solar continue to drop those CCNG plants will spend less time operating. Utilities will be able to recover their capex for CCNG over the next few years while we install more wind and solar. Then the CCNG plants will be there for deep backup when needed.

            Utilities will likely overspend some on gas plants. But their number one job is to keep power on the grid and spending some extra for “insurance” is understandable.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Natural gas = 1,113,665 Thousand MWh.

            Total generation = 4,058,209 Thousand MWh.


          • eveee

            I read it wrong. Natural gas is half as big as coal. Still big. But not that big.

          • vensonata .

            Jeez, I am not sure what we are talking about now. Let me restate. Basically RMI suggest that only 14% storage is required if a very large smart grid of solar, wind, and other renewables is in place in the U.S. Something like 5% gas is still needed though. (Might have that last figure wrong…memory only)

      • Bob_Wallace

        US utility scale solar prices are still higher than some other countries with similar labor costs. Non-subsidized PV solar was under 6.5 cents at the end of the first half of this year so we’re nearing the point at which solar slips under the price of NG. Without government subsidies. And starts taking over market from NG. Without government mandates.

        Perhaps we have to build more CCNG to fill in for wind and solar, but we have other alternatives. We could, for example, convert coal plants to biomass and stockpile wood pellets for periods of lower wind/solar input. We can convert existing hydro dams to producers. We can convert existing dams to PuHS.

        We are seeing storage starting to eat into NG’s roles, grid stabilization and short term storage. With further development we could see flow batteries start to take on some of the role of NG for deep backup.

        Finally, the US hasn’t started to develop biogas. We’ve got methane in our sewage systems, landfills and feedlots that should be pushing aside NG rather than being vented off into the atmosphere.

        • Bob_Wallace

          ” The growth trajectory you suggest (for NG) does not include the massive overbuild needed to compensate for periods of low wind and/or sunshine. ”

          As storage grows the need to overbuild CCNG fades. Like a PHEV that turns its engine on before the batteries are dead we can fire up our CCNG plants and stretch our stored energy. As long as we don’t wait for all our storage to be exhausted we won’t need a 100% NG backup for wind and solar.

    • James Salsman

      Here is the naive exponential extrapolation of solar (orange) and wind (blue) power, shown with 95% prediction confidence intervals and >99% adjusted r^2: Note that those extrapolations match the two corresponding curves in exactly. Advances in solar panel manufacture based on inkjet printing (I am not making this up) are expected to result in at least another order of magnitude cost reduction in the next few years.

      What this means is that photovoltaic solar will completely dominate and undercut all other form of energy production, including fossil fuels, in less than ten years time, without any subsidies or carbon taxes. I think this will actually happen slightly sooner than the projections suggest.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Don’t forget time of delivery issues.

        Solar + storage > wind or hydro used directly from the source.

      • Vensonata

        James, thanks for that, the extrapolations in wiki are very close to what I suggest is needed. Are they saying “it is going to happen” or just “it needs to happen”? If the former I am delighted, if the latter, I am at least in agreement.
        And yes, I agree, we’ll see a further drop in Pv price by 50%. Those who worry about “capacity” need to refocus on: “storage eliminates capacity concerns”. The new concern then is simply this: how soon will reasonably priced, consumer friendly storage appear. I suggest, a cautious 4 years. At that point, the war is over!

        • James Salsman

          I am very optimistic, Vensonata, because of power-to-gas for recycled methane storage and transmission, and gas-to-liquids for carbon-neutral transportation fuel.

    • David F Mayer

      Wind IS Solar Energy.

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