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Published on February 15th, 2016 | by Zachary Shahan


Renewables = 69% of New US Electricity Capacity in 2015

February 15th, 2016 by  

Using data from FERC and rooftop solar power estimates of my own*, it seems that 69% of newly installed US electricity generation capacity was from renewable energy power plants, with 67% from solar and wind power. In the month of December, 100% of new power capacity came from wind and solar projects.

New US Electricity 2015 Dec

Meanwhile, total installed coal power capacity declined from 326.6 GW at the end of 2014 to 305.05 GW at the end of 2015. In other words, net, 21.55 GW of coal power capacity were taken offline in 2015.

Unfortunately, natural gas (which may be much cleaner than coal, but that is up for debate) power capacity grew from 492.97 GW to 500.71 GW. In other words, it saw nearly 8 GW of additional capacity (net).

To compare to renewables on the whole, that segment grew by 23.5 GW, from 200.94 to 224.43 GW. Solar and wind alone grew by about 21 GW, from 81.45 GW to 102.58 GW, based on my estimates. That’s approximately the change in coal capacity.

New US Electricity 2015

The top sources of new power capacity in 2015 (in MWac) were as follows:

  1. Wind Power (40.9%) — 7977
  2. Natural Gas (30.5%) — 5942
  3. Solar Power (25.9%) — 5047

Those three sources accounted for over 97% of new power capacity.

“If it weren’t already obvious, the latest FERC data confirm that the era of coal, oil, and nuclear power is rapidly drawing to a close,” noted Ken Bossong, Executive Director of the SUN DAY Campaign. “The future — in fact, the present — has become renewable energy!”

New US Electricity Total

At the end of the day (at the end of the year), renewables still only accounted for 19% of total US electricity generation capacity, and solar + wind 8.7%. So, we have a long way to go. Nonetheless, 69% of new capacity from renewables in the year isn’t really a letdown, even if it does seem like 100% of new capacity should have come from renewables….

Here’s my December and full-year table on capacity installations and total installed capacity across the US:

US Renewable Energy Capacity - December 2015

*Based on SEIA/GTM research projections for 2015 and historical data from NREL.

Last month’s electricity capacity report can be viewed here: “Renewables = 99% of New US Power Capacity in November.”

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About the Author

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself (and other species) with the power of the word. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director and chief editor, but he's also the president of Important Media and the director/founder of EV Obsession and Solar Love. Zach is recognized globally as a solar energy, electric car, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, and Canada. Zach has long-term investments in TSLA, FSLR, SPWR, SEDG, & ABB — after years of covering solar and EVs, he simply has a lot of faith in these particular companies and feels like they are good cleantech companies to invest in. But he offers no professional investment advice and would rather not be responsible for you losing money, so don't jump to conclusions.

  • LookingForward

    What happened to the US becoming more energy efficient, with that 8gw rise in capacity? Or does that have to do with population rise? Or is it overcapacity?

  • Ian

    It would be interesting to see these various electric power sourced also compared on basis of net new capacity added, to get a better idea of their relative growth rates. I’m sure if you backed out all the capacity taken off line, you’d see a negative number for net added coal capacity in 2015.

  • Brian

    Natural gas causes earthquakes. See Oklahoma. It is not safe for our water supply, because these unknown toxic chemicals could remain in the ground for centuries before they poison our water. Clean wind, solar, geothermal, wave and biogas from landfills, animal waste on farms, and sewage treatment plants, is the best alternative to allow us to quickly close all our dirty coal plants.

  • tibi stibi

    at this rate how long will it take to for coal to disappear?

    • MP

      Well “21.55 GW of coal power capacity were taken offline in 2015.” So at this rate it would take 305/21.55=14.15 years for coal to disappear.

      • Kevin McKinney

        Hmm, “no coal by 2030.”

        • vensonata

          Efficiency measures may hasten the demise of coal faster than renewables. We may all be surprised and relieved at how fast coal disappears as clean piranhas surround it.

          • FruityPimpernel

            Coal is already on the way out in the UK. The deadline is 2025 IIRC, although much of the UK’s coal-fired capacity will be retired earlier than this, a good chunk of it, it would seem in 2016 alone. Given the explosive growth of solar and wind and their improving economics (complemented by cheaper natural gas generation) it would be surprising if coal doesn’t wither faster in the US and also in China and India. Affordable storage at scale will finish it off altogether.

      • eveee

        That is if its decline rate stayed constant. It is dropping pretty fast right now, isn’t it?

  • Zorba

    Relatively good news but, as you say, a long way to go. Always interesting to consider the total installed capacity (roughly solar & wind 100GW, hydro 100GW, nuclear 100GW, coal 300GW, gas 500GW). Replacing coal with renewables would obviously be a good start but gas isn’t going anywhere for decades it seems

    • Bob_Wallace

      Right now adding natural gas to the grid allows us to shut down coal plants and cut CO2 by 50%. As long as methane leaks are controlled that’s a huge improvement. By adding in NG along with solar and wind we can be assured that the lights stay on 24/365.

      As we add wind, solar and storage NG can be faded out. Gas makes this easy because gas is readily dispatchable. Gas may well be in use decades from now but hopefully in such small amounts that it’s irrevent.

      A while back a Budischak and others modeled a wind, solar and storage solution for the largest wholesale grid in the US using four years of wind, solar and demand data. They found it too expensive to create a 100% wind/solar grid but using NG for about 7 hours a year made it work.

      Those orange blips? That’s gas coming on line. About once a year for a few hours.

      Install 100 MW of NG and close 100 MG of coal. CO2 reduction.

      Add 100 MW of wind and/or 100 MW of solar and use the 100 MW of NG less. Add some storage and use it even less. But the NG will be available for the most extreme needs.

      • Zorba

        Interesting, thanks.

      • juxx0r

        I like it how Jan 2000 is in that graph twice and that Jan 2001 and 2002 comes after July 2001 and 2002 respectively.

        • Bob_Wallace

          interesting. I hadn’t noticed that before. And it looks like it slipped through the editing process as well.

      • Brian

        Your assessment is wrong. Naturals gas fracking causes earthquakes, and poisons the water of nearby residents. Though cleaner than dirty coal, with 1/2 the emissions, it is still too dangerous to use as a bridge fuel. It is much better to add only 100% wind, solar, and geothermal power to our future energy requirements. This way we can shut down all dirty coal plants quickly, without, without relying on dangerous natural gas as a replacement for dirty coal. Germany is doing this, so we can copy their success. Also we can get renewable biogas from our landfills, sewage plants, and animal waste from farms, to generate electricity, and power big rig trucks, instead of dirty diesel. Capturing Methane that normally would harm our atmosphere, and contribute to Global Warming, is much better than natural gas fracking, where toxic chemicals are pumped underground threatening our water.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Brian, we’re not installing wind and solar fast enough to replace coal. Coal is a larger problem than fracking for NG.

          There’s not enough gas available from landfills and sewage systems.

  • JamesWimberley

    It’s not open to debate that natural gas really is less bad than coal: gas turbines are much more efficient (60% against 40%), so CO2 emissions per kWh are lower; and they emit hardly any of the cocktail of poisonous sludge that coal plants also slew, notably soot and mercury. It’s not open to debate either that NG plants do still emit a lot of CO2 and will have to go in a full energy transition.

    It would be nice to see a split of the NG capacity between the big, expensive,and efficient combined-cycle baseload plants, and the smaller, cheaper, but less efficient simple peaker plants. The former compete with renewables, the latter complement them.

    • The issue with natural gas is how much is being emitted via leaks.

      This is a title from 2014: “Methane Leaks Wipe Out Any Climate Benefit Of Fracking, Satellite Observations Confirm” link: http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/10/22/3582904/methane-leaks-climate-benefit-fracking/

      Here’s one from 2015: “Methane Is Leaking From Natural Gas Processing Plants At Much Higher Rates Than Reported” link:

      Another: “How The EPA And New York Times Are Getting Methane All Wrong”

      Another: “Oil And Gas Wells Are Leaking Huge Amounts Of Methane, And It’s Costing Taxpayers Millions” http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2015/05/08/3656343/fugitive-methane-on-the-loose-on-public-lands/

      This if from Joe Romm, “acting assistant secretary of energy for energy efficiency and renewable energy in 1997, where he oversaw $1 billion in R&D, demonstration, and deployment of low-carbon technology.”

      • Bob_Wallace

        The leakage problem is a bit complex.

        There’s methane leakage from oil and coal extraction. Using methane for electricity generation probably has no impact on oil related methane but would reduce coal related methane.

        There’s methane leakage from existing distribution systems.. Some of urban gas systems resemble sieves. That has nothing to do with electricity generation and the leaks can be stopped.

        Then there gas well leakage. More methane used for electricity generation means more wells and potentially more leaks. But well leaks can be controlled, that’s been demonstrated.

        Now, not use NG because it can leak? That means burning more coal. I’d prefer to minimize the leaks. And now that Scalia has kicked it there’s a good chance President Obama’s gas regs are going to go ahead.

        • Jens Stubbe

          In Europe most countries have natural gas infrastructure and Greenpeace campaign for Synfuels Methane to replace fossil Methane.

          Biogas has been supported for decades and is getting cheaper though still far from commercial gas grid parity.

          Recently the conversion efficiency for Synfuel Methanol has risen to 79%.

          If the cost trajectories for renewables continue it is just a matter of time before it will go head against fossil Methane first and later on against crude oil for liquid fuels and base materials for producing polymers.

        • Brian

          Even if well leaks could be controlled, some methane is always released at the drill site. Also the toxic chemicals injected into the ground, during fracking pose an unacceptable risk to our water tables. It is far safer to eliminate natural gas, and replace it with safer alternatives. like solar, wind, geothermal, wave, and biogas from animal waste, sewage plants, food waste, and landfills. Natural gas is still a dirty fossil fuel, and a path using 100% clean renewable energy is better, than using natural gas as a bridge fuel. We can shut all our dirty coal plants quicker by replacing them with solar and wind, then is we use dirty natural gas.

      • nitpicker357

        You are ignoring half of the problem; poisoning people matters, too. SO2, NOx and fine particulate emissions are much higher from coal.

    • Lorirpahl1

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    • Brian

      Check out the EIA’s Electric Power Monthly report, Table 6.1. The numbers don’t quite add up to the article’s– I think they are excluding CHP and small scale generators.
      Total coal: 286 GW
      Total natural gas: 438 GW
      Combined cycle: 234 GW
      Combustion turbine: 125 GW
      Steam turbine: 75 GW
      Internal combustion engine: 3.6 GW


    • Brian

      When you factor in the fracking, where unknown toxic chemicals are pumped underground, that could poison our water, and the emissions released at the drill site, and pollution produced, natural gas really isn’t cleaner than coal. Please stop buying into this myth. We need to transition into 100% clean renewable energy now. Natural gas fracking harms our environment. We have no idea what these toxic chemical could do 100 years from now. Perhaps they will leach out 200 years from now. We can get renewable, carban neutral biogas from animal waste, sewage plants, and landfills, to use to replace dirty diesel for trucks, but natural gas fracking is unacceptable.

    • Otis11

      To my understanding, though, CCNG can be operated in a peaker mode. Both CCNG and Peaker NG run the NG through a turbine to generate power. The difference arises in that the CCNG plants use the waste heat from the turbines to boil water (Sometimes with the help of more NG to make it supercritical and increase efficiency, but not necessarily).

      If spot prices jump temporarily, though, CCNG plants can turn on just like peakers to provide (almost) instant power (just not at their full nameplate capacity – since peakers are only rating the turbines where CC is rating the whole generation amount). If they turn off before the steam turbines heat up, they just operate at the lower efficiency of a peaker plant.

    • Frank

      I think batteries are going to out compete the peaker plants for the 20 minutes it takes to spin up a combined cycle plant, so I would ratyer have them, because they sre more efficient. I know this isn’t politically possible, but a price on everything going up the smokestack would be really nice, minus the nitrogen, and unburned oxygen of course.

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