US Power In 2018: The Good, The Better, & The Gassy

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Originally published on NRDC’s Expert Blog.
By Amanda LevinSophia Ptacek 

The first numbers on last year’s energy trends are in and there are two pieces of great news and one that should worry us: Solar and wind energy are thriving, coal-fired generation sunk to a four-decade low — but natural gas infrastructure is expanding.

The key 2018 energy trends, detailed in the Energy Information Administration’s preliminary 2018 energy figures, build upon the energy transition already underway, highlighting both emerging opportunities and challenges. Thankfully, this year promises to be a good one for solar and, especially, wind energy, but we still face the threat that we are locking in reliance on natural gas that doesn’t fit with our need to slash carbon pollution.

Here are four key stats for the U.S. power sector in 2018:

#1. Top 10 states for wind and solar generate more than 20 percent of their electricity from the wind and sun.

Power generated from solar and wind in the U.S. has increased by 550% in the last decade. In 2008, less than 1.5 percent of our electricity came from wind and solar power. In 2018, almost 9 percent of our electricity came from wind and solar.

This growth has occurred across the country. In 2018:

  • Every single U.S. state generated electricity from solar installations, compared with only 10 states a decade ago. Solar energy (both large- and small-scale) has grown by over 10,000% nationwide since 2008 (from 0.9 to 92.6 TWh).
  • 18 states generated 10 percent or more of their electricity from the sun and wind, whereas no states achieved this level in 2008.
  • 11 states generate 20 percent or more of their electricity from the wind and sun.

NRDC Analysis of EIA Electric Power Monthly Data.

#2. Natural gas was the largest source of new power.

For the first time since 2013, natural gas was the largest source of new power additions. Over 60 percent of all new power plants built in 2018 were natural gas fueled. These facilities were concentrated in the East (as shown in the map below)– with more than a quarter of new natural gas plants in the U.S built in Pennsylvania. Combined, over half of all new gas plants were built in just four states: Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and Florida.

Power Builds in 2018. Developed using S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Renewables – like wind and solar farms – had been the dominant source of new power between 2013 and 2017. The preferential buildout of gas in 2018 is a troubling development, especially in light of the reporting on climate change (like the IPCC 1.5 degree report) that came out in 2018. As NRDC’s own work has found, minimizing investments in new polluting natural gas infrastructure (like new power plants or new pipelines) is important to meet our long-term climate goals and stave off the worst impacts of climate change. Luckily, while 2018 upended this clean energy streak, 2019 is expected to be dominated by renewable additions once again. Wind farms make up almost half of all new planned additions for 2019 – driven by a combination of business and utility interest and the forthcoming expiration of the production tax credit (PTC).

Expected Power Builds in 2019. Developed using S&P Global Market Intelligence.

#3. Coal generation has fallen over 40 percent in the last decade.

The outlook for coal generation continues to look bleaker and bleaker. In 2018, coal use in the power sector fell to the lowest levels since 1984. And across the entire U.S. economy, it was at the lowest levels since 1979. (Most of the coal consumed in the U.S. is for power, but there is some direct coal use in industry). This decline in coal generation is even more stark when considering the significant increase in electricity seen in the last three to four decades. In 2018, coal provided just 27.4% of total U.S. power – the lowest level on record (which goes all the way back to 1949). Until 2012, coal had always made up at least 40 percent of all U.S. power (and more than half of all U.S. power as recently as 2003).

Coal plants retired at near record levels in 2018, with the second-highest level of retirements on record, behind only 2015 (when the EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics or MATS rule went into effect). These more recent retirements – and expected retirements in the next year – come despite President Donald Trump’s pledge to preserve coal. They are not driven by federal regulations, but by market forces, state policies, and business, utility, and state interest in clean energy.

Coal Retirements in US: 1990–2025

#4. Power sector carbon emissions rose by 1.4 percent in 2018.

While the U.S. has experienced a significant decoupling of economic growth and energy use, weather and economics still influence climate pollution. Carbon emissions, both in the power sector and economy-wide, saw significant upticks in 2018 compared to 2017. Power sector emissions rose by 1.4 percent from 2017 levels. Total energy emissions (across the entire U.S. economy) rose by 2.8 percent in 2018.

Power and GDP: Growth from 1975–2018

This increase in climate pollution comes despite moving away from coal and toward cleaner resources and is driven by two factors: (1) a hotter summer and colder winter, which meant more energy to cool and heat our homes and businesses; and (2) stronger economic growth, which contributed to greater energy needs from U.S. manufacturing and industry.

This uptick in emissions highlights the need to take immediate action to address climate action: a gradual transition away from the dirtiest fuels won’t be enough to avert the worst impacts of climate change. Even as the power sector and economy have made significant strides in reducing the carbon intensity of our energy, emissions have remained relatively flat or risen. We will need to take ambitious steps on clean energy. As noted by my colleagues Derek Murrow and David Doniger, the U.S. will need to reach a 100 percent clean energy economy and cut climate pollution to net zero by 2050. Investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy so we can power our homes, business, and transportation cleanly and cheaply will be critical to protect our health, counter the dangerous impacts of climate change, and create a strong clean energy economy.

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