In the US, renewables are expected to see fifty times as much net capacity added in the next three years as nuclear and fossil fuels combined.
I was recently stunned by something I really should have noticed a week ago but had not.
Every month or so I take a look at the postings of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to see what they say is going on. In particular, I look at the reports on energy infrastructure. Every month or so seems to have turned out to be not often enough.
I was running through proofreading materials for Green Energy Times (GET), when I found an item from the SUN DAY Campaign (SDC) that was to be published. I ran through it rather quickly, because I knew it had been proofread at least twice already. Suddenly, I was struck by this paragraph, which refers to expected capacity installations considered to have “high probability” by FERC:
“In total, the mix of all renewables will add more than 53 gigawatts (GW) of net new generating capacity to the nation’s total by April 2023. That is nearly 50 times the net new capacity (1.1 GW) projected to be added by natural gas, coal, oil, and nuclear power combined.”
The SDC sends its material out by email, but seems to not post the contents online. I have not found the full contents of the email posted, except at the GET website. Anyone interested might request being put on the SDC email list at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @SunDayCampaign on Twitter.
This particular item was widely commented on in the media, as SDC releases often are. But the issue everyone covered was the fact that renewables accounted for 100% of installations in April. It seems nearly nobody noticed the paragraph above.
I was stunned by the idea that renewables would outpace fossil fuels plus nuclear by a factor of 50 over the next three years. In fact, I double-checked the data at FERC. It is true, as you can see for yourself in the Energy Infrastructure Update for April 2020.
On page 5 of this report is a table of Generation Capacity Additions and Retirements. Pay attention to the columns of High Probability Additions and Retirements. If you add the sections on the fossil fuels and nuclear from both (counting retirements as negative), and then add the sections on renewables the same way, you do, indeed, find that FERC expects net additions for renewables to be nearly 50 times as great as net additions for fossil fuels plus nuclear in the next three years.
We might consider a couple of things here, as we ponder the future. One is that FERC is entirely dominated by Trump appointees who seem to be determined to undermine renewable energy in favor of helping fossil fuels. I wonder what is going on in their heads when they look at the data their own commission has released.
Another thing, however, is that the news from the real world suggests that coal, in particular, is declining faster than FERC, or anyone else, could have expected. Every week, I seem to see two or three announcements of coal-burning power plants being closed ahead of schedule. These are retirements that FERC has not yet taken into account.
As retirements continue to increase, the change in net capacity for fossil fuels will soon go into negative territory. Clearly, this will happen to coal before it happens to gas, which is still growing. Plants powered by gas may be hit soon, however, especially as the price of the fuel itself is projected to increase.
Photo: Wind turbines in the desert, by Dennis Schroeder | NREL. Public domain.