Growth in Renewables Matching U.S. Nuclear Generation

A business group geared toward sustainable energy says renewable sources of energy for the first time are generating nearly as much power as the entire fleet of U.S. nuclear reactors.

The Business Council for Sustainable Energy (BCSE), along with Bloomberg New Energy Finance, on February 15 released the sixth edition of its Sustainable Energy in America Factbook. The report says power generation from renewables contributes 18% of the nation’s electricity production, helped by continued growth in wind and solar installations, and an increase in hydropower, particularly in the western U.S.

The report’s summary notes, “Renewables achieved new heights partly due to a rebound in hydro as reservoir levels on the West Coast recovered after a severe, prolonged drought. At the  same time, a chart-busting number of wind and solar projects built in 2016 had their first full year of operation in 2017, bolstering non-hydro renewable generation by 15%.”

The report says the nation’s 99 nuclear reactors, located at 61 operating plants in 30 states, produce about 19% of all U.S. electricity. The Trump administration’s recent budget proposal for the 2018-19 fiscal year supports nuclear and coal-fired generation, and cuts funding for renewables.

The BCSE’s membership includes dozens of manufacturers, renewable energy and natural gas industry trade groups, and utilities such as National Grid and Pacific Gas & Electric.

The report says 18 GW of renewable energy came online in 2017, calling it “another boom year for renewables build” on the heels of 22.7 GW of new solar and wind generation in 2016. The report also says renewables’ share of the U.S. energy portfolio has been helped by a slight decline in natural gas-fired generation, which fell from 34% in 2016 to 32% in 2017, according to the group. However, the report says natural gas will continue to lead the U.S. generation mix, noting more natural gas-fired units came online in 2017 than in any year since 2005.

Continued low prices for natural gas continue to make it cost-advantaged for power generators, particularly against coal. Vitaliy Krasko, an energy market analyst for DrillingInfo, recently told POWER, “Overall we expect gas demand from the power sector to increase this year compared to last. One driver of that is our expectation of lower prices.” Krasko also said “Company announcements indicate about 12 GW of coal [generation is] set to retire this year and another 1.2 GW is switching fuels.”

Krasko noted retirements of coal plants in Texas—more than 5 GW of generation is expected to go offline over the next year— are “unprecedented.” The state also is experiencing strong growth in wind generation; a University of Texas analysis last fall showed wind generation capacity may already have surpassed coal-fired capacity in the state.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) latest figures for U.S. power generation, based on 2016 data, showed natural gas produced 33.8% of U.S. power that year, followed by coal-fired generation at 30.4%, with nuclear at 19.7%, and renewables—including hydropower, wind, biomass, solar, and geothermal—at 14.9%.

The BCSE report says, “Overall, renewables have contributed 55% of total [power generation] build in the past 10 years. Non-hydro renewables continued to represent the largest share of all U.S. new installations, hitting roughly 62% in 2017.”

The report also notes that, “Greater energy efficiency and the continued availability of cheap fuels likely contributed to keeping electricity costs a modest part of total consumer expenditures. Spending on natural gas also remained muted, as consumers directed just under 0.4% of their outlays to this resource, similar to 2016 levels.”

Darrell Proctor is a POWER associate editor (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine)