To make a swift transition to a cleaner grid, the United States needs to set records for renewable electricity generation pretty much every single quarter. So far in 2022, the numbers are encouraging.
From January to March, renewable energy power plants generated 242,956 gigawatt-hours, which was 23.5 percent of U.S. electricity generation, both records—an increase from 19.5 percent in the first quarter of 2021, and 20.8 percent in the full year. The growth was thanks in part to more than 80 new wind and solar plants that went online during the quarter. The figures are from the Energy Information Administration.
But before you celebrate, it’s important to note that reaching new highs is expected in our rapidly changing energy economy. The thing to pay attention to is the size of the gains, said Michelle Solomon, a policy analyst for the think tank Energy Innovation.
“What we really need to do is accelerate the deployment of renewables over time,” she said.
I spoke with Solomon and her colleague, Dan Esposito, a senior policy analyst, about the latest numbers.
Esposito said the growth in wind and solar came in spite of various challenges faced by developers, including shortages of some parts and long waits to get approval to connect to the grid. The share of renewables almost definitely would have been larger without those obstacles.
“It’s been a very challenging environment over the last year or two for development in general,” he said.
As renewables gained ground, coal lost a little. Coal was at 21.2 percent for the quarter, down a fraction of a percentage point, both from the same quarter last year and the prior year.
Natural gas remains the country’s leading fuel for power plants, with gas-fired plants producing 35.2 percent of U.S. electricity generation in the first quarter. This was a slight increase from 34.7 percent in the first quarter of last year, and a decrease from 38.3 percent in all of 2021.
Natural gas prices have spiked this year, but that hasn’t yet translated into a substantial decrease in the use of gas to produce electricity.
I was expecting to see a decrease in hydropower, considering the many reports of declining water levels at major hydroelectric plants. But hydropower was up, with 7.4 percent of the U.S. total for the quarter compared to 7 percent in the first quarter of last year and 6.3 percent in an unusually low 2021. The main reason for the increase was that the two leading states for hydropower, Washington and Oregon, reported large gains from their plants, and most other states reported at least some increase. This is one to watch as we head into a hot summer.
More than 120 new power plants began operating in the first quarter, most of which were wind or solar farms.
The new wind farms were on the large side, with 11 projects producing a total of 2,469.8 megawatts. Solar projects came in a wide variety of sizes, with 71 projects and a total of 2,196.7 megawatts.
Four coal-fired power plants closed during the quarter, including two big ones: Avon Lake plant near Cleveland, which went online in 1970, and had capacity of 680 megawatts; and Cheswick Generating Station near Pittsburgh, which also went online in 1970, and had capacity of 637 megawatts.
Whenever we talk about the capacity of various types of power plants, it’s important to specify that a megawatt of a plant that can run around the clock is not the same as a megawatt of intermittent sources like wind and solar.
For example, the country’s nuclear plants run almost all the time, so a 500-megawatt plant is going to generate close to its maximum possible output of 12,000 megawatt-hours in a day (500 megawatts multiplied by 24 hours). Coal and gas plants are capable of running around the clock, but in practice they run much less based on many factors, including the availability of lower-cost alternatives.
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Solar and wind have some of the lowest operational costs, but they also generate some of the least electricity relative to capacity. A 500-megawatt wind farm generates about 4,200 megawatt-hours in a day, and a 500 megawatt solar farm generates about 3,000 megawatt-hours, based on national averages.
So it’s going to take a lot of wind and solar to replace older plants as they reach the end of their lives. Power system planners understand this, but I don’t think the public yet grasps the magnitude of construction that needs to take place. (For more detail, Energy Innovation and the University of California, Berkeley, issued a report last year that looked at scenarios for getting to 80 percent carbon-free electricity by 2030.)
The system also needs a mix of other resources, which could include new geothermal, nuclear and other technologies, plus lots of energy storage to help fill in any gaps. That’s part of how to make carbon-free electricity grow at the pace required to help avoid the worst effects of climate change. And we’re getting there—if we keep accelerating.
Other stories about the energy transition to take note of this week:
Los Angeles Is Banning Most Gas Appliances in New Homes: The Los Angeles City Council has voted to ban most natural gas appliances in new construction. The council is leaving it to city agencies to spell out how to implement the policy and create a plan for the council to approve by the end of 2022, as Sammy Roth reports for the Los Angeles Times. Friday’s vote “puts us in line with climate leaders across the country,” said Nithya Raman, the council member who is the policy’s lead author. California has led the nation in local governments taking actions to limit the use of natural gas in buildings, starting with Berkeley in 2019.
Wyoming Has Become a Test Case for Carbon Capture, but Utilities are Balking at the Pricetag: In 2020, Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon signed a first-in-the-nation law that requires electrical utilities to generate some of their power from coal plants fitted with carbon capture equipment. But two years later, Wyoming may be no closer to willing this coal-friendly climate solution into being, as my colleague Nicholas Kusnetz reports. In March, utilities covered by the law submitted filings to regulators saying that carbon capture was not economically feasible. Retrofitting their plants would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, at the least, they said, forcing them to raise customers’ electricity bills. “There are so many other cheaper and cleaner ways to decarbonize electricity that I don’t see carbon capture as likely to have a big role,” said Dan Cohan, an associate professor of environmental engineering at Rice University. “The economics just don’t make sense.”
Utility Gets Approval to Build 416-mile Power Line Across US West: The federal government has given the utility PacifiCorp approval to proceed with building a transmission line that would connect wind farms in eastern Wyoming with customers in Utah and elsewhere in the West. The project, called Energy Gateway South, is part of a larger plan by PacifiCorp to build 2,000 miles of new transmission lines across the West, as the Associated Press reports. These interstate power lines, nearly all of which are overhead lines, are an essential part of transporting electricity from rural wind farms and solar arrays to the population centers where most electricity is consumed.
The Race to Mine Lithium in America’s Backyard: Piedmont Lithium, a mining company initially incorporated in Australia, is running into local opposition in its push to open a mine in North Carolina. Demand for lithium is high for use in lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles and battery storage systems. But many people who live near the proposed mine don’t like the idea of their community being transformed by the noise, dust and potential hazardous runoff from an open-pit mine, as Aime Williams reports for The Financial Times.
Inside Clean Energy is ICN’s weekly bulletin of news and analysis about the energy transition. Send news tips and questions to email@example.com.