Renewable energy rose to make up nearly one-fourth of the electricity generated in the United States in the second quarter this year, while coal generation declined.
The changing sources for our electricity are happening as the West deals with a years-long drought and sweats through a late summer heatwave—events that underscore why we need an energy transition to respond to climate change, and also how climate change is increasing the challenge of managing the system through the transition.
Renewables’ 24.8 percent share of generation is a new high, but as I’ve said here many times, records are to be expected during an energy transition. The latest figures are from the Energy Information Administration.
“We’re heading in the right direction,” said Joshua Rhodes, an energy systems research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin.
He’s been paying attention to how quickly coal is falling after its surge in 2021. The answer so far: The retreat is quick but not quite a sprint.
Coal had been on a long-term decline, but then showed signs of a revival in 2021 with a small increase. The year before, renewables had passed coal for the first time, but then coal bounced back last year to retake the lead.
Rhodes said coal’s big drop in 2020 during the coronavirus shutdowns created an unusually low baseline for the rebound in 2021, which can skew our view of the numbers.
In 2022, coal resumed its decline and again fell behind renewables, thanks to high coal prices and the continuing wave of coal plant closings. Coal-fired power plants generated 190,547 gigawatt-hours in the second quarter, down 7.1 percent from the second quarter of 2021. (A gigawatt-hour is enough electricity to provide for the monthly needs of about 1,200 houses.)
I’ll dig a little deeper here: As of June, the country had 203 gigawatts of capacity from coal-fired power plants, and they were operating at an average “capacity factor” of 52 percent, which is an indicator of how much the plants were running.
Those numbers were down from June of 2021, when there were 210 gigawatts of coal-fired power plants and their average capacity factor was 59 percent.
So, there are fewer coal plants and they are running less.
Whenever regional grids struggle to keep up with high demand for electricity, some commentators blame the rise of renewable energy and the decline of fossil fuels. I asked Rhodes how he views this talking point.
“Nothing will stop the energy transition faster than the lights going off,” he said, meaning that the perception that clean energy leads to a lack of reliability is extremely harmful. “They must stay on.”
He thinks part of the short-term solution is to make sure the grid has reserves of “firm capacity,” with power plants that can be turned on as needed, even if that means paying owners of old fossil fuel plants to keep their plants open for use in emergencies.
This may mean having gas-fired power plants that only run for a few hours per year, at least until there is time for a much larger build-out of zero-emissions resources.
Back to the numbers: Utility-scale renewable electricity sources generated 254,754 gigawatt-hours in the second quarter, with significant gains for wind, solar and hydropower. The growth occurred even though construction of new wind and solar plants have been slowed by parts shortages and, until last month, questions about whether Congress would approve new tax credits.
I’m especially interested in hydropower’s performance, considering that much of the West is in a drought that threatens the ability of some hydroelectric dams to function.
Despite the challenges, hydropower plants generated 71,123 gigawatt-hours in the second quarter, up 7.6 percent from the second quarter in 2021.
Much of the increase came from the country’s two leading hydropower states, Washington and Oregon.
Arizona, which is suffering amid drought, experienced an 8 percent decrease in generation from its hydro plants. But that turned out to be a small change compared to the gains in other states.
For example, Washington generated 21,570 gigawatt-hours from hydro plants in the second quarter, an increase of 15 percent from the second quarter in 2021. Washington’s increase was enough to cancel out Arizona’s decrease by a factor of 20.
This doesn’t mean hydropower is safe from the effects of falling water levels in the West. Far from it, as shown by increasing concerns that the nation’s two largest power generating dams are close to “dead pool” levels that would leave them without enough water to spin their turbines. But it does show some resilience, as decreases in parts of the country are being offset by increases elsewhere.
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Wind and solar power grew by a lot in the most recent quarter, as we should expect.
Although solar gets a lot of attention for its rate of growth and some high-profile projects, wind is growing as well and has a big lead over all of the country’s other sources of renewable energy.
Natural gas remains the leading fuel for electricity, with 37.9 percent of the country’s total in the second quarter; ahead of renewables, which include wind, hydropower, solar, biomass and geothermal, at 24.8 percent; coal, 18.5 percent; and nuclear, 17.9 percent.
Utilities continue to build natural gas power plants, much to the chagrin of environmental advocates, so it will be a while until renewables dethrone the leader. But that day is coming.
Other stories about the energy transition to take note of this week:
Climate Chief Gina McCarthy Leaving White House as John Podesta Returns: Gina McCarthy, President Joe Biden’s top climate adviser, will leave the White House next week following the passage of landmark climate and clean energy legislation. She will be replaced by her top deputy, Ali Zaidi. In addition, John Podesta, who served as climate adviser to President Barack Obama, is joining the White House staff. The personnel changes are happening as the Biden administration moves onto the next phase of implementing a climate policy, as Zack Colman and Alex Thompson report for Politico.
What to Expect on Permitting Reform as Congress Returns: Congress returned from its recess this week and is heading toward a promised vote on permitting reform, a plan to streamline the approval process for energy projects. Sen. Joe Manchin agreed to support the Inflation Reduction Act on the condition that Senate Democratic leaders also would support permitting reform, and now senators need to figure out how to follow through on that pledge, even in the face of environmental advocates who are raising concerns that it will accelerate the construction of fossil fuel infrastructure, as Jeremy Dillon and Nick Sobczyk report for E&E News. Senate Democratic leaders said last month that they intend to attach the plan to a government funding bill that must pass before Oct. 1, a move that some House Democrats are planning to fight. A streamlining of the permit process likely would make it easier to build fossil fuel infrastructure, but it also could help to build projects tied to the clean energy transition.
As U.S. Offshore Wind Ramps Up, Workers Train for a New Industry: At a maritime training academy in Massachusetts, people who will build the first super-size offshore wind farm in the United States are learning the skills to stay safe while working around turbines at sea. It’s an easy process for some workers who are veterans of marine fields or construction, but for others it’s totally new, as Jennifer McDermott reports for the Associated Press. The workers are training to install Vineyard Wind I, an 800-megawatt offshore wind farm that is about to begin construction. “It kind of feels like we’re a part of this startup in a way,” said Tyler Spofford, a former tugboat captain who now works for GE Renewable Energy. “We’re up against a lot of challenges. It’s kind of fun to think them through and solve them and come up with a product and something that’s going to work, a solution.”
How California Gained the Power to Set Its Own Emissions Rules: California regulators have approved a plan that would ban the sale of gasoline vehicles by 2035, an action that is possible because of a history of state and federal rules that have given the state outsize authority to deal with its emissions. This history is tied to two California Republicans, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, as Peter Valdes-Dapena reports for CNN. Before he was president, Reagan was governor of California and signed off on the creation of the California Air Resources Board, the agency that set the state’s emissions rules and approved the 2035 ban. President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, several years after the start of the California board. The federal government allowed California to make its own emissions rules as long as those rules were more stringent than federal rules. Later actions allowed other states to choose to adopt California’s rules.
Inside Clean Energy is ICN’s weekly bulletin of news and analysis about the energy transition. Send news tips and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.