Energy

The US Just Surpassed a Major Renewable Energy Milestone

Wind and solar energy supplied 10 percent of the nation's energy in March for the first time.

Renewables tend to surge in the spring, as the season brings more sunlight and wind to some parts of the country. But they’ve never hit double digits as a share of American power production until now, the department’s Energy Information Administration reported this week.

Eight of that 10 percent was from wind power, which comes from the turbines that have sprouted like cactus across much of the western United States in the past decade. But both rooftop and utility-scale solar energy combined to produce another 2 percent the month’s electrical output, and April’s numbers are expected to hit 10 percent as well once they’re compiled, the agency reported.

In part, it’s a seasonal thing, EIA analyst Owen Comstock said. March and April see less need for heat in most of the United States, while the demand for air conditioning doesn’t kick in until later in the summer, so it’s easier for wind and solar to take a bigger share of generation. The numbers bounce up and down throughout the year, with the percentage of non-hydroelectric renewables in 2016 ending up at 7 percent.

But the latest monthly figure also grew when compared to March and April 2016, when non-hydroelectric renewables made up 8.6 percent of US generation, Comstock said. And the amount of power produced grew in 2017, so this year’s March figure is 10 percent of a bigger number — and it’s likely to be repeated in April, he said.

“We definitely have installed more wind and solar over the past year,” he said. Utilities have been installing more renewable power capacity than fossil fuel generators, and the United States is expected to reach 10 percent for the year as a whole by 2020, he said.

Renewables tend to surge in the spring, as the season brings more sunlight and wind to some parts of the country. But they’ve never hit double digits as a share of American power production until now, the department’s Energy Information Administration reported this week.

Eight of that 10 percent was from wind power, which comes from the turbines that have sprouted like cactus across much of the western United States in the past decade. But both rooftop and utility-scale solar energy combined to produce another 2 percent the month’s electrical output, and April’s numbers are expected to hit 10 percent as well once they’re compiled, the agency reported.

In part, it’s a seasonal thing, EIA analyst Owen Comstock said. March and April see less need for heat in most of the United States, while the demand for air conditioning doesn’t kick in until later in the summer, so it’s easier for wind and solar to take a bigger share of generation. The numbers bounce up and down throughout the year, with the percentage of non-hydroelectric renewables in 2016 ending up at 7 percent.

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But the latest monthly figure also grew when compared to March and April 2016, when non-hydroelectric renewables made up 8.6 percent of US generation, Comstock said. And the amount of power produced grew in 2017, so this year’s March figure is 10 percent of a bigger number — and it’s likely to be repeated in April, he said.

“We definitely have installed more wind and solar over the past year,” he said. Utilities have been installing more renewable power capacity than fossil fuel generators, and the United States is expected to reach 10 percent for the year as a whole by 2020, he said.

Even for a month, hitting 10 percent is a “great breakthrough” for renewables, said Marilyn Brown, who studies energy markets at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

“The trend is strong, and eventually it will push through 10 percent for the full year,” she said.

The cost of wind power has plummeted, and it’s expected to remain a much bigger source than solar power for about 20 years. But solar is catching up, as the price of photovoltaic panels has fallen and more states are allowing homeowners to sell excess electricity back to utilities. Atlanta recently set a goal of getting 100 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2035, and research into better batteries to store power for nighttime hours has been booming as well, Brown said.

“I just spent two days at a storage conference in Washington last week,” she said. “Performance is better and costs are down, but still nowhere near what we need.”

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Texas now produces more wind energy than any US state in terms of total wattage, while the biggest share of wind and solar power in 2016 was found in Iowa, where they made up 37 percent of the state’s output, according to the EIA. In California and Arizona, meanwhile, solar produced more energy than wind.

Non-hydroelectric renewables now make up a bigger share of power than electricity from dams. And low-carbon power sources — hydroelectric, wind, solar, and nuclear energy — now make up about a third of US electric consumption.

At the same time, the boom in cheap natural gas is cutting into the share of power produce by coal-fired power plants. The oil major BP reported Tuesday that coal production worldwide plummeted in 2016, amid flat demand for energy and inroads by cleaner sources.

All those developments have combined to sharply cut US emissions of planet-warming carbon dioxide and other pollutants, said Dan Bakal, director of electric power at the sustainability advocacy group Ceres.

“We have continued to decouple economic growth from emissions growth, so we can grow the economy while reducing emissions,” said Bakal, whose group documented that trend in a report this week. “They can go hand-in-hand. It’s been five-plus years now, and we’re seeing that trend now continuing and even strengthening.”

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