After years of debate over its validity, much less its viability, renewable energy has proven to be one of the most successful solutions offered from the land in response to a changing climate.
Power and transportation fuels that are significantly cleaner than traditional, fossil-fuel-based sources have achieved a legitimacy that is far past any “turning point” that analysts only a few years ago claimed renewable energy must surpass to be considered a critical part of the nation’s energy strategy.
While renewable energy has been the fastest growing domestic energy sector over the past decade, in recent years the expansion of sources such as wind, solar and biopower has boomed, adding on to the impressive growth of a sector that also includes hydropower, geothermal power and biofuels.
The DOE’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) this month said it expects that non-hydroelectric renewable energy resources such as solar and wind will be the fastest-growing source of U.S. electricity generation for at least the next two years.
EIA’s January 2019 Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO) forecasts that electricity generation from utility-scale solar generating units will grow by 10 percent in 2019 and by 17 percent in 2020. The January STEO also shows that wind generation will grow by 12 percent this year and 14 percent next year. Those increases will raise the share held by solar and wind energy in total U.S. electricity generation, which the EIA expects to fall by 2 percent this year and then show very little growth in 2020.
The projected increase in renewable energy resources is a result of the new generating capacity the industry expects to bring online. About 11 gigawatts (GW) of wind capacity is scheduled to come online in 2019, which will be the largest amount of new wind capacity installed in the United States since 2012. Furthermore, EIA expects that electricity generated from wind this year will surpass hydropower generation. With an additional 8 GW of wind capacity scheduled to come in 2020, the share of total U.S. generation from wind is projected to increase from 7 percent last year to 9 percent next year.
Meanwhile, solar is now the third-largest renewable energy source in the United States power sector (solar surpassed biomass in 2017). With 4 GW of new utility-scale solar capacity projected to be added this year and almost 6 GW in 2020, operational solar capacity will increase by some 32 percent over the two-year span, the EIA projects.
In addition to utility-scale solar in the electric power sector, small-scale residential and business photovoltaic-system capacity is projected by EIA to grow by almost 9 GW during the next two years, a huge increase of 44 percent.
As has been the case for over the past five years, the levelized cost of energy from solar and wind continues to drop rapidly. Lazard Ltd., a financial advisory group, says that with utility-scale solar at $36 per megawatt-hour and wind at $29, both are cheaper than the most efficient natural gas plants, coal plants or nuclear reactors. That savings has contributed to renewables now representing some 18 percent of total power generation, doubling since 2008.
Renewable energy’s growth has resulted in the reduction of coal’s share of total generation from 45 percent in 2010 to 24 percent last year, the EIA says. Furthermore, the location of many solar plants and most wind plants on lands leased in rural America offers stable, much needed revenue streams to areas of the country that have been economically hammered for well more than four years due to flagging commodity prices and trade policy disputes.
Power generated by biomass is still a relatively small share of total generation – about 1 percent. But with new federal policy that holds biomass carbon neutral, it is an expanding $1-billion industry with 80 facilities in 20 states that accounts for more than 15,500 jobs, many of which are in small rural communities. By using organic forest residues – material that would otherwise be dumped in landfills, openly burned, or left as fodder for forest fires – biomass power is displacing some 30 million tons of carbon emissions annually.
Corn-based ethanol, which research shows has up to 43 percent fewer carbon emissions than gasoline, continues to represent about 10 percent of the nation’s transportation fuel – a share that will grow once the Trump administration follows through on its promise to end the unnecessary ban on summertime sale of E15. The share could grow even more if the administration follows through on DOE research showing that high-octane, low-carbon ethanol blends up to 40 percent, paired with optimized engines, are among the lowest-cost means to achieve significant car and light truck fuel economy goals and GHG reductions going forward.
Renewable energy is one part of an “all-of-the-above” national energy strategy. Natural gas and other fossil fuels will remain the largest part of our energy resource base for decades to come. But SfL, its partners and other stakeholders are making clear to policy makers the positive impact renewable energy is having on efforts to diversify our nation’s energy portfolio and curb climate change, all while shoring up the economic health of rural America. It’s a banner we are proud to bear.