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Coal-Fired Generation Declines 14.3% in 2015, Wind and Solar Power Booms. The Changing of the Energy Guard is Coming.

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by Dan from Nevada

When the Supreme Court issued a stay on Obama’s Clean Power Plan on February 9, 2016 it sent a signal to Republicans and their pollution-spewing campaign contributors that the battle against science may not be lost. But before Kentucky and West Virginia coal producers celebrate with a glass of fine Appalachian water poisoned by coal ash, they should look at the trend lines which show that the winds of change have already come.

On Friday February 26, the Energy Information Agency of the U.S. Department of Energy released results of generation totals from 2015. Wind energy is booming. Solar power is taking off. Energy efficiency is taking hold. But most amazingly, generation from coal-fired power declined 14.3% in one year. This hasn’t been part of an ongoing trend. Coal-fired generation increased from 2012 to 2013 and from 2013 to 2014. This isn’t just a decline, this is an absolute changing of the guard.

Granted, coal-fired power remains the number one source of U.S. electric generation — 33.1% last year, with natural gas in 2nd at 32.9%. In 2014, coal was 38.5% and natural gas was 27.7%. Coal used to be half of our electric generation. Now it’s less than a third.

Nuclear power hasn’t shifted too much. It was almost identical in 2015 to 2014. Nuclear power accounted for approximately 19.5% of total electric generation last year. Nuclear power plants, once considered long-term cheap energy, have been struggling to compete with natural gas. States like Illinois and New York have been scrambling to save nuclear plants from shutting down for economic reasons.

Hydropower remains variable based on weather conditions like El Nino.  It has ranged from 6% to 7% of electric generation over the last several years. In 2015 it was only 6.1%. The largest decline has been in California where hydro production was cut in half between 2012 and 2015 due to the persistent drought.

Renewable energy continues to increase dramatically. Non-hydro renewable energy has more than doubled since the end of 2009, the year that the stimulus package proposed by President Obama was passed by Congress with significant support for renewable energy.

Wind generation is still booming, and it will make a big dent in 2016, probably rivaling hydropower with close to 6% of electric generation expected. Odd weather conditions caused wind power to be much lower than normal in 2015, even though wind power increased to 4.7% of electric generation in 2015 from 4.5% of electric generation in 2014. In 2015, Texas wind power alone generated more power than 18 individual states generated from all energy sources. Wind power in Texas generates more power than the states of Maryland, Massachusetts, and Nevada. Iowa now generates 31.3% of its power from wind, ranking second to Texas. Oklahoma is third, generating nearly a fifth of its energy from wind turbines.

Solar power is where a major change is occurring. Granted, just under 1% of electric generation was from solar in 2015, but just three years ago it was only one tenth of one percent. In some places, solar really makes a dent. Last year, California generated approximately 10.2% of its electric generation from solar energy. In 2014 it was 6.9%. In 2013 it was about 3%, and in 2012 it was about 1%. If California were a country it would be the world’s 10th or 11th largest economy, so this is a huge deal.

Biomass energy including wood-waste, biogas, waste-to energy and landfill gas, continues to grow. Since the end of 2009, biomass power has increased by 17% and is now 1.6% of total generation. Biomass can be co-fired with fossil fuels particularly for combined heat and power (CSP).

Geothermal energy, utilizing heat from the earth near hot springs and volcanic zones, has increased by 12% since the end of 2009.

According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), approximately 64% of all new electric generating capacity installed in 2015 was renewable forms of energy, and that does not account for rooftop solar and distributed generation, which would likely boost that number to over 70%.

With all this growth, it is worth noting that total power generation actually declined in 2015 from the previous year. This can be attributed greatly to energy efficiency. Remember, this figure takes into account distributed generation like rooftop solar. So, not only are we generating more of our power from our rooftops, we are using less power overall, even as the economy continues to grow.

So where are we going in the future? Well, the Energy Information Agency has consistently missed predictions. In April 2015, for instance, they predicted that renewable energy would make up 18% of U.S. power by 2040. With current trends, renewable energy will be 15% in 2016, and likely 16% by 2017. In all likelihood, we will reach 18% renewable energy by 2020 — twenty years earlier than 2040!

2016 will see dramatic growth in renewables and continued decline in coal. There have been more than 38 Gigawatts of coal plant retirements since the end of 2010 and that trend will continue in 2016 despite the Supreme Court decision on the Clean Power Plan. 38 gigawatts of baseload coal power is enough power to serve the entire electric demand of the cities of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Phoenix, and Houston combined. 38 gigawatts can provide power for approximately 30 million average U.S. homes.

At the same time, natural gas electric generation capacity has grown by, guess what, 38 gigawatts. Granted, natural gas does not replace coal on a one-for-one basis. Natural gas plants operate less often, providing peak power. But natural gas has taken up a lot of the slack. And we cannot rely on natural gas as our replacement fuel. Prices may be cheap now, but just over seven years ago we were in the midst of a shock in high natural gas prices. A similar price shock occurred just over a decade ago after Hurricane Katrina.

In addition, more natural gas used for electric generation means more communities like Porter Ranch in California in danger of evacuation from methane leaks, more fracking in more places with questions over the adequacy of regulations, more emissions from drilling activities, and more pipelines built with concern over explosions that have occurred over previous years with sometimes fatal results.

The trend that will be very interesting by 2020 and beyond will be the impact of power storage. Natural gas provides peak power. That means when people come home at the end of the day and turn on their televisions, their appliances and their chargers, the gas-fired peaker plants need to fire up to meet the additional energy demand. But what if renewable energy, like solar energy stored during the day, could be released in the evening hours when it is most needed? Would we need to build as many new natural gas peaker plants?

Illinois is a perfect example. Illinois has 17 gigawatts of natural gas power, enough to power every home in Illinois if operating fully all at once. Illinois has just under 4 gigawatts of wind power, enough for maybe a couple million homes on a windy day. Yet Illinois wind power in 2015 generated more power than natural gas did, with less than 25% of the capacity. Wind power in Illinois generated almost double that of natural gas in 2014. Why have $15 billion worth of natural gas power plants with associated pipelines if you barely use them?! In December 2015 EDF Renewable Energy installed two 20 megawatt battery packs about 60 miles northwest of Chicago. Combined, these battery packs can store enough power for nearly 30,000 homes. This negates the need for natural gas power to serve peak load for those homes. These batteries don’t need smokestacks or pipelines. They can store wind energy when it’s windy and release the energy when it isn’t.

Republicans should realize from these results that the so-called “war on coal” has ended, and that coal has lost. Nuclear energy won’t be the saving grace. One new nuclear plant was completed last year in Tennessee after decades of delays, and there are two large nuclear power plants under construction in Georgia and South Carolina. Each of these three plants have seen cost overruns in the hundreds of millions of dollars and have had between three and four years of delays.

Nuclear power plants take 10 to 15 years to build once a site is secured and approvals are granted. A solar project or a wind farm can take less than 2 years. In 2015 alone, as much solar and wind energy was installed in the U.S. as four large scale nuclear plants, at a lower cost!

People may say that generating a majority of our power from renewable energy is a pipe dream, a fantasy, and too expensive to justify. That is why John Kasich decided in 2014 to freeze Ohio’s renewable portfolio standard. He wanted to save Ohio ratepayers money. But the truth is that Ohio has built so little renewable energy that his state produced only 1.8% of its generation from renewable energy in 2015. That ranks Ohio dead last in the country in terms of percentage of generation by renewable energy. That should be an embarrassment to John Kasich. Renewable energy wasn’t a burden to Ohio; LACK of renewable energy was the burden. Meanwhile, neighboring states like Indiana and Michigan continue to see hundreds of millions of dollars invested each year in renewable energy. Most of the Midwest has gotten the message that wind power, and increasingly solar power, makes economic sense. The exception is Wisconsin, which essentially legislated a near prohibition of large scale renewable energy projects after Republican Gov. Scott Walker took office. It has been nearly impossible to build a wind farm there ever since.

As long as we keep building renewable energy, it will continue to get less expensive. Wind farms and solar plants have higher capacity factors due to greater efficiency and technological improvements. And these trends will continue regardless of Republicans and the fossil fuel industry trying to stop it. Extending tax credits for alternative energy in exchange for opening up oil exports last December was a good idea. We can let go of a 20th-century energy resource in exchange for a 21st -century energy resource.

In 2012, Barack Obama promised that if he was re-elected that we would continue to grow a clean energy future. Non-hydro renewable energy generation increased by nearly 40% since he made that pledge. Non-hydro renewable energy generation capacity has increased by over 40%. Distributed generation of solar, once considered an expensive luxury for environmental activists has become so popular that electric utilities in states like Arizona, Florida, and Nevada are battling with citizens because they fear losing money from the competition! Rooftop solar has become big business that makes economic sense, and that has electric utilities running scared.

Mitt Romney promised to end subsidies for renewable energy and retain subsidies for oil and gas. Imagine what we would have lost if he had been elected and gotten his way. The only thing that can stop this revolution in renewable energy and innovations like storage, if that is even possible, is two things. One, a Republican in office hell bent on ending subsidies to renewable energy and completely beholden to fossil fuel interests, and two, a Republican in office who will bankrupt this country, and damage its economy so much that there is no need for new power plants to fuel economic growth. Our economy hasn’t grown despite spending billions of dollars on renewable energy subsidies, it has grown in part because of it. Cheaper, cleaner, and more reliable energy can be, and is being produced by renewable energy. Put that in your smokestack and choke on it!