Renewable Energy Is Coming Online at a Record Pace

Solar and wind projects have accounted for nearly all new power generation in the U.S. this year.
Solar panels at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas. (Photo: Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images)
May 18, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

How big is the United States’ renewable energy boom?

Big. Very big. For the first three months of 2016, the United States electrical grid added 70 times the amount of new energy capacity from renewable sources that it did from natural gas.

This is a record, according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s latest Energy Infrastructure Update report, which noted that no new capacity was added to the grid from coal, oil, or nuclear power generation.

A majority of the 1,291 megawatts of new generation in the first quarter came from wind and solar. Nine new wind power projects provided 707 megawatts of capacity in the first quarter, followed by 44 solar projects adding 522 megawatts of capacity, biomass projects bringing 33 megawatts, and hydropower adding 29 megawatts.

Only two new natural gas projects came online, providing 18 megawatts of generating capacity.

Natural gas still makes up about 40 percent of power capacity, while coal and oil supply about 30 percent. Renewables provide 18 percent of capacity, though that figure does not account for residential rooftop solar systems.

RELATED: U.S. Coal Production Falls to 30-Year Low as Solar Powers Up

One reason for the uptick in renewables has been a buy-in from big utility providers, such as Duke Energy, the Southern Company, and the energy arm of Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway.

President Obama’s Clean Power Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and state renewable energy mandates has prompted utility companies to increasingly invest in wind and solar farms.

By 2020, Duke Energy plans to double its production of renewable power to 8,000 megawatts, according to The Wall Street Journal. That includes $3 billion for new wind and solar projects. Today, solar and wind farms account for 2.5 percent of the company’s power production, nearly double the share in 2012.

At the Paris climate summit last December, the U.S. pledged to lower its greenhouse gas emissions 28 percent by 2025. A recent study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that the U.S. could slash greenhouse gas emissions from power plants 80 percent by 2030 by improving the grid to transmit renewable energy around the country.

“Almost everybody believes that if we go to wind and solar energy, it will be more expensive or won’t be ready unless we have a big technological breakthrough” in battery storage technology, study coauthor Alexander MacDonald told TakePart. “Our study says that with existing transmission technology and use of the whole 48 states with this ‘interstate for electrons,’ we’re ready right now to have a national system that has the same electric costs as today, with as much as 80 percent less carbon and just as reliable.”