U.S. Turns to Solar—Not Coal—to Meet Power Needs

Solar and wind power plants are expected to make up more than half of new electrical generation coming online this year.

(Photo: Neil Beckerman/Getty Images)

Mar 2, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

For the first time, solar power will make up the lion’s share of new power added to the United States utility grid.

According to an analysis from the United States Energy Information Administration, solar and wind will account for more than half of all new electric generation in 2016—the latest indication that the country is moving away from high-polluting, climate change–influencing fossil fuels such as coal and oil.

More than 26 gigawatts of electric-generating capacity is slated to come online this year, with solar, natural gas, and wind making up 37 percent, 31 percent, and 26 percent of the total, respectively. A gigawatt of power provides enough energy for about 700,000 homes.

“Over the past 20 years, natural gas has been the leading source of new power, but the increase in solar and wind means we will probably have three dominant sources of power in the years to come,” said Tim Shea, an energy analyst with EIA.

Map shows all utility-scale power generation stations planned to come online in 2016. (Photo: Courtesy U.S. Energy Information Administration)

Falling costs of solar panels is one of the main reasons for the uptick in solar plants coming online, Shea said. Additionally, utilities companies in a growing number of states are required to meet certain renewable energy standards, and solar power is one of the ways they can meet those requirements.

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“Part of their power production has to come from solar to meet the state-mandated goals, but now, in some areas of the country, it’s actually economic to build solar plants that can compete with more traditional energy sources,” Shea said.

The 9.5 gigawatts of solar power slated for the grid in 2016 is more than what came online in the past three years combined. The top five states where solar capacity is being added are California (3.9 gigawatts), North Carolina (1.1 gigawatts), Nevada (0.9 gigawatts), Texas (0.7 gigawatts), and Georgia (0.7 gigawatts).

It’s important to note that these numbers only account for utility-scale solar—leaving out commercial and residential solar installations. Last year, 8.4 gigawatts of distributed solar capacity were added—enough to power 1.3 million homes.

As for coal, only three plants are expected to come online this year—one 50-megawatt plant in Alaska and two marginal plants on Pennsylvania State University’s campus. The additions will make up less than 1 percent of the new power added to the grid in 2016.

Still, coal remains a powerhouse of electricity generation for the U.S., producing 1.4 billion megawatt-hours per day of electricity in 2015, edging out natural gas—at 1.3 billion megawatt-hours per day—for the top spot in U.S. power generation.

But the dirty fuels’ days as a top U.S. power source are numbered. In 2015, companies shut down 15,000 megawatts of coal plants—the most power ever taken offline in a single year. According to the Obama administration’s impending Clean Power Plan, coal plants will have to cut greenhouse gas emissions as much as 32 percent by 2030.