Renewable energy tops coal for capacity

Capacity isn’t actual generation, cautions research group, but U.S. trend is clear

Wind farms and farms coexist in Illinois. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Wind farms and farms coexist in Illinois. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

For the first time, the capacity to generate renewable energy tops coal power across the nation, according to the latest government data.

Reuters reported Sunday that the Sun Day Campaign, “a nonprofit research group supporting sustainable energy,” issued a report last week finding that “U.S. electrical generating capacity by renewable energy sources (i.e., biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar, wind) has now — for the first time — surpassed that of coal.”

The Sun Day Campaign cautions: “Capacity is not the same as actual generation. Capacity factors for nuclear power and fossil fuels tend to be higher than those for most renewables.” For instance, last year the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that “renewables accounted for a little more than 17.6 percent of the nation's total electrical generation — that is, a bit less than their share of installed generating capacity in 2018 (over 21.2 percent). Coal's share of electrical generation in 2018 was 27.2 percent,” according to the Sun Day Campaign.

But the prevailing trend reflected in the latest Federal Energy Regulatory Commission data through April is unmistakable. According to the Sun Day Campaign: “18 ‘units’ of new wind capacity (1,545 milliwatts) and 102 units of new solar capacity (1,473 MW) were added during the first four months of this year. Coupled with four units of new hydropower (29 MW), that was enough to push renewable energy's share of total available installed U.S. generating capacity up to 21.56 percent. By comparison, coal's share dropped to 21.55 percent (down from 23.04 percent a year ago).”

The federal data show that renewable energy has been growing its share of the national capacity by a steady percentage point a year, up from 20.66 percent a year ago and 18.16 percent three years ago.

According to the campaign, the federal figures project that “by May 2022, proposed ‘high probability’ generation additions and retirements could result in a net increase in renewable energy capacity of 40,993 MW. By comparison, net capacity by nuclear, coal, oil, and natural gas combined could actually decline by 24 MW; that is, retirements would exceed additions.”

And it points out that the federal research only counts “utility-scale” power plants generating a milliwatt or more of power. So it doesn’t count personal or business energy devices like rooftop solar photovoltaic panels, which “accounts for approximately 30 percent of the nation's electrical generation by solar. That would suggest that solar capacity is now actually 4 percent — or more — of the nation's total and could increase by more than 20,000 MW by May 2022.”

The Sun Day Campaign calls itself “a nonprofit research and educational organization founded in 1992 to support a rapid transition to 100 percent reliance on sustainable energy technologies as a cost-effective alternative to nuclear power and fossil fuels and as a solution to climate change.”

Gov. Pritzker signed a bill into law in April streamlining the approval process for wind farms. The American Wind Energy Association has ranked Illinois sixth in the nation with 2,632 turbines generating 4,464 megawatts a year or 6.2 percent of the state's energy needs, enough to power over 1 million homes. The industry also employs more than 5,000 people in the state, with annual land-lease payments of between $10 and $15 million, with complementary savings in water and carbon-dioxide emissions compared with nuclear and fossil-fuel energy sources.