Is the Writing on the Wall for Traditional Baseload Generation?

According to the latest Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's (FERC) Office of Energy Projects report, "Energy Infrastructure Update - March 2016," (pdf) renewable energy made up almost 99 percent of all new and expanded power generation capacity added in the United States during the first three months of 2016.

Of the 1,309 megawatts (MW) of new energy added, 1,291 of it was renewable:

  • Wind (707 MW)—9 new units
  • Solar (522 MW)—44 new units
  • Biomass (33 MW)—9 new units
  • Water/Hydropower (29 MW)—1 new unit

The remaining 18 MW (2 units) that were added were new natural gas capacity. And even new natural gas expansions have been decreasing significantly in recent times. During the first three months of 2015, for example, 458 MW of natural gas (10 units) were added.

During the first three months of 2016, according to FERC, there were no new or expanded coal, nuclear, oil, or geothermal steam installations.

Still, according to FERC's numbers, renewables represent a small percentage (under 17 percent) of total existing generation:

  • Natural gas: 43 percent (500 GW)
  • Coal: 26 percent (302 GW)
  • Nuclear: 9 percent (107 GW)
  • Water: 8 percent (100 GW)
  • Wind: 6 percent (75 GW)
  • Oil: 4 percent (45 GW)
  • Biomass: 1 percent (17 GW)
  • Solar: 1 percent (16 GW)
  • Geothermal steam: 0.3 percent (4 GW)

However, when it comes to solar, both in terms of new generation and the percentage of total existing generation, some observers note that the actual capacity is underreported, since FERC does not track and report anything with a nameplate capacity under 1 MW. This means that rooftop solar installations, which are proliferating throughout the nation, are not included in FERC's calculations.

Where is renewable energy headed? According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in a January 2016 article on its website ("Rapid, affordable energy transformation possible"): "With nothing more than an improved national transmission system, a transition to a reliable, low-carbon, electrical generation and transmission system can be accomplished with commercially-available technology within 15 years."

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