“I think the story that renewable generation is up from wind and solar and other sources is certainly the story to tell,” said Emily Williams, deputy director of industry data and analysis at the American Wind Energy Association, which heralded the report.
Here’s the bad news, though: Wind and solar are still only contributing a small fraction of the total electricity that we use, and far, far less than coal. They may be growing faster, but they’re very far behind.
The new data come from the EIA’s latest installment of Electric Power Monthly, which provides stats on net electricity generation, across different energy sources, on a monthly and also annual basis. “Net generation” is defined by EIA as the gross electricity generated from a particular power source, minus the “electrical energy consumed at the generating station(s).” It should not be confused with electricity generating “capacity,” which is how much a source can potentially generate, vs. how much it actually produced.
Based on EIA’s data, there was considerably more growth in non-fossil electricity than in fossil based generation in 2014. In particular, wind and solar grew much more than coal or natural gas:
As you can see, wind increased net generation by 13,951 thousand megawatt hours — a bigger increase than for any other electricity source — and solar by 9,285 thousand (summing together both solar photovoltaic and solar thermal). In solar’s case, net generation more than doubled from 2013 to 2014 — in 2013, it was only 9,036 thousand megawatt hours in total. In 2014, by contrast, it was 18,321 thousand megawatt hours.
Expressed as a percentage, solar grew by a stunning 103 percent, and wind by over 8 percent.
It’s not shown above, but nuclear power also showed considerable growth in net generation — 8,051 thousand more megawatt hours in 2014 than in 2013. Some environmentalists may have their reservations about it, but they can’t argue that it’s driving the global warming problem.
So what does the future portend? For wind, the gains in 2014 should continue in 2015, said Williams. “We have a very high number of megawatts under construction, and once those are allowed to generate electricity, we’re hoping to see this number go up significantly,” she said. That’s even though the wind production tax credit was only extended through the end of 2014 and is currently expired.
Solar, meanwhile, could pick up its pace even more, in light of evidence that the price of solar panels keeps falling.
In the grand scheme of things, one year — 2014 — only represents a slight nudging of the gigantic ship of U.S. energy in a renewable direction. Even if it grew less, coal is still the No. 1 source of net generation each year in the United States, followed by natural gas. And the numbers for these two sources still dwarf the totals for all renewable sources combined:
Still, there can be no denying that the U.S. energy system is changing, and that renewables — wind and solar — are booming.
Whether they’re doing so fast enough to decarbonize our world before we pass the threshold that would bring on dangerous climate change, however, is another matter.
UPDATE: On Tuesday, the EIA released a look at the sources of new electricity generating capacity scheduled to come online in 2015. And it suggests that this year will look a lot like 2014 — more additions of wind capacity, more additions of solar capacity, and more natural gas, but a decline of coal. Read here.