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Renewable growth in the US: 1, 2, 3 March 14, 2015

Posted by Maury Markowitz in power grid.
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image of two wind turbines in China

They’re popping up like weeds!

Three reports that came out about the same time highlight the dramatic changes to the US power mix which is going on largely without comment outside the nerdy circles (like this one).

The long and short is this: wind power in the US will double to about 10% in the next five years, and make up something like 35% of the US grid by around 2050. That’s fast, but solar is going in ever faster, outpacing wind. Coal is disappearing, while gas turbines take up its place.

As always, this is really about cost. Wind turbines and gas plants are far, far less expensive than any non-hydro conventional source. PV isn’t that far behind. Coal plants are actually more expensive than any of these, nuclear even more. And that, basically, is that.

First up, EIA

graph showing expected power plant construction and decommissioning each month in 2015

EIA’s projections for 2015

The US Energy Information Agency just published its report on build-outs planned for 2015. They’re expecting 9.8 GWp of new wind, 4.3 of new natural gas, 2.2 of PV and 1.1 of nuclear. Meanwhile they expect 800 MW of oil-fired and 13 GW of coal-fired plants to be closed.

A couple of notes here.

One is that 1.1 of nuclear is a single site, the first new reactors in the US in decades. Well, sort of, the plant in question was actually being built in the 1970s and mothballed.

Also, the EIA only tracks industrial-scale additions, they don’t track smaller residential or commercial-sized units. This doesn’t have any measurable effect for things like wind or coal, but since only about ⅓ of PV is industrial scale, the PV number is likely to be about three times the 2.2 GW they predict. And that brings us to…

GTM Research

graph showing the relative amounts of new power generation in the US in 2012, 13 and 14. Natural gas is the largest, but solar and wind have grown considerably.

NG remains in the lead in the US

GTM Research was hired by the Solar Energy Industries Association to work the numbers from the EIA reports and add in the things that they don’t consider. And when you do that, the numbers start looking a whole lot different.

The report states that in 2014, 6.2 GW of PV was added, three times what the EIA projections show (and about what we’d expect given the market split of PV installs). That means more PV was installed than wind. NG continues to lead, but that lead is being eroded.

If that holds for 2015, using the same scaling factor suggests that about 7 GW of PV will go in for 2015, meaning that it will be slightly behind wind installs, and both wind and PV will outstrip gas for the first time. Think about that for a few moments.

GTM noted that system costs declined about 9 to 12% during 2014, far flatter than the astonishing 70% decline seen in the few years prior. As a result, the growth curves are starting to flatten out. But those curves suggest we should expect about 6 to 7 GW a year.

It goes on to note the prices remain very high for residential installs, declining to just under $3.50/W all-in, compared to about $1.75 for industrial scale installs. This means residential hasn’t hit grid parity for many people yet (the NREL LCoE calc says 19.7 cents/kWh for my home, slightly under the inflationary value of line power at 21 cents), so we should expect residential installs to remain somewhat moribund without a further 15 to 20% decrease.

And back to the EIA

line graph showing EIA projections for wind power until 2050

Up, up and away!

In a larger report, the EIA has examined the wind industry, projecting out into the future. They conclude that wind will double in the next five years, which would mean it would be about 9 to 10% of all the power on the grid. But going beyond that, they project a baseline scenario where wind will be about 35% of every electron by 2050.

Looking at the graph, the “worst case” is about 25%, and best is 40%. In either case, if you combine that with the fact that PV is growing at roughly the same rate, you see the pattern emerging: the US will get a significant amount of its power from renewables by 2050, with NG peaking and hydro filling in the gaps.

And meanwhile

It’s amusing to consider the political charade playing itself out at the same time. Changing power sources? Global warning? Renewable hippies?! Maybe this is the real example of how ineffectual politics really is.

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