At current growth rates, the U.S. unlikely to reach Biden’s 80% clean energy by 2030 goal

After reviewing 10 years of data from the EIA and FERC, including future forecasts from both agencies, the nonprofit SUN DAY campaign has determined that the United States will fail to meet President Biden’s clean energy goals for 2030, unless the growth of renewable energy is accelerated.

Duke Energy

MER’s most recent “Electricity monthlyThe report reveals that renewable energy sources (biomass, geothermal, hydro, solar, wind) accounted for 22.5% of U.S. electricity generation in the first four months of 2021. A decade earlier, during the first four months of 2011, renewable energy provided 13.75% of electrical production. So in the intervening years, renewables added on average just under 1% per year to their share of the country’s electricity supply.

Nearly all renewable energy growth can be attributed to wind and solar, which increased from 3.3% in April 2011 to 13.9% in April 2021. Meanwhile, the share of electricity generation attributable to biomass, geothermal and hydropower combined have remained virtually unchanged, accounting for between 9% and 10% per year.

If that trend continues, renewables would be on track at about a third of US electricity production by 2030 where wind and sun together provide about 23% and the combination of biomass, geothermal and hydropower another 10%.

For the foreseeable future, this trend appears to be confirmed by EIA in its most recent monthly magazine “Short-term energy outlookwhich predicts utility-scale renewables will grow from 19.8% in 2020 to 20.6% in 2021 and then to 22.5% in 2022. If residential solar were to be included, renewables would have been 20.6% of U.S. electricity generation by 2020 and are on track to exceed 21% by 2021 and 23% by 2022.

The growth rates suggested by EIA’s data are confirmed by a 10-year look back at the monthly FERC month”Update energy infrastructure” reports tracking installed electrical power from all generating sources. For April 2021, FERC reports that renewables accounted for 24.77% of installed utility-scale generation capacity in the United States. A decade earlier, the share of renewable energy in production capacity was 13.97%.

So, as for actual electricity generation, renewables are increasing their share of generation capacity by about 1% per year, with nearly all of the growth being attributable to solar and wind. In April 2011, solar and wind energy accounted for 3.74% of the country’s generating capacity, while hydro, biomass and geothermal energy accounted for 10.23%. By April 2021, solar and wind had grown to 14.96%, according to FERC data, while the other renewables were 9.81%.

In addition, in each “Energy Infrastructure Update”, FERC provides data for “high probability additions” and “pensions” over the next three years for each energy source. According to the most recent three-year data, net capacity for coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear will fall together by more than 14 GW, while renewable energy sources – mainly solar and wind – are expected to grow by more than 64 GW. Should that happen, the share of renewable energy in domestic production capacity would rise to 28.83% by April 2023.

If that projected growth rate is maintained for the remainder of the current decade, The share of renewable energy in the country’s generating capacity is projected to be around 38% by 2030. With 38% of installed capacity, renewables can be expected to provide 32-35% of actual generation – a figure consistent with what can be extrapolated from the EIA data.

Future analysis

A review of EIA’s year-end data reveals strong annual growth rates for wind and solar over each of the last six years (it is difficult to evaluate prior years due to changes in EIA’s reporting methodology). On average, electricity generation from wind has grown by just over 10% per year since the end of 2014. During that same period, solar energy grew at an average rate of more than 30% per year, although that has slowed to 21% per year in the past three years.

If one assumes continued future growth rates of wind and solar energy of 10% and 20% per year respectively, wind generation in 2030 would be more than double that in 2020, while solar generation would increase sixfold. These numbers are more than consistent with (actually conservative compared to) EIA’s latest STEO forecasts, which expect wind-generated electricity to grow by 26.5% between 2020 and 2022, while solar-generated electricity expected to increase by 63.5% over the next two years.

Should this growth scenario become a reality, solar and wind would each generate approximately the same amount of electricity in 2030. If total US electricity generation from all sources remains roughly the same as it was in 2020, wind and solar could each account for about 20% of the country’s electricity generation by 2030. Add to that the 10% likely to be provided by biomass, geothermal and hydropower combined, renewables could supply half of the country’s electricity within a decade.

FERC’s short-term forecasts bolster the plausibility of this scenario — at least for solar. Over the next three years, FERC expects the “high probability” to add 42.8 GW of utility-scale solar to its 57.9 GW of existing solar capacity — a 74% increase. “high probability” wind additions would increase the current 125.7 GW wind capacity by an additional 20.5 GW. However, in addition to the “high-probability additions”, FERC also reports that there may be as much as 58.2 GW more wind capacity and 121.1 GW more solar capacity in the pipeline.

Achieving 50% renewable energy by the end of this decade would still fall far short of President Biden’s call to have 80% clean energy by 2030 (assuming “clean” means “renewable” and does not include nuclear or carbon capture fossil fuels).

However, EIA’s historical data also suggests that a faster growth path may be possible for wind and solar, approaching Biden’s target. Three times in the past six years (2016, 2017, 2020), the annual growth rate for wind-generated electricity has increased by 12.0% or more. And, as noted earlier, while the average annual growth rate for solar energy between December 2014 and December 2020 was only 21.1% in the past three years, it even surpassed 30% (31.1%).

If these higher growth rates (wind: 12% and solar: 30%) are replicated and sustained each year for the rest of the decade — an admittedly very challenging goal — wind could account for about 25% of U.S. electricity generation by 2030, while solar would be almost 45%. Add another 10% from hydropower, biomass and geothermal energy and you reach Biden’s target of 80%.

A national standard for clean electricity could make such a scenario realistic. But even without a national clean electricity standard to fuel growth, other factors could allow renewables to secure a significantly larger share of electrical generating capacity and deliver more actual generation than historical trends suggest.

SUN DAY lists the additional factors as:

  • The costs of solar and wind energy and storage continue to fall, albeit possibly more slowly than before.
  • The increasing likelihood of multiple large-scale offshore wind farms in the coming decade could significantly increase the share of wind generation.
  • States, as well as a growing number of counties and cities, are strengthening their renewable energy standards as many utilities announce increasingly aggressive renewable energy procurement.
  • Business purchases of renewable energy are increasing rapidly, as is the number of commercial businesses, schools, other institutions and private homeowners choosing to install solar energy.
  • There are opportunities for at least modest growth through biomass, geothermal energy and hydropower.
  • The ecological threat of worsening climate change appears likely to accelerate the transition to lower-emission energy sources.

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