The U.S. power grid continued to transform in 2016. No new coal-fired power stations were added and solar energy became the main new source of generating capacity. Combined with wind, a little bit of hydro and the first nuclear power plant added to the grid in decades, sources generating zero carbon emissions accounted for two-thirds of the new capacity added in 2016.
These numbers come from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which asked utilities what resources they expected to have online by the end of the year. These numbers typically show a burst of activity in December as projects race to completion to take advantage of the tax benefits of reaching operational status in the current year.
In total, the EIA recorded 26 GW of new capacity added to the grid in 2016. This includes a small amount (0.3 GW) of new hydro and a few projects grouped under “other” producing a similar size. Notably absent from the list is coal. Also absent is distributed solar, i.e. panels installed on homes and other small-scale projects. Distributed solar power accounted for about 2 GW of new capacity in 2015, and the EIA notes that incentives for these projects have not changed significantly in 2016.
Even without that 2 GW, solar comes out on top, with 9.5 GW of new additions this year. Natural gas comes second on the EIA list with 8 GW, followed by wind with 6.8 GW. With the opening of a new reactor at Watts Bar in Tennessee, nuclear power is also on the list for the first time in years, with a capacity of 1.1 GW. Combined, wind, nuclear, hydro and solar account for 68 percent of new additions, making 2016 a low-carbon year for the U.S. power grid. Assuming distributed solar this year is similar to 2015 levels, the percentage of new non-fossil generation will rise above 70.
It is important to note that no energy source is running at full capacity. Usage typically ranges from the low 30 percent for solar power to about 90 percent for nuclear power; for gas, usage usually depends on how often the local network needs a quick response to demand. So it’s hard to predict exactly what these plants will mean for future generation, except that all of these sources produce less carbon per unit of electricity than coal.
The focus of new solar installations is also shifting slightly from the Southwest. While California installed more than the next four states combined, the top five states include North Carolina, Texas, and Georgia. This may indicate that the continued decline in the cost of utility-scale solar makes it competitive in a broader geographic region.
The changing economics of renewables may make President-elect Trump’s decision to cram his cabinet full of fossil fuel fans irrelevant. Several estimates indicate that the nuanced, subsidy-free costs of wind and solar have approached or fallen below those of coal (as well as natural gas). Between that and the risk that a future president could reverse all of the Trump administration’s decisions, radical changes are unlikely to occur in the years ahead from 2016.