Earlier this week, the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) released figures for new production capacity expected to come on stream in 2021. While plans could of course change, the hopes that the network will look radically different with its new additions is five years ago. The report details where a new nuclear power plant could be started up, although it will be dwarfed by the capacity of new batteries. But the big picture is that, even excluding batteries, about 80 percent of planned capacity upgrades will be zero-emissions.
New nuclear weapons?
The EIA’s accounts show that slightly less than 40 Gigawatts of capacity will be placed on the grid in 2021, but there are a number of caveats to be noted. First and foremost is the inclusion of batteries, which account for more than 10 percent of that figure (4.3 GW). While batteries can look such as short term generation capacity from the perspective of “can this supply power to the grid?” they are clearly not really a net power source. Usually they are used to smooth out short term fluctuations in supply or demand rather than a constant source of power.
Still, given the rarity of grid-scale batteries even a few years ago, 4.3 GW of them is striking.
Another quirk is a matter of timing. Last year, Virginia’s Dominion Energy started two offshore wind turbines as part of a pilot project that will pave the way for the much larger Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind, which will top out at 2.6 GW by 2024. But these turbines will win. They will formally enter commercial service until this year, so their 1.2 MW counts towards the 2021 figure.
Another case where the numbers may not match reality is the addition of 1.1 GW of nuclear power in the form of a new reactor at the Vogtle site in Georgia. Construction of this factory and its twin brother has been consistently late and over budget. When completed, it will be the first new nuclear capability to be added to the US grid in several years and will partially offset the closures of some smaller plants in recent years.
But the big story in 2021 will be the shift away from fossil fuels. Despite the Trump administration’s attempts to tip the playing field in favor of coal, no new coal capacity will be added in 2021. Given the recent shutdowns of several major plants, this is a guarantee that the rapid plunge in US coal consumption will continue.
Until recently, coal was largely displaced by natural gas. But in recent years, wind energy prices have fallen to the point where a well-situated wind farm in the US could produce power at a price lower than the cost of buying fuel for an existing natural gas plant. And grid-scale solar photovoltaics began to undermine wind power. But the market did not immediately react to this new reality, which in recent years caused natural gas to prevail over the capacity added to the US grid.
Economy is on the way
The market is now clearly reacting. Less than 20 percent of the capacity added in 2021 will be natural gas (6.6 GW), even excluding the battery capacity being added. That is less than 34 percent two years ago and more than 60 percent three years ago. New additions are highly concentrated in areas of high natural gas production: southern Texas and near the Ohio/Pennsylvania/West Virginia borders.
Instead, wind and solar dominated, with 12.2 GW of new wind capacity and 15.4 GW of solar power. This is especially striking given that renewable energy tax credits were set to be phased out in 2020, leaving many projects completed late in the year. (Those appropriations were eventually extended in a recent budget law.) Normally, the EIA predicts that these types of expirations will drain the pipeline of new projects, leading to a temporary decline. There is absolutely no indication that this happened in 2021.
In particular, these values do not include residential solar, which is expected to add another 3GW to 4GW of capacity in 2021.
As in the past, Texas is one of the prime locations for new wind power construction, along with its northern neighbor Oklahoma. Planned additions include a wind farm that is just under a GigaWatt. Texas also dominates the addition of solar, with more than a quarter of the expected new capacity. Nevada and California will also install about 10 percent each, but they will be closely followed by North Carolina, part of a growing trend of solar installations in the southeastern US.
The Biden administration expects to promote additional renewable energy projects as part of its pandemic recovery plan. While the renewable projects are unlikely to arrive soon enough to change numbers for 2021, they could boost wind and solar power even further in 2022. A number of very large (GW-plus) offshore wind projects are also being developed along the US East Coast, some of which may enter service in the coming years.
List image by Ministry of Interior