Renewables generated a record amount of electricity in 2020, EIA says


In 2020, renewable energy sources (including solar, wind, hydroelectric, biomass, and geothermal energy) generated a record 834 billion kWh of electricity, or about 21% of all the electricity generated in the United States. Only natural gas (1,617 billion kWh) produced more electricity than renewables in the United States in 2020, according to the Energy Department’s Energy Information Administration (EIA). To learn more, read “Renewables generated a record amount of electricity in 2020, EIA says.”

Key Takeaways:

  • Renewables surpassed both nuclear (790 billion kWh) and coal (774 billion kWh) for the first time. EIA said this outcome was due mostly to “significantly less coal use” in U.S. electricity generation and steadily increased use of solar and wind.
  • U.S. electricity generation from coal in all sectors declined 20% from 2019, while renewables, including small-scale solar, increased 9%.
  • Wind, currently the most prevalent source of renewable electricity in the United States, grew 14% in 2020 from 2019.
  • Utility-scale solar generation (from projects greater than 1 MW) increased 26%, and small-scale solar, such as grid-connected rooftop solar panels, increased 19%.
  • Renewables are again forecast to eclipse coal in 2022 as capacity grows and coal’s cost advantage eases.

Path to 100% Perspective: 

Investing in renewable baseload is now viewed as buying ‘unlimited’ power upfront, as opposed to betting against fluctuating oil prices and narrowing environmental regulation. The early leaders of the renewable transition are now outperforming their counterparts in the fossil fuel sector. New capex is now surging in the power sector, driving the build-out of renewables at an unprecedented rate in areas of the world, such as Chile and New Mexico, that yield the highest renewable power capacity factors. Faced with the magnitude of the transition, some power producers have stopped investing – stopped progressing. Some are waiting to see if renewable technology costs fall even further as the sector transforms in front of their eyes. However, power producers that stall their investments risk being left with portfolios that rely on legacy technologies, which can only provide diminishing returns, while the low hanging fruit for solar and wind parks is progressively being capitalized by the first movers. Delaying the transition to renewables will reduce the competitiveness of power producers, as well as putting national climate targets out of reach. 


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Cal-ISO renewable capacity climbs, storage resources coming onto system


The California Independent System Operator added 2.1 GW of capacity to its grid in 2020 with another 3.3 GW permitted with online dates in 2020 or 2021 as the state works to achieve its ambitious 100% clean energy mandate over the next 25 years. To learn more, read Cal-ISO renewable capacity climbs, storage resources coming onto system.”

Key Takeaways

  • In 2020, Cal-ISO had 2.1 GW of capacity added through September of which 1.3 GW was gas-fired, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) data.
  • EIA also shows 3.3 GW permitted with an online date in either 2020 or 2021. About 2,500 MW of this is under construction which includes 1.5 GW solar, 800 MW battery and 200 MW wind.
  • Cal-ISO president and CEO Elliot Mainzer has said the grid operator is working to improve its resource adequacy system following the rotating outages in August.
  • “Longer term, we’re working very closely with the [Public Utilities Commission], the Energy Commission and others in the regulatory space to try to make sure the resource adequacy paradigm in California is modernized sufficiently to recognize the changing resource mix,” Mainzer said. “There’s a lot of additional solar and batteries and wind and other renewables coming onto the system.”
  • Renewable generation curtailments in 2020 were up 220% year on year, according to ISO data.

Path to 100% Perspective

No power system can achieve 100% renewable electricity just by adding more renewable generation. It also needs to slash fossil-fueled generation. That means reducing reliance on traditional gas- and coal-fired plants, whether they’re used for baseload or to back up variable renewable generation. And that can be harder than you might think. The challenge is that traditional fossil-fuel-powered plants are inflexible: they can’t just switch off when the sun is high and switch back on when the sun sets. Because traditional power stations require many hours to shut down and many hours to start back up, they cannot power up and down quickly enough to handle predictable shifts in demand and generation, let alone unexpected changes in the weather. To ensure a steady flow of electricity, California’s traditional gas-fired power stations have to keep running at 40% to 50% capacity, even on a bright, sunny day. Running at low capacity is inefficient and emits large amounts of climate-warming carbon.


Photo by Jarosław Kwoczała on Unsplash