For those not intimately involved with energy policy, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is an obscure agency. FERC regulates interstate energy matters including electricity transmission and oil and gas pipelines, and has been more prominent in the media in recent months due to the Trump Administration’s efforts to force an broad coal and nuclear bailout through the agency.
FERC also supplies data on the electricity sector, and the agency’s latest Energy Infrastructure Update for November shows that developers have proposed 1,913 new solar PV projects to be put online through December 2020, for a total of 43.5 GW.
This is the third-largest capacity of any generation source, following 92.5 GW of natural gas plants which have been proposed and 72.5 GW of wind. Of course how many of these projects will actually get built is beyond the scope of the report.
It is also notable that FERC counts only utility-scale projects and not behind-the-meter distributed solar, and thus does not provide a comprehensive view of total expected solar deployment.
Along with this, there are far more coal retirements projected (20.6 GW) than new projects proposed (1.9 GW), and more nuclear retirements than new projects. But even gas is not immune to retirements, and the proposals to FERC may not tell the whole story.
Gas use fell over the first nine months of 2017, and given flat to declining electricity demand and the rise of wind and solar, if anywhere near 92.5 of gas plants are built they will doubtless be driving other plants – including older gas plants – off the grid. They may also go bankrupt themselves, as a newly built natural gas plant in Texas did in 2016.
In addition to new plants, FERC is tracking 4,600 miles of new transmission projects which it gives a “high probability” of being completed over the next two years. This would be a dramatic increase over 2017, during the first 11 months of which only 264 miles of transmission projects were completed.
There is no information on how much of this new transmission will be to move power from new renewable energy projects to load centers; however the increasing deployment of both utility-scale wind and solar means that the geographical placement of generation is changing, and that older transmission will not fully meet new needs.
And while FERC’s data on proposed projects and transmission provides insights into the future of the industry, the agency continues to struggle to produce meaningful data on how much solar has been installed. In addition to not counting behind-the-meter solar, for years FERC’s monthly Energy Infrastructure Updates have missed a number of utility-scale solar projects that came online.
In fact, FERC states that there is currently 28.8 GW of solar installed in the United States, whereas GTM Research and Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) – which track national solar installations in a more thorough and comprehensive manner than any government agency – are estimating 49 GW as of the end of the third quarter of 2017.