Will renewables be able to meet Biden’s clean energy goals?

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Unless current deployment trends are accelerated, the U.S. appears on track to fall short of the White House’s goal of 80% clean energy supply by 2030.

Analysis done of a decade of data from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and Energy Information Administration (EIA) suggests that renewables penetration will land somewhere between 33% to 50%.

EIA’s most recent electric power monthly report reveals that renewable energy sources provided 22.5% of U.S. electrical generation during the first quarter of 2021. A decade ago, that figure stood at 13.75%. That means renewables have grown at a pace of less than 1 percentage point of the total energy mix each year in 10 years.

Analysis of a decade of data from the FERC and EIA suggests that renewables penetration will land somewhere between 33% to 50%.

Image: NASA

Nearly all of the growth can be attributed to solar and wind, which grew from 3.3% to 13.9% of the mix. Biomass, geothermal, and hydropower remained relatively level.

FERC forecasts high-probability additions and retirements during the upcoming three years for each energy source. The next three years are estimated to see 14 GW of fossil fuel and nuclear retirements, and 64 GW of solar and wind additions. If that occurs, domestic generating capacity of renewables would reach nearly 29% by April 2023, growth rate of 1.35 percentage points each year.

50% by 2030?

From 2015 to 2020, wind has achieved a growth rate of 10% per year, and solar has averaged 30%, though it has slowed to 21% in the past three years. Assuming a 10% and 20% growth rate for wind and solar, respectively, both sources would produce roughly the same amount of power by 2030, each contributing 20% to the overall mix. Add in the steady 10% from biomass, hydro, and geothermal, and renewable penetration reaches 50% by 2030.

FERC’s short-term outlook supports these figures, as it anticipates in the next three years “high probability” additions of 42.8 GW of utility scale solar, a 74% addition to the current 57.9 GW of capacity in this market segment. As much as 58.2 GW could be in the three-year pipeline for solar, said FERC. Wind “high probability” projects stand at 20.5 GW.

…and 80% by 2030? 

EIA’s historical growth data suggest a faster growth rate is possible for renewables. But to do so, annual growth would need to  hit top-line numbers from previous years. In 2016, 2017, and 2020, wind energy grew at a rate of 12% or more. And solar surpassed an average 30% growth rate from 2014 to 2020.

If these rates could be sustained each year over the coming decade, wind would account for 25% of U.S. generation, and solar would provide nearly 45%. Adding 10% from bio, hydro and geothermal means that the Biden administration goal of 80% by 2030 could be met.

This outlook did not include the impact of nuclear power, which the White House said would play a role in decarbonization as well, but the plans only expressly mentioned operating existing plants, not building new capacity. Carbon capture technology was also highlighted in the Biden fact sheet.

FERC said that a national clean energy standard could make such a scenario realistic. A clean energy standard could follow the tried-and-proven model set by state-level Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), but would work at a national level, addressing states that have not yet enacted RPS, or states that have relatively weak RPS established.

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