Checking in on the energy transition–in the U.S.

seia-chart-1In Germany it’s called the Energiewende–the energy transition. It’s a deliberate decision to move away from nuclear power and fossil fuels in favor of renewables and energy efficiency. And it’s working. Renewables are skyrocketing, nuclear reactors have closed and more shutdowns are on the way, and coal use is declining too, despite the misleading claims of renewable energy haters.

Here in the U.S., it isn’t called anything–if we have an “official” government policy at all it’s “all of the above,” which is the same as saying meaningless. But an ad hoc energy transition is nonetheless taking place in the U.S.

In April, 100% of all new electric generating capacity in the  U.S. was wind and solar–511 MW of wind and 50 MW of solar. For the year so far, renewables account for 84.1% of new capacity, with natural gas supplying the rest. The amount of solar is understated, however, since it doesn’t account for rooftop solar and other distributed generation. Nor, of course, do these numbers, compiled by the Energy Information Administration, attempt to quantify the effect of energy efficiency on avoiding the need for new generating capacity. There has been, of course, no new capacity from nuclear, coal or oil.

This folks, is an energy transition already underway, quietly, with some government support but without an actual transition policy–indeed, with a policy that is inherently hostile to the transition.

As Ken Bossong of the Sun Day Campaign points out, “Renewable energy capacity is now greater than that of nuclear (9.14 percent) and oil (3.92 percent) combined. In fact, the installed capacity of wind power alone has now surpassed that of oil. In addition, total installed operating generating capacity from solar has now reached and surpassed the one-percent threshold — a ten-fold increase since December 2010.” (Full disclosure: Ken Bossong and the Sun Day Campaign share office space with NIRS).

But it’s an energy transition with a long ways to go. Germany is the clear global leader in solar power–despite its relatively low solar potential–with 38,200 MW of solar installed as of the end of 2014. The U.S. ranked fifth then with 18,280 MW of installed capacity, also behind China, Japan and Italy–although the U.S. likely has passed Italy by now. Given solar’s low capacity factor, that’s only about 4 1/2 large nuclear reactors worth of power installed in the U.S.

And it looks worse when you look at solar from a per capita basis, as this article does.  The U.S. barely cracks the top 20 of installed solar capacity per person, at 19th in the world, the U.S. is behind nations like Bulgaria (8th), non-nuclear Austria (13th) and even nuclear-dominated France (15th).

Still, the U.S. is a big country with a lot of generating capacity (China is even bigger, and thus doesn’t even make the top 20 on a per capita basis). It takes a while to install that amount  of any form of generating capacity.  And solar is growing faster than any other form. Remember that 10-fold increase in solar capacity in less than five years. With no indications of slowing down (see the graph above: solar installations of all types continue to soar), there’s good reason to believe that before the end of this decade another ten-fold increase will occur. That would put solar alone above 10% of our electricity generation, and wind will provide even more.

Another ten-fold increase after that would be impossible of course, since it would make solar the only generating source in the U.S. But this is how the energy transition in the U.S. is occurring: without formal policy, without significant government support. Even though the nuclear and fossil fuel industry hacks continue to carp about subsidies for renewables, the reality is that their industries have been far more heavily subsidized over the years than renewables. If renewables do get the majority of the subsidy crumbs left on the table by the budget-slashers these days, and that’s by no means clear, it’s simply because it’s their due for being ignored so long while untold billions of dollars were heaped on dirty energy technologies.

The U.S. can, must, and all indications are will continue to bring renewables online rapidly. And as that happens, higher-cost and dirtier nuclear and coal plants inevitably will continue to close. The rationale for keeping them open with ratepayer bailouts becomes thinner and thinner even to those expected to be warm to utilities clinging to expensive and outdated dirty power plants. In the past week alone, the Illinois legislature deferred action on Exelon’s 18-month pursuit of a nuclear bailout, while the Ohio Public Utilities Commission has put off its action on a similar request from First Energy to bail out the Davis-Besse reactor and some coal plants. Whichever way those entities end up deciding on those issues, it’s clear that the old arguments aren’t working for the utilities. Even skeptics are now having to acknowledge the economic and environmental benefits of clean energy technologies.

And so the transition continues, largely out of sight to the average American and perhaps even less so to the average politician. But that doesn’t make it any less real.

Michael Mariotte

May 29, 2015


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2 thoughts on “Checking in on the energy transition–in the U.S.

  1. Daniel Ferra

    According to Bill Mckibben, the ideal parts per million of Carbon in our atmosphere would be 350ppm, that was in 1975. Now we our at 404ppm and rising,

    We may have a Atmospheric budget of 556 Billion Toxic Tons of Carbon to emit and then we would increase Temp. to 2C or more, this was in 2012.

    That may leave us with 406 Billion more Toxic Tons to burn, which would bring us to 2019 – 2020.

    What will the Temp. be then ?

    Here is a Link saying we have No Atmospheric Budget.
    “It’s Time To “Do The Math” Again” report downloadable @

    In the 1850s parts per million of carbon was 260 – 280.

    Right Now we have 404 parts per million of carbon in our Atmosphere, the Arctic is 75% gone and Melting, Greenland and Antarctica are calving. The North west Pacific Ocean is 5-8 degree warmer than normal. Whales, Dolphins, Sea Lions, Starfish, Die Off along the Western Coast of the Pacific Ocean over the past year . Ocean Acidity levels climbing, Mercury 3x more than the start of the Century.

    “Ice sheets contain enormous quantities of frozen water. If the Greenland Ice Sheet melted, scientists estimate that sea level would rise about 6 meters (20 feet). If the Antarctic Ice Sheet melted, sea level would rise by about 60 meters (200 feet).” National Snow and Ice Data Center.

    When will Sea Level Rise to 250 300 Feet ? 2020 ? 2025 ? ?

    We emitted 40 -50 Billion Toxic Tons of GHGs Globally, in the United State we emitted 6.8 Billion Toxic Tons, and are leading the charge to Frack the Globe.

    California emitted 459 Toxic Tons of Carbon Dioxide in 2014.

    Gov Browns call to reduce this to 1990 levels so we can continue to emit over 400 million Toxic Tons a year, will not help us stop or slow down Global Warming and Sea Levels Rising.

    “Updates to the 2020 Limit.
    Calculation of the original 1990 limit approved in 2007 was revised using the scientifically updated IPCC 2007 fourth assessment report (AR4) global warming potentials, to 431 MMTCO2e. Thus the 2020 GHG emissions limit established in response to AB 32 is now slightly higher than the 427 MMTCO2e in the initial Scoping Plan.” Ca. Gov. Data

    We Need 100% Renewable Energies .

    No Twin Tunnels, Save the Delta, this Fragile Eco-System is a measurement of our commitment to bring in Sustainable Energy Policies.

    Cap and Trade Phased Out.

    75% Airport reduction in Carbon emissions.

    Ban Fracking

    Close all 108, for profit, Water Bottling Plants in California

    Golf Courses should be on Gray Water or Closed.

    Implement a California Residential and Commercial Feed in Tariff.

    California Residential Feed in Tariff would allow homeowners to sell their Renewable Energy to the utility, protecting our communities from Poison Water, Grid Failures, Natural Disasters, Toxic Natural Gas and Oil Fracking.

    Our California Residential Feed-In Tariff should start out at 16 cents per kilowatt hour, 5 cents per kilowatt hour to the Utility for use of the Grid, 11 cents per kilowatt hour going to the Home Owner.

    A California Commercial FiT in Los Angeles, Palo Alto, an Sacramento Ca. are operating NOW, paying the Business Person 17 cents cents per kilowatt hour.

    Sign and Share this petition for a California Residential Feed in Tariff.


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