Just before the holiday break, the U.S. Energy Information Administration released data on domestic electricity generation. Due to reporting delays, the monthly data only goes through October, so it does not give a complete picture of the changes seen in 2023. However, some of the trends now appear to be set in stone for this year. Wind and solar probably do. It is expected to compete closely with coal, with all carbon-free power sources combined accounting for about 40 percent of U.S. electricity production.
Having data through October necessarily gives an incomplete picture for 2023. There are several factors that can cause the later months of the year to be different from the earlier months. Some forms of electricity generation are seasonal. In particular, solar power generation has the highest output in the summer. Weather can also play a role, as unusually high demand for heating during the winter months may require older fossil fuel plants to come online. It also affects the production of hydropower plants, leading to large fluctuations from year to year.
Finally, it’s all happening against the backdrop of a solar and natural gas construction boom. Therefore, there is a good chance that enough new solar power will be built throughout the year to offset the seasonal decline at the end of the year.
Let’s look at year-to-date data to understand trends and context. Next, check the monthly data for October to see if there are any signs of a reversal in these trends.
Most importantly, energy usage remains roughly the same. Year-to-date overall electricity production is down just over 1% from 2022, but demand increased this October compared to last year. This is consistent with the general trend of flat to declining electricity usage as efficiency gains offset factors such as population growth and increased electrification.
This is important because it means that the newly added capacity will replace the use of existing facilities. And now that displacement is happening to coal as well.
I can’t hide my decline
At this time last year, coal produced nearly 20% of America’s electricity. This year, it has decreased to 16.2%, accounting for only 15.5% of October’s production. Combined wind and solar power generation now stands at 16% of year-to-date production, meaning it will likely be in a dead heat with coal this year and easily surpass it next year.
From the beginning of the year to now, wind power generation has remained almost unchanged since 2022, accounting for about 10% of total power generation, with October data up to over 11%, which could change significantly by the end of the year. is low. Solar PV has experienced significant changes at 5-6% of total electricity generation (this figure includes both utility-scale generation and EIA estimates of residential generation). And October alone was about the same, suggesting new construction is offsetting some of the seasonal decline.
Hydropower production decreased by about 6% from last year, and its share of total production fell from 6.1% to 5.8%. Depending on the coming months, solar power could overtake hydropower on the list of renewable energy sources.
Together, these three major renewables account for about 22% of electricity generation year-to-date, an increase of about 0.5% from last year. October data shows it has risen even further, significantly outpacing both nuclear and coal.
Nuclear power itself has remained largely unchanged, allowing it to overtake coal thanks to its decline. That output has been increased by a new 1.1 gigawatt reactor coming online this year (a second reactor on the same site, Vogtle in Georgia, is scheduled to begin commercial production any day now). But this will probably be the end of his decade of new nuclear power. The challenge is to keep existing plants operating despite their age and high costs.
Combining nuclear and renewable energy under the umbrella of carbon-free power generation, the share could increase by nearly 1 percentage point since 2022 and exceed 40 percent for the first time.
The only factor holding back the rapid growth of carbon-free electricity is natural gas, which is currently the fastest growing source of power generation, from 40 percent of the year-to-date total in 2022 to 43.3 percent this year. percentage has increased. (Actually, data for October is just below that level.) The explosive growth of natural gas in the United States has meant that it has the lowest particulate pollution of all fossil fuels, and also It also has the lowest carbon emissions, making it a huge environmental win. A unit of power. But if the U.S. is to meet its climate goals, it will need to start reducing its use soon, so it will be important to see whether growth flattens out in the coming years.
But outside of natural gas, all trends in U.S. power generation are positive, especially given that increasing renewable energy production seemed impossible a decade ago. Unfortunately, the current pace is too slow for the United States to achieve a net-zero power grid by the end of this decade.