As coal declines, renewables take over U.S. electrical generation

Posted Jan 15, 2018 by Karen Graham
Renewable energy appeared to be a huge winner in the U.S. in 2017, with the latest figures showing that solar and wind power represented 94.7 percent of the net new electricity capacity.
CPS Energy announced it was suspending operations at its JT Deely Units 1 and 2  effective Dec. 31  ...
CPS Energy announced it was suspending operations at its JT Deely Units 1 and 2, effective Dec. 31, 2018.
CPS Energy
In 2017, the U.S. built nearly 28.5GW of electricity generating infrastructure — with 25GW being utility-scale and 3,5GW being distributed solar power. Together, wind and solar accounted for 55.4 percent of the 28.5GW overall total and about 49.2 percent of the utility-scale total. And that is impressive for 2017.
But as Electrek points out, you have to take into consideration the loss of 11.8GW of utility-scale fossil retirements tracked by the EIA. So with a bit of subtracting, we have a net new volume of U.S. generation of 16.7GW of generating capacity, with 94.7 percent of that coming from renewables.
Depending on how one looks at the numbers, they can be a testament to the triumph of renewables or a death knell for fossil fuel power generation. The decline of coal-fueled power plants has been going on for quite a number of years, and obviously, something needed to take their place.
Looking back at 2016, solar and wind power did quite well, accounting for 16.7GW in new utility capacity, with solar setting records for new installations. So 2017 needed to be a banner year to keep the momentum going. And as Engadget notes, in March 2017, wind and solar power for the first time surpassed a combined 10 percent of electricity use.
Emissions show a slow pace of decline
According to the latest data from the Rhodium Group, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions continued to decline in 2017 by just under 1.0 percent year-on-year. Rhodium says this decline was due entirely to changes in the power sector — including falling electrical demand, and growth of wind, solar and hydropower generation.
However, data also shows that in the transportation, industrial and buildings sectors, GHG emissions rose in 2017. In fact, transportation now outpaces the power sector as the largest source of GHG emissions for the second year in a row. So while the U.S. looks to be on track to meet its 2020 emissions pledge, it has quite a way to go to fulfill its Paris Agreement targets.
And while people will applaud the 1.0 percent decrease in emissions for 2017, we should point out that between 2005 and 2015, GHG emissions dropped an average of 1.6 percent per year. And the Energy Information Administration expects emissions to rise in 2018.
The bottom line?
It appears President Trump's efforts to shore up fossil fuels is failing, especially with the number of coal-fired power plants closed in 2017, and the additional ones slated for closure in the coming years. But this brings to light another aspect of this story.
 The number of people working in the renewables sector could reach 24 million by 2030  more than off...
"The number of people working in the renewables sector could reach 24 million by 2030, more than offsetting fossil-fuel job losses and becoming a major economic driver around the world.," says the IRENA report.
EDF Report
While renewable energy is hanging on to its slight lead in the U.S., we still have the Suniva Trade Case casting a cloud over the solar industry. Last year, Suniva and SolarWorld launched the trade case under an obscure section of the Trade Act of 1974 that allows the president to implement tariffs, and minimum prices or quotas on products from anywhere in the world.
As of January 12, President Trump has two weeks to make a decision on whether to adopt some or none of the proposals put forth by the U.S. International Trade Commission, who were unanimous in agreeing tariffs should be imposed because imported solar equipment had caused "serious injury" to the manufacturers.
Should the trade restrictions proposed by Suniva and SolarWorld go through, they would destroy between 48,000 and 63,000 American solar jobs next year, and between 60,000 and 84,000 jobs by 2020. While no one will know for sure what Trump will say about this case, January 26 is coming closer and closer.
Perhaps more disturbing is that the current administration has not shown much support for the renewable energy industry, maybe because it was an Obama-era movement. This attitude has been reflected in the budget cuts to energy initiatives that are hampering forward movement for solar and wind in the U.S.