CLIMATEWIRE | The power sector is key to U.S. efforts to cut planet-warming pollution this decade.
Technologies for generating wind and solar energy are expected to green the economy faster than electric cars and heat pumps, according to deep decarbonization studies. That was evident in 2023 as large solar projects catapulted toward levels never seen before in the U.S.
But there were also indications that the transition to clean energy had not gone as smoothly as some analysts predicted. Wind projects stumbled, for instance, and natural gas continued to soar.
E&E News dug into data collected by the U.S. Energy Information Administration to get a sense of what happened in the U.S. power sector last year. Here are eight numbers that tell the story.
148 terawatt-hours: The amount of electricity generated by utility scale solar
It was a boom year for solar. The amount of energy produced in 2023 by large solar projects was 130 percent more than the U.S. generated five years ago, and 16 percent more than in 2022, according to preliminary EIA data. It was enough to power almost 14 million homes and amounted to 4 percent of total power generation.
20.8 gigawatts: The amount of utility-scale solar installed in 2023
Why is solar generation growing so fast? Because the U.S. is installing a lot more of it.
The country added 10.7 gigawatts of solar in 2020, 13.6 GW in 2021 and 11.1 GW in 2022. Those numbers will likely be blown away when the 2023 figures are finalized.
Through November, power companies had installed almost 12 GW of new solar capacity. They were scheduled to bring another 8.8 GW online in December, though it remains to be seen how much of that power actually came online. Still, if just a fraction of those facilities were turned on last month, solar will outpace natural gas, which ranked second in terms of new capacity additions, with 8.7 GW brought online last year.
What does that mean for U.S. efforts to cut carbon emissions in half by 2030? It’s not enough. Many modeling groups calculate the trajectory of emissions based on annual clean energy installations. The Rhodium Group, for instance, found that U.S. emissions would fall 42 percent if the country installed an average of 37 GW of solar every year between 2023 and 2025.
“Solar has been a clear winner from a renewable standpoint this year. It has seen really impressive growth year on year,” said Ben King, a power sector analyst at the Rhodium Group. “We need to be adding even more solar on an annual basis, starting this year and every year moving forward. But this is a step in the right direction.”
386 million tons: The amount of coal consumed by power companies last year
Richard Nixon was president the last time utilities used so little coal. The precipitous drop owes to a steady drumbeat of coal plant retirements. A decade ago, the U.S. coal fleet had a combined capacity of 302 GW. As of October, that figure had fallen to 181 GW. The amount of power generated by the industry has followed suit. Coal generated 690 terawatt-hours of power last year, down from 902 TWh in 2021. Coal plants also produced less power than nuclear facilities for the first time last year.
“That’s my biggest takeaway for the power sector this year,” King said. “We have definitively shown that absent a hiccup here or there we expect continued declines in the coal fleet.”
41 percent: The percentage of U.S. power coming from gas
Natural gas generation continued to rise in the U.S., fueled by cheap prices and a big hole left by coal. In 2023, gas generated 1,659,503 TWh of electricity. Forty-one percent of power generation represents a high water mark for natural gas, which stood at 37 percent of electricity production in 2019. No other fuel is even close. Nuclear is second at 19 percent.
5 GW: The amount of energy storage installed through November
The U.S. installed more storage in 11 months of 2023 than it did in all of 2022, when it broke its annual record for storage additions with 4.1 GW of new capacity. Another 2.4 GW of storage capacity was slated to come online in the last month of 2023.
The vast majority of development is occurring in California and Texas. The country’s most populous states saw 3.5 GW of installations through November, and 10.5 GW of the 14 GW of storage installed nationally to date, according to EIA. Storage developers are drawn to electricity markets with lots of solar. That makes it cheap to charge batteries during the day and profitable to discharge them in the evening, when the sun goes down and electricity prices climb.
Minus 4 percent: The amount wind generation fell in 2023
Wind hit the doldrums last year. Lower wind speeds throughout much of the summer (August was the exception) meant wind generation fell from 436 TWh in 2022 to 419 TWh last year.
Compounding wind’s woes was a slowdown in installations. The 6.9 GW of new onshore wind built in 2023 was the lowest annual total since 2018. By comparison, the industry built more than 14 GW in each of 2020 and 2021, respectively. The trend doesn’t look like it will be reversed anytime soon. Right now, developers have around 5 GW of new onshore projects slated annually 2024, 2025 and 2026.
“I would expect that number to go up from the [Inflation Reduction Act],” said Robbie Orvis, an analyst at Energy Innovation, a think tank that supports a transition to green energy. But he said the outlook for wind will also rely on the country’s ability to address noneconomic issues, like building more transmission and untying interconnection bottlenecks.
“I will be very curious to see what shakes out next year, whether or not we get permitting reform or interconnection reform, and how that unlocks, or doesn’t, the wind development that we need to see,” Orvis said.
39 percent: The amount of power generation from zero-carbon sources
This figure is unchanged from 2019. Wind and solar have grown from 8 percent to 14 percent of power generation over the last five years, but nuclear and hydro generation have fallen.
The reasons for those decreases differ. Hydro output often varies by the year and meteorological conditions. The nuclear industry, by contrast, has seen its output fall as plants have closed. That changed slightly last year with a new reactor coming online at the Vogtle plant in Georgia, pushing nuclear generation up slightly. But here’s the bottom line: Zero-emission electricity has remained flat in recent years.
“It all points to the need to maintain the clean energy we have, while adding as much as we can, as quickly as we can,” Orvis said. “Otherwise it is going to be hard to keep pace with our climate and clean energy targets that we have.”
4.8 billion tons: U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2023
That’s a 3 percent drop compared to 2022 levels, and a deeper cut than the roughly 1 percent annual decrease averaged by the country between 2012 and 2021. The drop comes down to falling coal consumption, as oil and gas emissions were roughly flat. EIA thinks emissions from coal were 774 million tons last year, down from 939 million tons in 2022. The U.S. needs to cut emissions annually by 6 percent to achieve its climate targets under the Paris Agreement.
“A decline is a step in the right direction,” King said. “It absolutely is not enough to meet Paris.”
Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2023. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.