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U.S. renewable energy growth puts them on par with nuclear power

A field of solar panels and windmills in the desert.

Zoom in/ A patch of solar panels and windmills in the desert.

Monday, Energy Information The agency released its annual data on how electricity will be generated in the United States in 2021. A lot has changed in the year as the country emerges from the pandemic, with coal, wind and solar all seeing big jumps from the previous year. At the same time, widespread drought in the west has led to a sharp drop in hydropower generation.

Two renewable energy sources, wind and solar, are the most important in the long run. Wind power only started to overtake hydropower three years ago, but it has now taken the lead. Solar power has grown from a rounding error to 4% of annual production in the past decade and is poised to explode.

Living Fossils Compared to 2020, a variety of electricity sources saw significant changes.

2021 2019 marked the first increase in annual coal use since the Obama administration. Megawatts generated through coal increased by 16% compared to the previous year and accounted for just under 22% of total electricity generation. But this is likely to be a temporary change. There are no plans for new coal-fired power plants in the US, and the number of coal plants in operation has halved over the past decade, with coal falling from 44% of US electricity production to just 22%.

Compared to 2020, a variety of electricity sources saw significant changes.

Compared to 2020, there have been major changes in a various power supplies.

John Timmer

During the same period, natural gas has grown from supplying a quarter of U.S. electricity to just under 40 percent, and megawatts of production use more than half. It has seen a small decline (around 3%) over the past year, which has happened twice in the past decade.

The future of natural gas is difficult to predict in the US. In many parts of the country it is now undercut by wind and solar, though it still outperforms coal and nuclear. LNG exports to Europe had grown significantly over the past five years before the war in Ukraine boosted European profits. Still, natural gas is unlikely to suffer a similar slump as coal.

In addition to these major sources of electricity generation, there are a small number of things in the United States that are powered by diesel and other petroleum products. Together, all of these sources of carbon emissions account for more than 60% of U.S. electricity by 2021, up about 3% from the previous year, largely due to increased coal use. But a decade ago, carbon-emitting sources provided more than 68 percent of the country’s electricity. This decline was driven by growth in renewable energy.

Stalled Compared to 2020, a variety of electricity sources saw significant changes.

nuclear power has been in a strange stagnation for the past decade. A decade ago, it produced about 19 percent of the country’s electricity. In 2021, it produces about 19% of the country’s electricity. This is despite the fact that the total number of nuclear power plants has declined by 17% over the past 10 years. Part of the reason for the difference is that the plants that close are usually smaller and a large new reactor is completed at an existing plant.

In 2021, the three major renewable energy sources will overtake nuclear energy and continue to approach coal power as a percentage of total power generation.

John Timmer

Nuclear power remains the largest single source of carbon-free electricity in the U.S., and the Biden administration is using subsidies to try to keep it that way. Still, by 2021, wind power The combination of , solar and hydroelectric power now produces about the same amount of electricity as nuclear power.

If it wasn’t for the decline in hydropower. The number of hydroelectric plants has barely budged since 2011, but their production has fallen sharply since last year — just once in the past decade. Year-to-year variability in hydropower generation is large, so a 12% year-over-year decline is not uncommon. But with many reservoirs in the western United States reaching critically low water levels due to the ongoing drought, it’s unclear whether we can expect a rebound in hydropower production anytime soon.



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