Solar energy surges ahead, set to eclipse hydro, nuclear, and wind capacities
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Solar energy surges ahead, set to eclipse hydro, nuclear, and wind capacities

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Solar energy surges ahead, set to eclipse hydro, nuclear, and wind capacities

by Clarence Oxford

Los Angeles CA (SPX) Jan 18, 2024






A comprehensive review of the latest data released by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has underscored a significant shift in the U.S. energy sector, with solar energy emerging as a dominant force. The SUN DAY Campaign’s analysis of the FERC’s November data paints a clear picture: solar is not just a rising star in the energy arena, but it’s on track to outshine traditional powerhouses like hydro, nuclear, wind, and coal.

According to FERC’s “Energy Infrastructure Update” report, as of November 30, 2023, solar energy contributed a remarkable 13,169 megawatts (MW) of new domestic generating capacity in the year, accounting for 46.5% of the total. This not only exceeds any other energy source for the year but also nearly matches the combined new capacity from natural gas (9,205-MW) and wind (4,424-MW). This marks a 43.1% increase in solar capacity additions compared to the same period in the previous year.



November 2023 itself set a new monthly record for solar capacity additions with 1,982-MW, making up 73.7% of new capacity placed into service. The rest of the capacity for the month was largely supplied by wind (677-MW), with minor contributions from natural gas (15-MW), oil (8-MW), geothermal (4-MW), and biomass (3-MW). Remarkably, renewables as a whole accounted for 99.1% of the month’s capacity additions. Year-to-date, renewables have supplied nearly two-thirds (63.3%) of all new generating capacity, with natural gas trailing at 32.5% and nuclear power at 3.9%.



This rapid growth in solar capacity has increased its share of total available installed generating capacity to 7.5%. For comparison, wind’s current share stands at 11.7%, while hydropower is at 7.9%. Including biomass (1.2%) and geothermal (0.3%), renewables now boast a 28.6% share of the U.S. utility-scale generating capacity.



At the start of 2023, solar’s share was a lesser 6.4%, while wind and hydropower were at 11.4% and 8.0%, respectively. The total renewable mix then accounted for 27.3%. If current growth trends persist, solar is expected to surpass the individual capacities of hydropower within months and nuclear power (8.1%) in less than a year. It is also likely to overtake both wind and coal capacities in the near future.



FERC’s projections highlight a dramatic trajectory for solar. Between December 2023 and November 2026, “high probability” solar additions are expected to reach 91,152-MW, which is over four times greater than the forecast for wind (19,291-MW) and nearly 25 times more than that for natural gas (3,670-MW). Hydropower is anticipated to see a modest growth of 543-MW, while coal is projected to contract by 17,733-MW.



Moreover, the actual growth in solar capacity might even surpass these projections. FERC suggests the possibility of as much as 216,466-MW in new solar additions over the next three years. This upward trend in solar’s “high probability” additions is consistent across FERC’s monthly reports.



If these projections hold true, by late autumn 2026, solar could constitute almost one-seventh (13.6%) of the nation’s installed generating capacity, surpassing wind (12.3%) and significantly outdoing both hydropower and nuclear power (each at 7.4%). Solar’s share would nearly match that of coal (13.9%).



However, it’s crucial to note that FERC’s data focuses on utility-scale facilities, omitting the capacity of distributed renewables like rooftop solar PV. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that small-scale solar PV accounted for 30.7% of the nation’s solar electricity generation in the first ten months of 2023. This suggests that the combined capacity of distributed and utility-scale solar is substantially higher than FERC’s reported 7.5%, potentially nearing 10.0%, and on track to exceed 18.0% within three years.



In this evolving landscape, natural gas is projected to remain the largest contributor to the U.S. generating capacity at 41.4% by 2026. However, solar, emerging as a formidable competitor, is poised to take second place. The combined capacity of all renewable sources could reach 34.7% of utility-scale capacity, and potentially 39.0% of all generating capacity, including smaller-scale solar.



Ken Bossong, Executive Director of the SUN DAY Campaign, aptly summarizes this shift: “Solar is proving to be a giant killer. Within two or three years, it will be the largest renewable energy source by capacity and second only to natural gas among all energy sources.”


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