US Renewable Energy Sees Record Growth

Despite rapid growth in renewables, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector are expected to increase in 2021 and 2022.

Part of the Tehachapi Pass wind farm, the first large scale wind farm area developed in the US, California, USA and a Joshua Tree.
Ashley Cooper / Getty Images

Renewable energy saw record growth in the first six months of 2021 and now accounts for 25% of all the electricity capacity in the U.S., up from 23% a year ago. 

An increase of 2 percentage points may not sound like a lot but it shows that the U.S. energy sector is headed in the right direction—away from fossil fuels and toward renewables.

According to a recent report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), 10,940 megawatts (MW) of new renewable energy capacity (including hydroelectric, wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass) were added in the first six months of the year, representing nearly 92% of all the new power capacity added in the period.

Overall, the renewable energy sector grew nearly 38% faster in the first half of 2021 than in the same period of 2020 but, perhaps most importantly, the growth of fossil fuel electricity has slowed down dramatically, the report says. 

In the first six months of the year, 993 MW of new natural gas power capacity were added, an 83% decrease when compared to the same period of 2020. By the end of June, coal, natural gas, and oil thermal plants accounted for nearly 66.5% of the total electricity capacity installed in the U.S., down from 68.1% a year ago. Nuclear installed capacity has decreased to 8.29% from 8.68% a year ago following the closure of the Indian Point nuclear plant near New York City.

The FERC report was just one of several recent analyses highlighting the good health of the renewable energy sector. In late August, citing Energy Information Administration (EIA) data, the SUN DAY Campaign said that renewables provided 22.4% of total U.S. electrical output in the first six months of the year, an increase of 3 percentage points from a year ago.

"FERC's and EIA's mid-year data confirm that renewables have now moved into second place — behind only natural gas — in terms of both generating capacity and actual electrical generation," noted Ken Bossong, executive director of the SUN DAY Campaign. "And their continued, strong growth — especially by solar and wind — suggest that the best is yet to come."

Strong Pipeline

According to American Clean Power (ACP), an organization that describes itself as “the voice of the clean power industry,” in the first six months of 2021, renewable energy companies installed 9.9 gigawatts (GW) of new clean energy projects across the U.S., enough to power 2.5 million homes.

There is now over 180.2 GW of clean electricity capacity operating in the U.S., enough to power over 50 million homes and more than double the U.S. capacity five years ago, the ACP said. 

Furthermore, by the end of June, there were 906 clean energy projects under construction or in advanced development in 49 states and Washington, D.C., with a combined production capacity of 101,897 MW.

That number includes 9,003 MW of new battery storage capacity, a sector that also saw unprecedented growth in the first half of 2021, allowing renewable energy projects to store excess power to be used when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow. ACP found that 665 MW of new battery energy storage capacity was added from January to June, almost as much as all the capacity added in 2020.

The record growth the renewable energy sector has seen in the first half of the year “​​not only provides good-paying jobs but also is a key part of solving the climate crisis,” said ACP CEO Heather Zichal.

“This growth and expansion are expected to continue but we need policymakers in Washington to make long-term decisions to ensure we can continue to develop these critical projects,” Zichal added.

All this bodes well for President Joe Biden, who has vowed to decarbonize the electricity sector by 2035 in a bid to slash emissions. For that to happen, all the electricity produced in the U.S. would have to come from renewables and nuclear, two sectors that by the end of June accounted for about 33% of the country’s total installed capacity. Such an effort would require approximately $1 trillion in investments over the next decade, the ACP estimates.

But in the short term, strong growth in the renewable energy sector is not expected to lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions. The EIA estimates that energy-related carbon dioxide emissions will increase 7% this year and 1% in 2022 due to strong demand for electricity amid a post-pandemic economic recovery and an increase in coal-related emissions.

View Article Sources
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  3. "Electric Power Monthly." Energy Information Administration.

  4. "American Clean Power 2Q Market Report Shows Record Clean Energy Installations in 2021." American Clean Power, 2021.

  5. "Short-term Energy Outlook." Energy Information Administration, 2021.