The question isn’t a new one, but two news items from the past week crystallize the issue in a manner that isn’t always quite so vivid. The question, specifically: Where does the clean energy hype end and the clean energy reality begin?
Consider: The U.S. Energy Information Administration, in its Dec. 5 “Today in Energy” posting, examined the significant growth in electricity generation from natural gas-powered plants over the past decade in the southern United States. More precisely, natural gas generation climbed to 42 percent of total power generation in the South in 2016 from 25 percent of total generation a decade earlier, according to EIA. That corresponds with the region’s decline in coal-fired power generation to 29 percent from 50 percent over the past 10 years.
Leapfrog the Atlantic, per a GreenTech Media article published earlier today, and we find this question posed in the headline: “If Renewables Aren’t Growing Fast Enough to Replace Nuclear, What Are Europe’s Options?” Reporter Jason Deign posits that while Europe has a number of options to meet its 2050 decarbonization goals, “the pathways are getting slimmer.” Reductions in carbon emissions have been slow despite the expansion of renewables, and they will be increasingly difficult to achieve as nuclear energy facilities are retired (principally in Germany), “since renewables have much lower capacity factors than the nukes they are often replacing,” the article states.
Back to the United States and the EIA report, which strikes me as relevant because it documents the extent to which electricity generation lost in the South by retired coal-fired and nuclear power plants has been replaced largely by natural gas plants. EIA notes that, “New installed capacity in the region came primarily from natural gas and wind, with an additional 47.0 GW and 25.6 GW installed, respectively, between 2006 and 2017.” Again, wind’s lower capacity factors mean that actual electricity production has come overwhelmingly from natural gas facilities.
Only a few states in the South have a renewable portfolio standard mandating increased production levels. Unquestionably, as EIA verifies, renewable energy generation is growing nonetheless. But as the GreenTech Media article makes plain, even Europe grapples with the fact that the clean energy dream is a long way from being realized, and the path forward remains murky.
December 11, 2017